Originally published in Postscripts #7, 2006.
When I was a child I was terrified of the dark. From the moment my mother turned out the light, I would stare wide-eyed at the bedroom curtains while I waited for the black to turn to grey. Several minutes would pass while my eyes adapted to the gloom. Only then could I dismiss the bedroom demons and safely fall asleep.
Thirty years later, those demons found a way into my dreams. And it was the darkness I awoke to that brought blessed relief.
My belly itched so fiercely I felt certain I had developed a rash. Memories of chickenpox and measles prickled in my mind, but I kept those childhood reminiscences to myself. During my first day at the Somatic Sciences Institute, I wanted to seem fully focused on my assignment. In any case, there had been little opportunity for small talk.
“How does that feel?” asked Dr. Kenna.
Whenever she spoke, an image of a middle-aged woman with a plain face and heavy-rimmed glasses popped into my mind, but whether this representation was true to her appearance, I could not say.
“Itchy but bearable,” I replied.
Dr. Kenna grunted, which I took to be a sign that things were about to get worse. My guess was correct. Within seconds, the rash spread over my entire body.
“And now?” she asked.
“The effect is stronger on my hands and chest, weaker on my arms and legs.”
“That is not surprising, Mr. Markheim,” she said. “Your skin is more sensitive in some places than others. Please be patient while I normalize the stimulation pattern.”
After half a dozen adjustments, the itchiness felt much more uniform. “That’s a lot better,” I told her.
“You may not think so in a minute or two . . . ”
Dr. Kenna gave me the impression that she preferred to interact with her computer than talk to a human being. That she tolerated my presence seemed to boil down to the fact that, being blind, I was the ideal person to test her tactile bodysuit, which she claimed was a vital component of the personal sonar system being developed elsewhere in the institute. In fact, I had been happy to volunteer. When my consultant, Dr. Chalmers, mentioned the Persona project at my case review, it seemed the perfect opportunity to shake off the torpor that afflicted me ever since the accident.
Dr. Kenna cleared her throat. “Are you ready for the next stage?”
“Ready when you are . . . ”
This time, a wave of itchiness rippled over my body like an army of ants. I squirmed in disgust.
“Stand still, please. This will not take long.”
I counted each second of my torment, reaching thirty before the ants stopped moving.
“All done.” Said like a dentist comforting a child.
With the test completed, I felt an irresistible urge to scratch myself, but Dr. Kenna must have guessed my intention because she grabbed hold of my hands, thereby averting any risk of damage to the gloves or bodysuit. I took a deep breath and tried to recover my composure.
“What is this stuff?” I asked, wiggling my fingers.
She let my hands slide out of hers. “Government scientists have designated it a Smart Material.” She spoke the words with pride, as if the link with the establishment served to validate her work.
“Does it look good on me then?”
My question drew a rare chuckle from her. “I’m afraid khaki is not really your color, Mr. Markheim.”
“Please call me Joe,” I said for the umpteenth time.
“But the good news, Mr. Markheim, is that the tactile feedback supplied by the bodysuit should help you keep in touch with the world.”
I was seven years old when I experienced blindness for the first time. Confined to bed after a bout of flu, I awoke one morning to find that my eyes would not open. My piercing screams soon roused my parents.
Mother bathed my eyelids with careful dabs of a spit-dampened handkerchief. After each gasping sob I could glimpse a little more daylight. When the last of the mucus was wiped away, my world of primary colors was restored in all its glory.
But that night my dreams were full of darkness.
My second day at the Institute began much as the first ended, with a lengthy session of calibration. Prompted by the computer, I traipsed along various predetermined paths around the laboratory while Dr. Kenna tried to configure the imaging sensors to her satisfaction. For an hour or more, the laboratory echoed with her curses.
“That will do, Mr. Markheim,” she said at last.
It was a relief to stand still, but Dr. Kenna seemed unwilling to permit me a break.
“Please turn to your right,” she said. “Then take three steps forward.”
