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"but I recovered my ability to think, and again I began to speak with God Most High." -- 2 Esdras 5.22

"Ow," thought Mike. He'd have said it, too, if he could move his lips. If he had any lips.

It was sort of how people always described it - like flying along a tunnel towards a bright benevolent light. Only there was no light. With no light, he couldn't really tell if it was a tunnel either. So it was like flying. With no air resistance. So not really very much like flying either, after all. It was like a sensory deprivation tank, with no water and no walls. It was like sleeping without dreaming. It was like none of these things.

It was black. Lots of black.

Mike saw a point of light in the distance, and tried to fly towards it, but it blinked out. It might have been a trick of his eyes. If he had any eyes. A trick of his mind, then. But not of his brain. In this bodiless place, there was no brain. "No brain," Mike thought, "just like everyone else. Except I'm thinking."

The memory of the truck impact would have made Mike wince, if he had a face. The memory still almost hurt, like seeing the protagonist in a movie get kicked in the groin. That thought sort-of-hurt as well. But there was no wincing to be done.

There was music, though. Even with nothing else to perceive, it had taken Mike a moment to notice. It was that sort of music, the sort used to build up emotion

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without drawing attention to itself. Soundtrack music, rather than music for its own sake.

Mike wondered vaguely how it was that he could hear music, and see the blackness (it didn't seem to him that he was blind, he was quite sure he was seeing nothing), with no sensory organs. He wondered about his other senses, tried to apply them. Tried to lick the roof of his mouth, but, with no tongue and no mouth, got nowhere. He concentrated on the sense of taste. Nothing.

He tried to detect odour. It seemed faintly lemony, but perhaps that's how nothing smells. "Nothing smells like new lemon zif!" thought Mike to himself.

As for feeling - the feel of nothing was like nothing Mike had experienced. "Oh good one," he thought. "Nothing feels like nothing. Very helpful. Very Zen." With sensory deprivation, there would be a sense of the pressure of the water against one's skin, and the ripples where water and air meet. Underwater, there's still the pressure. Even in air, with no gravity, there's pressure. On the other hand, in a vacuum, you feel the pressure from inside yourself, briefly, before you die. This was like none of those things. There was no pressure, no ripples, just nothing.

"I wonder if oblivion is eternal," thought Mike. He didn't really mind the idea. Being alone with your thoughts in a body, when those thoughts include being hungry, being cold, being uncomfortable, and being sex-starved - being alone like that is one thing. One thing that this was nothing like. He knew he would have hated the idea of eternal aloneness when he was in his body. He would miss Cathy with only scant days apart, even hours. Without any of the body's imperatives interfering, he didn't miss her at all. He wondered how she was coping,

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would have liked to see her, but was also happy without. It was unfamiliar, and very liberating.

Perhaps the music originated in Mike's own mind - that would explain how he could 'hear' it with no perception. Some soft chanting female vocals were joining in now, singing in a language Mike didn't recognise, but which sounded vaguely oriental - a voice filled with such rich emotion that Mike might have been moved nearly to tears, if he only had the necessary apparatus.

"Michael... Wake up, Michael."

"No," thought Mike. "No way. This was not a dream. No dream is so clear, so long. Never this clarity of thought in a dream. And I really want a copy of that music."

Despite his disbelief, Mike opened his eyes, squinting against the harsh fluorescent lighting of the room he found himself in. Too white for comfort, yet the room was too comforting to be a hospital. The bed he was in was form-hugging and soft, rather than the patent sickly-green crunchy plastic so popularly used for hospital beds.

"Welcome back, Michael," spoke the soft androgynous voice that had woken him.

"Mike," he tried to correct it, coming out with something that more closely resembled "Huuuh".

"You may find it difficult to move or speak at first," the voice informed him a little too late. "Your co-ordination will return within a few minutes. Your memories will take a little longer."

"Huun worn..." Mike began, breaking off as his grunts reminded him that his voice wasn't working, having intended to say "Nothing wrong with my memory."

