The first thing the technicians tell Kun after he signs the contract is that the transition will be painless. He will not have to worry about a thing, they say. There is no need to be afraid.
One technician stands in the back, eyes dark. His smile is brilliant as he takes the signed contract, his face young. Calculating.
“Don’t worry,” he says, looking at the contract. “You’ll get to keep your name.”
At the time, Kun does not understand what he means.
They give him a room in a large building complex, filled with scientists and computers. They give him clothes that all look the same. Every person he meets wears clinical white, and every technician has a number stitched to their coat—on their collar, over their heart, somewhere on their sleeve. They ask him to call them by those numbers. They say that makes the transition easier. Less for him to hold onto. Fewer faces for him to remember.
The premise is simple: the technicians are attempting to put a human mind in an electronic body.
At least, it should be simple—a transfusion of thought, of memory, of the very essence of things that make Kun human. They tell him the process should take four weeks. One of the technicians, a girl with blonde hair and Seven stitched on her pocket, smiles at him and says that the human mind is vast.
I have nothing left to lose, Kun responds.
The first week they lead him to a white room, everything about it blank and clean. Monitors and screens litter the edges of the room, wires crisscrossing the floor. Two chairs are in the middle of it all: both white, both exactly the same.
The man with dark hair sits in the opposite chair, hands in his lap. He gives Kun the same brilliant smile he had before, and he looks so young. The number Ten is stitched along his collar.
Ten looks at him expectantly, balancing a holopad on his knee. He's dressed in all white, stiff shirt blending in with the featureless walls around them. His collar has a single stitched silver line, a small shimmer that draws Kun’s eye upward.
“Good morning,” Ten says cheerfully. “How do you feel?”
“I feel fine,” Kun says slowly, letting a technician place a metal cuff around his wrist. It’s thin, like a bracelet, but the width of it makes it clunky and uncomfortable. Another technician gently pushes him into the chair, quietly taping electrodes and wires to his forehead. “What are you doing?”
“It’s preparatory,” Ten says calmly. “The cuff is to measure your vitals. The electrodes are for brain waves. We’ll have to do this at every session, just to make sure we get all the data we need. Do you understand?”
The other technicians step away, dispersing to screens around the room. They stand like soldiers, waiting for instruction.
"Let’s start simple,” Ten says, watching one of the other technicians tape one last electrode to his temple. “Tell me about your favorite memory. Describe it for me."
Kun doesn’t have to think—a simple image swims back to him of the ocean, wild and untamed, waves glittering in the sun.
"The first time I saw the ocean," Kun replies. He remembers it like it was yesterday, how everything was silent until Kun crossed over a dune. He remembers that great, rushing roar of the ocean, the loudest thing he had ever heard. He wanted to make it into music, wanted to distill that sound forever. "It was beautiful."
Ten nods, his gaze piercing. "Think about it again for me."
Kun tries. He tries but the memory is slipping away, the exact sound of the ocean slipping away from him. The memory falls through his fingers like sand, each grain a moment he cannot replace. He tries and tries but he can't recall the moment at all. It's lost to him.
"I can't remember," Kun says, frowning. "I'm sorry, I just had it—”
"You don’t have to apologize. It has been transferred."
Those words: transferred. Kun watches Ten write something down, watches a technician whisper to another technician. “What do you mean?”
“This is how your memories and experiences will be transferred from you to a computer,” Ten says. “There is too much information in the human mind to do one large transfer—it would take months, maybe years. We’ll transfer a little at a time through recall-absorption, and at the end of the four weeks, all your memories will be digitized. Do you understand?”
Kun still feels that slipping sensation as the memory had been taken away, almost greasy. He wonders if they can see it on the screens, just as he had framed it in his head: all sunshine and blue.
“I understand,” Kun says slowly, even though he is not sure if he does. At this moment in time, he doesn’t think it will be difficult to let go. He doesn’t think he will hate himself for making this choice.
Kun is dying. There is no other way to say it, no gentle or soft way. He is dying, has been dying for a long time, and now all he has left is the inevitability of it all.
The issue is with his lungs, slowly corroding from the inside out. He remembers the first time a doctor told him something was wrong, remembers images of dark constellations streaking through his chest. He couldn’t even understand the doctor’s explanation of what was wrong—all he could hear was terminal, fatal, incurable .
Soon he won’t be able to sing. Soon he won’t be able to speak. And after that, he won’t even be able to breathe at all.
Kun stays up at night in his borrowed room, staring out the window. The bed the technicians gave him is large and comfortable but empty, too large and too comfortable for him alone. He wants someone to tell him it will be alright, that he will emerge whole and new from the fire, but there is no one.