As I completed the maneuver, I felt my right hip brush against something. I explored the space with my hands and discovered that I had bumped against the edge of a simulated workbench. The tactile illusion was surprisingly convincing; I could even feel the woodgrain as I rubbed my fingertips along the top surface.
“See what else you can find,” said Dr. Kenna.
Chuckling at her tactlessness, I reached forward until my fingertips bumped against another object. The sensation was fleeting. I tried again. This time I achieved a firm grip on what felt like a plastic sphere, perhaps half a meter in diameter. As I rubbed my hands over its taut skin, I was reminded of a beachball.
“Try throwing it to me,” she said.
It seemed a ridiculous suggestion, but I lobbed the ball towards her anyway. Maybe the computer would intercept it on her behalf.
“Now try catching it,” she said.
“You must be joking!”
I flapped my hands in the air but to no avail. A moment later the ball tapped against my chest.
“That wasn’t fair,” I told her.
“True,” she said, sounding unconcerned.
I bent down and retrieved the ball. “Anyway, how will a virtual sense of touch help me to perceive the physical environment?”
“That should become apparent when I activate the spatio-temporal projection system. In the meantime, please be patient.”
Dr. Kenna resumed programming her computer while I tried to imagine what she might have in store for me. Unfortunately, I failed to come up with anything pleasant.
“Ready when you are,” she announced.
I muttered my assent. A moment later, I experienced a prickling sensation near the top of my left thigh. Heedless of possible damage to the fabric, I rubbed at the spot. Beneath my fingertips was a pea-sized bulge.
For once Dr. Kenna ignored my faux pas. “Right, Mr. Markheim. The computer is throwing the ball . . . now!”
The blip sneaked out from under my fingers and began ascending the left side of my torso. So rapidly did it move across my ribs and shoulder that I scarcely had time to swat at it with my right hand. This time the virtual beachball collided with my left elbow. I stepped backward, surprised less by the impact than its bizarre harbinger.
“Not bad at all,” said Dr. Kenna. I understood that the praise was meant for her, not me.
After six failures, I succeeded in catching the beachball, an achievement that pleased me despite its absurdity. Dr. Kenna responded by bombarding me from random directions, to exercise my new, omnidirectional “vision” as thoroughly as possible. I dodged the projectiles as best I could, coerced by the blips that scuttled over my body.
Dr. Kenna’s intention became clear to me at last. Equipped with her tactile interface, my body was going to be transformed into a map of the world.
Throughout my teenage years I followed the path of least resistance, in the academic sense at least. Unlike my classmates, I relished the annual cycle of lessons and exams, which I felt sure would culminate in a degree in the humanities from some metropolitan university. A career in teaching seemed inevitable.
The paths I followed through the local housing estate were selected with much greater care. I zigzagged across the roads, always seeking the shortest route from A to B. I counted the seconds, convinced that time was the only valid measure of distance.
A collision with a blind man jolted me out of my complacency. Even as I helped him to his feet, my mind was wrestling with the problem of what to do if disease or old age robbed me of my sight. Having given the matter considerable thought, I closed my eyes and taught myself to steer a reliable course through the darkness.
The thought that some irresponsible engineer might one day build a silent car filled me with fear.
The trials didn’t begin in earnest until mid-morning on the third day.
“Please turn around and walk down the length of the room,” said Dr. Kenna.
“You will stop me before I hit the far wall, won’t you?”
Having failed to provoke a response, I began walking. At first, I sensed nothing unusual, just the cool touch of the floor against the soles of my smartly shod feet. Then, without warning, a series of rectilinear shapes impinged upon both sides of my body. I turned back and forth, letting the edges scuff over my skin.
“Two rows of houses?”
“Close enough,” she said. “You are walking along the main street of a small town. Please continue.”
At first, I could perceive only the basic structure of the scene: the outlines of buildings and the layout of the roads. But as I explored the simulation, I learned to focus on the fine detail of my body-map. By the time Dr. Kenna directed me into a shopping plaza, I had little difficulty discerning the blips generated by lampposts and rubbish bins. I found myself wishing that their physical counterparts were as easy to avoid.