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His eyes adjusting to the light, he realised that it was neither harsh nor fluorescent - in fact it was quite dim, and seemingly emanating from the whole ceiling. As he looked up he heard something move behind him, and turned; it was a series of wires and tubes that were apparently attached to his head somewhere. His arms were still hanging limp by his side. After failing to reach up to touch the headpiece, he marked that as something to do later, and continued to look around.

Belatedly, he recognised what had been niggling at his mind since he started looking around - there was nobody in the room to go with the pleasant voice. "Hewwo?" he ventured.

"Hello Michael."

He had been prepared to look at the source of the voice, but hadn't been prepared to have absolutely no clue where the voice had originated. It seemed, like the light, to not have a single source, its diffuseness probably contributing to its smooth pleasant appeal. "Ike," he tried again to correct the voice. "Rike! Mike!"

"Your name is Michael."

Mike gave up on that course of argument. "Who are you?" he said carefully.

"Your memory will start to return soon."

"Nothing wrong with my memory," Mike said crossly. "At least I can remember my own name."

"Your name is Michael."

"Thanks a lot," Mike said, dryly.

"You are welcome."

Mike snorted. "Yeah."

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He experimentally tried his arms again, finding them a little responsive, though still not doing much in the way of feeling, other than feeling very heavy, clumsy, and numb. He found out just how clumsy immediately upon trying to scratch his nose, as his thumb caught against the edge of his eyesocket, and the palm of his hand slammed into his nose. "Ow! Bloody..." he muttered, "flipping bloody sodding bugger."

The ambient voice made no comment. A moment later, there was no pain. Mike wasn't even sure there had been any in the first place.

"So where am I?"

"Someone will be in to explain shortly."

"Did I die?"

"The question is ambiguous. Please clarify."

"Am I dead?"

"No, you are not dead."

"Did you bring me back to life?"

"I am not capable of that."

"Did someone bring me back to life?"

"Not that I am aware of."

"Then I didn't die. How long have I been unconscious?"

"You have never been unconscious."

"What about at night?" asked Mike. Suddenly, the word 'night' seemed terribly unfamiliar, as though it were a foreign word absorbed by a local language. The feeling was akin to déjà-vu, the irony of which was not lost on him.

"That abstract is meaningless here."

"Not much of conversationalist, are you?"

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"I am conversing perfectly, and with one hundred percent accuracy."

Mike sighed. "Can I have a mirror?"

"Certainly, Michael."

"That's Mike."

"Your name is Michael."

"If you're going to insist on being formal, why not go the whole hog and call me Mr..." Mike hesitated, momentarily unsure of his surname, and then briefly unsure of his memory when he did recall it, "Mr Renton."

"That is not your name."

"What do you think my name is then, smarty-pants?"

"Your name is Michael."

"And my surname?"

"That abstract is meaningless."

He sighed, "Right, right. Now about that mirror..."

"I have made the wall behind you reflective, Michael," said the voice, without a hint of sarcasm.

Mike turned around, and sure enough, the whole wall reflected an image of the bed, himself, and the headpiece atop him, with the wires and tubes leading from it to the wall. "Can I take this thing off my head?"

"Of course."

"Of course! It couldn't possibly be a part of vital equipment keeping me alive. I should know that."

The androgynous voice, so soothing in its tone, and so aggravating in its dialogue, stayed mercifully quiet as Mike gingerly removed the contraption, which turned out to be no more attached to him than a well-fitted hat

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would be. He moved to set it down on the bed, but it was whipped out of his hand by one of the tubes retracting, until it was pulled tight to the wall.

"How rude," Mike muttered to himself, ruffling his hair to remove the print the device had left on it, and surveying his reflection. His hair seemed pretty much as it had before - as black, as unruly, perhaps a little wavier now, but that might have been to do with being crushed under a lump of metal for so long. For how long?

"How long has that thing been on my head?"

"One hundred and fifteen cycles."

"How long is a cycle?"

"A cycle is one thousand heartbeats of an average human."

Mike narrowed his eyes and did some approximate math in his head - somewhere between fifty and a hundred heartbeats per minute, making it ten to twenty minutes per cycle, meaning three to six cycles to an hour... A hundred and fifteen cycles, then, would be somewhere between 19 and 39 hours. Probably about a day and a half.