He tries to recall his memory of the ocean. He can’t.
He enters the fire alone and that is how he will leave, if he ever leaves at all.
“Tell me,” Ten says, hands folded in his lap. “About a time you were afraid.”
Kun does not trust this technician. There’s something hidden in his eyes, dark and unfathomable, black even in the bright lights. Kun takes a deep breath.
“When I was younger I got lost on a train,” Kun says. “I couldn’t find my parents.”
Sound and noise, the grinding squeal of train tracks coming to a close. For a moment the white walls become seats and windows, the scenery flying by recklessly, as impermanent as dew. He’s small. He doesn’t recognize anyone. Everything is going so, so fast.
And then it isn't. He blinks and the walls are white, the monitors beeping dully in the background.
“Thank you,” Ten says, writing something down. “Let's take a break.”
A wheel. Time goes on like a wheel, every day filled with the same blank faces, the same blank walls. At night he sits in his room and watches the moon outside the window, the one thing in his life unhindered by anything else. He sleeps, he wakes. The cycle continues over and over again, endless, water powering a dam.
He’s forgetting things. That's the whole point, he supposes—let go of the memories now and he’ll have them later, when he is well. He wakes up in the middle of the night, choking on air. He wakes up in the middle of dreams about white walls, men with dark eyes and white coats.
He can’t quite remember the sea. He wishes he could.
Week one ends.
A train on a mountain, going too fast. Do you see it? Is it real?
Kun jolts awake, mouth dry. He fumbles with the lamp beside the bed, fingers cold, pulling his blanket around his shoulders. There’s a tremor inside his chest that only seems to grow, becoming a shudder that curls through each of his limbs. He’s sweating but a deep chill cuts through his skin, leaving him as hollow as ice.
His chest heaves as he gets out of bed, vision blurry. He shouldn’t feel so bad, not now. Not yet.
He coughs into his hand, and when he pulls his fingers away they gleam red-black in the moonlight.
A sense of dreadful calm descends over him, horrible in its blankness. He goes to the bathroom and rinses the blood off his hands, watching it swirl down the drain, diluted into a soft, lightening pink. His fingers tremble as he dries them.
He goes back to bed and watches the moon move across the sky, half full like a circle folded over. He watches it until his eyelids grow heavy.
Ten is frowning at him from across the white room, eyebrows creased. “Are you alright, Kun?”
“I’m fine,” he responds through gritted teeth. Exhaustion seeps through him like water through cloth, spreading.
“Are you sure?” Ten glances at one of the other technicians. “Your vitals are strange.”
“I’m fine,” Kun says again.
Ten doesn’t seem convinced but he continues anyway, clutching at his holopad as if it's going to fall apart in his hand. “Tell me about your friends.”
Long summer days, longer nights. Someone laughing as they sling an arm around his shoulders, as carefree as the wind. For a moment Kun feels as if he is holding the memory in his palms, as warm and wild as a miniature sun. He lets it go and watches it slip away, as if it had never existed at all.
“Kun, are you okay?”
Kun wipes at his face and realizes he’s crying. He almost wants to laugh but coughs instead, lungs rattling like there’s something trapped inside. Ten rushes to his side, placing a hand on his chest. His eyes are different: worried. Human.
Ten pulls the electrodes off his face and neck and helps him to his feet, wrapping a steady arm around his waist. “You need to rest. Do you feel ill?”
Kun falls to his knees, clinging to Ten’s coat. “I’m fine,” he lies. “I’m fine.”
He coughs and wipes at his mouth. His hand comes away red.
The technicians give him the rest of the day to lie down, to gather himself together as if he were simply many pieces of paper glued together. He sits in his room, the metallic taste of the pills the technicians gave him lingering on his tongue. There’s a small knock on the door, hesitant.
“May I come in?”
Kun holds the door open, taking in Ten’s white coat and tired eyes. He seems stiff, his composure too exact to be natural. Kun wordlessly steps to the side and Ten comes into the room.
“Would you like to sit down?” Kun asks, motioning to the couch. Ten shakes his head, mindlessly pulling at the sleeve of his coat. Kun notices that his dark hair is slightly disheveled, the small difference somewhat odd. Kun has never seen Ten look anything other than perfectly ordered.
“No, I’ll stand.” Ten locks eyes with him. “Do you remember the agreement you signed?”
Kun thinks back to a thin sheet of paper, a pen filled with blue ink. “Yes. Is there a problem?”