After what seemed like an hour, but may have been less, Dr. Kenna interrupted my wanderings.
“Please keep still while I reset the scenario.”
The harsh outlines of the roads and buildings blanked out and then reformed. After a brief period of disorientation, I stood at the edge of the plaza, roughly two meters from the curb.
“What comes next?” I asked.
“Movement, of course.”
Before I could respond, a tiny blip formed just above my right heel and started to climb up the calf muscle. It accelerated past the back of my knee, growing all the time, before traversing my buttock and hip. When it reached my belly, its trajectory reversed. Descent mirrored ascent, with the blip shrinking as it slid down the front of my leg. Five seconds later all that remained was a slight itch near the base of my shin.
A beachball could not have generated such a fast-moving signature. As I contemplated the possibilities, a sense of foreboding seeped into my mind.
“This time I am going to run the sequence with full sensory playback,” said Dr. Kenna.
Traffic noise erupted from the speakers, accompanied by a whiff of exhaust fumes. I heard the swish of tires on a wet road; sounding exactly like on the day I was hit by a car.
I was fifteen years old: more thoughtful than most of my peers, yet still prone to odd moments of inattention.
The rain dripped down the back of my neck as I performed my curb-drill. I spotted a gap in the traffic, but in my haste, I forgot to look over my right shoulder. When I stepped into the road, a left-turning Austin 1100 knocked me off my feet like a rugby fullback tackling a winger. I landed on my backside, having flown just far enough to avoid a second impact.
Dazed but unharmed, I clambered to my feet and wiped the splashes of mud from my grey flannel trousers. The driver got out of his car and lingered just long enough to ascertain that I was uninjured before driving off towards Chatham town center.
A more considerate driver offered me a lift home. Sitting in the back of his Ford Cortina, I consoled myself with the thought that if I ever did lose my sight, I would take much greater care when crossing a road.
By the fourth day, the repetitive nature of Dr. Kenna’s experiments became tiresome. I had been standing on the pavement of her “Anytown” for what seemed like hours, monitoring the traffic as it flowed up and down the high street. Although the presence of moving vehicles no longer made me shudder, I found the idea that we might continue in the same vein for another four weeks depressing, to say the least.
“That will be all for today, Mr. Markheim,” she said.
I felt the tension drain out of my muscles. “Thank goodness,” I muttered under my breath.
The traffic noise decreased in small steps as Dr. Kenna deleted each vehicle from the simulation. Finally, only a single blip remained. Strangely variable in shape, this lone survivor of Dr. Kenna’s purge continued to creep up the inside of my right calf.
Dr. Kenna cleared her throat. “Tomorrow, I will introduce some pedestrians into the simulation.”
The prospect of mixing pedestrians with vehicles filled me with dread. In any case, I was sure one was already present.
“But your simulation already contains a pedestrian,” I said, gesturing in the direction indicated by the blip. “It’s walking along the pavement on the other side of this road, about thirty meters from here. I can feel the scissoring pattern it’s making on my leg.”
“Mr. Markheim, there are no pedestrians in this version of the simulation, only vehicles. And I have deleted every one of them already.”
I double-checked my body-map. “There is a pedestrian. And it’s getting closer.”
“Okay, give me a moment.”
I heard what sounded like equipment being clipped together. When Dr. Kenna spoke again, her voice sounded muffled. “I have just entered the simulation,” she said. “Please monitor my movements while I walk around the plaza.”
Her tactile signature began creeping across my abdomen, morphing continuously.
“At the moment, you’re located roughly ten meters to my right, moving in a clockwise direction.”
“Good, that proves that the projection system is working correctly.” She sounded relieved. “Is that other signature still present?”
“No; it has gone now.”
“Are you sure it was there in the first place?”
“Definitely!” I was annoyed that Dr. Kenna didn’t believe me, and a bit alarmed that she couldn’t locate the anomaly herself.