"About a day and a half?" he asked.

"That abstract is meaningless."

"Oh, we're back to that again. Forgive me if I choose to think in that meaningless abstract."

"I have no preference as to how you choose to think."

"Thank you."

"You are welcome."

Mike sighed. A voice like that should really have had a nice personality attached, at the very least. Perhaps the original did, but this recording was a jerk.

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He stepped nearer to the mirror, looking closely at his face. It was similar to the face he expected to see, but not the same. Much as he had no problem with his own face, he really liked what he was seeing in this mirror. Where his eyes had been a little sunken and bloodshot, now they were smooth and pearl-white. Scrutinizing them further, Mike realised what it was that was particularly disturbing, yet wonderful, about the face he saw - the eyes had no iris. Not like an albino, not white with a small pupil - quite the opposite, the part of his eyes that would normally be a dark green were as black as the pupil itself. The effect was startlingly intense, once noticed, and Mike found himself gazing into his own eyes wishing he had eyes like that, before realising how ridiculous that thought was. The eyes weren't the only change - his skin, normally at least a little pocked, was perfectly unblemished. The flesh around his jaw was tighter, his shoulders a little broader, his waist a little narrower. He looked like everything he had ever wished to look like. He smiled at the thought, which drew attention to one more thing about his features - for a moment, as he smiled, he had looked beautiful, rather than handsome.

That observation indirectly brought to mind a thought - Mike checked his instincts as to whether he needed to urinate, and was surprised to find that he didn't. Nor was he hungry. Nor was he thirsty. "When did I last have a drink?"

"I do not know."

"Not while I've been here?"

"That is correct."

"Why aren't I thirsty?". As with when he had said 'night', the word 'thirsty' felt alien, and, realising what

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that would mean, he answered himself in perfect harmony with the other voice, "That abstract is meaningless."

Next he looked at the clothes he had on. They didn't seem to be anything special - pale grey fabric, though much too nice to be a hospital-issue sort of deal. It seemed like maybe a synthetic silk-substitute. He peered closely at it, to see the weave, and found that he couldn't at all - presumably a much finer weave than any of the silk clothes he had ever owned. Peering so closely at himself, he noticed something else.

"What the..." he began, horrified, pulling out the waistband of the silky pants, and looking within. The first thing he had noticed was the lack of any dangling body parts. Now that he had a full view, he also observed a lack of the hair that usually would accompany such parts, and similarly a lack of any sort of holes at all in that area of his body. "What... Oh, never mind, abstract, meaningless, I remember."

Mike was appalled that he hadn't noticed his new-found lack sooner. Evidently, those parts which made themselves so important when he had them, were not important when he did not. Just like being outside a box; you would never think "Oh look, I'm outside a box." Unless you were in a box, you wouldn't think in terms of a box at all. A box just wouldn't spring to mind.

He pulled the pants down to his knees, and undid the accompanying shirt, to survey himself in the mirror. After the initial shock, his body actually, like his face, was pretty nice. The other side, too, lacked any sort of hole - between the buttocks of this body was barely even a crack, more like an indentation. "If I were celibate, I'd really go for someone with a body like this," Mike

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thought, narcissistically. Looking at himself in the mirror, he added to the thought, "and I guess I am celibate now."

Experimentally, Mike ran his hands, noticing that they, like his face, were slightly effeminate, over the smooth skin of his torso, testing how the nerves would react. Stroking the near-pectoral area, where he would have expected nipples to be, didn't produce any different sensation from the rest of his chest. Surprisingly, he did still have a navel, albeit just a small indentation - that, too, seemed to have much the same sensation as the rest of his torso. Slightly self-consciously, he ran a hand down between his legs, stroking and scratching to see if the sensation in that area was lost along with the parts.

He had time to determine that it was, but not time to move his hand away or straighten his clothes, when a large panel opened in one of the walls, and a woman walked in. She smiled wryly at his state of dishabille, and at his embarrassment.

"Welcome back, Michael."

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