Ten takes a deep breath. “Kun, this process is irreversible even if it goes wrong. The contract says this. It also says that you are bound to completion of the project, even if it fails. Do you understand what this means?”
Kun frowns slightly, trying to figure out what Ten is trying to say. “I do.”
“No, you don’t.” Ten reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a folded piece of paper, so thin it is almost translucent. He unfolds it carefully and Kun sees his own handwriting in blue ink at the bottom of the page, a tight, looping print. “It means that if something happens, we cannot restore you to who you were before. If the project fails, you will no longer be you.”
Ten hands him the paper. “You can still walk away.”
Kun takes it, skimming over the words printed there. Nothing has changed.
“I made an agreement to stay until the project is finished,” Kun says. “That’s what I intend to do.”
Ten squeezes his eyes shut, his next breath labored and rattling. “Kun, I think you should reconsider. You’re sicker than you think you are”
“We have already started,” Kun says firmly, even though his hand is shaking. The paper rattles slightly in his palm. “There is no point in stopping. If you fail,” Kun takes a deep breath. “It doesn't matter.”
“I’m trying to give you a way out before we go further.”
Ten looks at Kun’s hand. “I don't want you to lose something you can't get back.”
Kun’s heart is beating too fast, far too fast, his pulse a jagged line of lightning beneath his skin. “I’m dying, Ten. It doesn’t matter.”
“There are two different ways to die.” Ten straightens up, adjusting his coat. “I don't want you to experience both.”
They stare at each other for a moment longer, Kun’s hands shaking and Ten standing completely still. The air in the room is frozen in place, the both of them watching, waiting, holding their breath.
“I respect your choice, whatever it is.” Ten nods. “Have a good day, Kun.”
He turns and closes the door behind him, leaving the contract in Kun's hand. He opens a cabinet drawer and drops the paper in, watching it flutter as it slides against the bottom. He slams the drawer shut so hard the cabinet shakes.
“Tell me about your family.”
Kun stares at the woman in front of him, holopad clutched in her hands. Her nails are bright red, and the number on her coat reads Seven .
One technician tapes an electrode to his forehead, another wraps his wrist with a metal cuff, and yet another takes his pulse. He stares at the woman in front of him, a veritable stranger, and responds.
“My mom,” Kun starts. “My dad. I don’t have any siblings.”
The woman writes something on her holopad but Kun knows it is not so much what he says as what he thinks. Or more accurately, what he remembers.
He remembers this:
Kun, be careful! The water is deep!
He remembers faces, kind and happy. He remembers his mother brushing his hair and singing softly, he remembers his father teaching him how to drive. He almost laughs at this one—the way his dad had been so nervous the entire time, hand clutching the seat, only to breathe a sigh of relief when they were home again. He wishes he could hear their voices one more time, one last time, but all he has are memories. Like a lot of things, he lost them along the way.
He remembers his childhood home, the stairs in front. He remembers sitting on these stairs and watching rain pour just beyond his feet, the roof dripping water in sheets. His feet are bare and the rainwater splashes against his toes, cool. It smells like the dense beginning of spring, the soil rich and dark.
He closes his eyes and he feels a tug, something faintly pulling at the memories. He sees the rain fall in reverse, up into the clouds, sees himself walking backwards through his house. He sees himself kiss his mother on the cheek. He sees his dad planting flowers in the garden.
He sees their gravestones. The dirt is dark and wet. It has just stopped raining.
No one ever told him the disease was hereditary.
“Good,” Seven says. Kun’s eyes snap open and the memories vanish, pulled away from him. He tries to hold on to them, but nothing stays. Nothing ever stays. “Thank you, We’ll take a short break and continue in 15 minutes.”
She stands and walks away, white coat fluttering. Her heeled shoes are also white, and they click against the bright white floor as she leaves. Someone hands him a glass of water and a silver pill. Kun downs both.
When Seven comes back she continues to ask him questions, this time about his education. He recounts elementary school, high school, college, people he used to know and now do not. The memories are siphoned off in between heartbeats and when Seven finally says he can go he feels emptier, lighter, less real.
The technicians remove the electrodes and release him. He leaves the room before realizing, dimly, that Ten was not there.
The contract stays in the cabinet. When Kun sees Ten again, the technician is just as cold as he was before. This is how Kun will remember him, if he can: a block of ice in a white room, eyes like knives.
“Tell me,” Ten starts, a pen balanced between his fingers, “about your first love.”
Kun resists the urge to pull at the electrodes attached to his temples, to loosen the cuff around his wrist. He forces himself to sit still among all the equipment, even as the whiteness of the walls bleeds into him, cold and unforgiving.