“I could try boosting the tactile output . . . ”
I gave my consent before she could change her mind.
My skin prickled more fiercely than ever after the adjustment, but the detail in my body map felt noticeably sharper. Unfortunately, this enhancement came too late. There was no sign of movement anywhere in the scene.
“Still nothing,” I gasped.
I heard Dr. Kenna pacing around the laboratory. “It was probably just a system glitch,” she said after a few seconds. “There’s nothing to worry about.”
Her explanation didn’t wholly convince me, but I hoped she was right.
That night, I dreamt of a woman who stood at the foot of my bed, shrouded in darkness, silent as death. I cowered beneath her implacable gaze, begging for release. After what seemed like an eternity, she stumbled forward like a marionette released from its strings. Her lacerated face loomed over me, dripping blood onto my skin, where it fizzed momentarily, leaving behind a rash of blisters. One by one, they started to burst…
Overcome by panic, I tumbled out of bed, dragging the bedclothes with me like a demented ghost. When my hip collided with the door handle, some obsolete instinct made me fumble for the light switch, an action that illuminated the state of my psyche, if nothing else. I held my breath, counted to sixty and regained my composure by slow degrees.
The itchiness wore off, but sleep would not come.
On the fifth day, Dr. Kenna populated the simulation with a crowd of pedestrians.
She cleared her throat. “I am going to reintroduce the traffic now.”
After I reported my observations, Dr. Kenna directed me to face a group of pedestrians standing next to a bus stop. As I turned around, the quartet of blips migrated around my right hip, but when the formation stabilized, I noticed that one of the blips was missing.
“Your projection system doesn’t seem to work properly at certain angles,” I told her, feeling rather smug.
I heard her speak to the computer. A moment later, the missing blip reappeared in a location guaranteed to get my full attention. I rubbed my groin gingerly.
“You have just experienced the optional projection mode for head-on trajectories,” she remarked tartly.
I chuckled at Dr. Kenna’s rare flash of humor.
The trials resumed. Before long, I found myself envying the pedestrians; unlike me, they did not suffer from boredom.
A glancing contact snapped me to attention. I took a step backward, then another, but failed to disengage from the pedestrian. It seemed unable—or unwilling—to let go of my arm.
“Is the simulation operating normally?” I asked.
“Yes, of course it is,” replied Dr. Kenna.
“So why hasn’t the pedestrian released me?”
Dr. Kenna interrogated the computer. “The nearest pedestrian is three meters from you,” she said. “Are you quite sure you experienced a collision?”
As if on cue, the pedestrian let go of my arm. I spun around with my arms outstretched but failed to bump into my assailant. Concentrate on your body-map, I told myself. Now there were several pedestrians nearby—and their tactile signatures all felt identical.
“What happened there?” Dr. Kenna asked.
“I think yesterday’s system glitch has returned.”
Or rather, the ghost in her machine.
She clicked her tongue loudly. “I cannot afford to conduct these trials using an unreliable simulation. We have to find out where that signature came from, and why it interacted with you.”
“You can start by boosting the body suit’s tactile output to its maximum setting,” I said.
“That would be risky, but—”
“Necessary,” I interrupted, finishing the sentence for her.
“Yes, but are you sure?”
“Just do as I ask, please.”
“If you insist.”
Pain erupted everywhere at once, as if my entire body were consumed by fire, but within seconds, the sensation had diminished appreciably, suggesting that my nervous system could adapt to even this extreme level of stimulation.
“Hold on. I’m deleting every moving object,” Dr. Kenna said. As each signature disappeared from my body-map, I experienced a localized reduction in pain. By the time I counted to thirty, all but one of the blips had disappeared. I made no attempt to retreat from the pedestrian as it walked towards me. Instead, I turned to face the road. A moment later, I felt a pair of hands resting against the small of my back.
The pedestrian wanted me to step into the road, in front of an oncoming car, but this would be no mere replay of an accident from my childhood, I realized.
“Have you located the pedestrian?” asked Dr. Kenna.
“To be precise, she has located me.”
“The pedestrians have no gender attributes. Why do you perceive this one to be female?”
“Read my case notes if you haven’t done so already. You will find the answer there.”
Dr. Kenna did not respond immediately, which to me constituted a tacit admission of her collusion with Dr. Chalmers. Finally, in a gruff voice, she said, “What do you want me to do?”
“Please program the simulation so that it contains a single car traveling at fifty kilometers per hour along the northbound carriageway. When the simulation is running, please cue me in fifteen seconds before the car is due to pass my current position.” I felt the hands touch my back again, as if to remind me that I had my own part to play. “And don’t interfere, whatever happens.”
Dr. Kenna grumbled to herself, but a brief session of verbal programming ensued, after which she declared that the simulation was ready.
Hugging myself tightly, I tried to summon up what little courage I possessed. I told myself that what was to come had happened before, that I had lived through it once and would do so again.
“Start the run,” I said.
“The car is moving towards you. Fifteen seconds to closest approach. Ten . . . nine . . . ”
Engine noise growled from the speakers, building up to a crescendo of fear.
The tactile signature ascended my tingling body, mapping out the fatal trajectory.
I turned to face the car, masking my nemesis with my blind spot.
Trembling with terror, I fought the urge to jump clear.
Trapped in a freezeframe of anticipation, I begged for forgiveness.
The impact was a stinging, body-wide kiss.
I lay on the road, curled up in a fetal position, listening to the car accelerating into the distance. Dr. Kenna knelt beside me and rested a hand on my shoulder, but I shrugged her off and stood, trying to come to terms with the fact that I was unhurt.
In real life, the pedestrian had not been so fortunate.
I should not have been driving that morning, not in my flu-ridden state. I remember mopping my face with a sodden handkerchief and thinking that if my car’s ventilation system could demist the windscreen, then surely the cold-cure I had taken an hour earlier should have done the same for my streaming eyes.
The accident happened while I was driving along Maidstone road, a few hundred meters north of Chatham railway station. I was approaching a pedestrian crossing when a fierce itch inside my nose triggered an uncontrollable bout of sneezing. As my eyes blinked shut, my hands jerked free of the steering wheel. I stamped on the brake pedal, but the car skidded on the slippery tarmac. I heard a shouted warning, but too late, too late…
The woman never regained consciousness. Three months after her death and a week after my conviction for dangerous driving, I became blind overnight. Following a series of tests, mostly of a psychological nature, I was referred to Dr. Chalmers, who diagnosed my condition as “psychosomatic blindness.”
In truth, I had chosen not to see.
I have been lying on this bed for hours, trying to resist the onset of sleep. Though my mind buzzes with anticipation, my skin prickles no less fiercely.
Dr. Chalmers has diagnosed my condition as tactile tinnitus, an epidermal reaction brought on by prolonged exposure to high levels of stimulation. My obsession with pursuing the phantom signature is to blame for that, although the consequences have fallen on Dr Kenna.
One week after the incident, the Health and Safety Board suspended Dr. Kenna, pending a full inquiry. I supplied my testimony, informing them of my complicity to hopefully prevent further disciplinary action, but I’m afraid it did little to sway their opinions. Whatever the eventual outcome, the hiatus must surely have ruined her bid for a second round of funding. So, we may never find out whether the personal sonar system would have worked outdoors. Dr. Chalmers believes the Persona concept was flawed, citing the operational problems posed by the bodysuit. In his view, Dr. Kenna was just as blind as me.
As I ponder this irony, I gradually become aware that the prickling sensation is subsiding. Soon all that remains is a gentle tickling near my belly button. I try to remain calm as the tactile signature ripples over my ribs and up onto my face. Supple fingers stroke my eyes, stimulating muscles that atrophied many months ago. Slowly, my sticky eyelids pull apart, admitting the true darkness at last.
She sits beside me—invisible and untouchable—while I wait for the black to turn to grey.