“His name was Sicheng,” Kun says, the memory rousing itself from a slumber in the corners of his mind. He hasn't thought about Sicheng in years.
“How old were you?”
Kun blinks. “I was 16. We were in school together.”
Kun was sixteen, and they were in school, the world shifting in strange currents around them. Kun remembers that summer before senior year, those sunlight days where love was new and he feared nothing. He feels a soft tug but still the memories come — him and Sicheng watching movies in the darkest hours of the night, them kissing in the early morning sunlight, Sicheng touching him for the very first time.
“Why do you need this?” Kun asks, struggling to hold the memories to his chest. He doesn't want them to be seen, wants to keep them hidden in the darkest parts of himself where they will be safe. Ten gives him a clinical glance, almost dissecting.
“We need everything.” Ten tucks his pen behind his ear, folding his hands over his holopad. “Please, continue.”
Kun glances at one of the screens to his left and sees the field behind his old school, green with spring, He sees a lone boy, doing cartwheels in the grass, so thin he might as well be a blade.
“This is private,” Kun says, watching the scene flicker to him and Sicheng yelling at each other, faces painted with resentment. He knows what comes next.
“Your agreement,” Ten says bluntly. “Means there is no privacy.”
Kun looks at him, face blank, and wonders how someone can be so heartless. But then again he had been given the chance to walk away, had been handed the opportunity on a sheet of paper. He could have left, but he didn't.
So the scene changes again and again, Kun pouring memories out of himself and into that murky darkness that he cannot describe. His first kiss. The lyrics to a song that he has not heard in years. Days spent walking the streets, mindlessly and happily as if he was a cloud without direction, someone else’s hand in his. He empties the memories, feels Sicheng’s lips against his, can almost remember the way he tasted before he left. It is a painful memory to release, a painful one to recall.
Wordlessly, soundlessly, the memories vanish. They wink out one by one, like lights or stars, fading into darkness.
Kun waits a moment. He doesn't remember Sicheng at all.
Ten watches him silently. “Are you alright?”
Kun swallows, his throat so dry it burns. His chest feels empty, carved out, as if a small piece of his heart is missing now. “I’m fine.”
Technicians dismantle the monitors and electrodes, as efficient as machines, Ten stands white coat fluttering, and places a hand on Kun’s shoulder. His eyes are dark and fathomless, alien and unreadable.
“You’ve done well,'' he says. Kun notices his pen is still tucked behind his ear. “That will be all for today. Go rest.”
A technician leads him out of the room but Kun turns, curious, and sees Ten staring at one of the monitors. His hand is outstretched to the image there, one Kun cannot see. He sees Ten touch the screen gently, reverently.
Kun looks away and leaves the white room behind.
Kun dreams, which is rare. Usually he sleeps and wakes up with nothing in between except endless, thoughtless darkness, comforting in its uniformity,
But tonight of all nights, he dreams.
Kun, tell me about your first love.
The white walls shift and bend, rippling like ocean waves, He is 16 again and seeing the ocean but not really, he is just seeing what the ocean would look like projected on concrete and paint. The memory of the ocean rushes at him and over them and then it is gone, He reaches out and feels water on his palm, but all he sees is emptiness.
Kun, tell me about your first love.
An unfamiliar face, a field in spring. Kun smells flowers and suddenly they are gone in the wind. The floor is made of grass but white walls rise around him, towering into the sky.
A man sits in a chair in the field, white coat buttoned all the way up to his neck. He stands and extends his hand but his eyes are cold, mechanical and analytic.
You can leave. I won't stop you.
No , Kun whispers. I won't leave.
Grass fades into linoleum. The sky becomes a white ceiling. The man in front of him dissolves into purple flowers, every part of him falling softly to the ground. Kun bends to pick up one of the flowers, holding it to his lips.
It's wisteria, purple as the springtime dawn.
When Kun walks into the white room the next morning, there is a piano sitting among the screens and whires. It seems almost as if it was copied and pasted into the room, its dark wood frame a stark contrast to the white walls, metal wires, semi-translucent screens.
Kun stands at the door for a moment, staring at the piano. He knows in his heart what comes next, and he dreads it.
A technician with One sewn onto his coat pocket checks his pulse and temperature, asks him to fill out a questionnaire about how he’s feeling this morning. On a scale of 1-10, how well did you sleep? On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your comfort?
Kun answers the questions like a robot, his eyes drawn to the piano. It is connected to nothing in the room, just standing there, and when Kun finally finishes answering the questions he finds himself drifting over to the piano. He places a hand on the keys, slightly worn, as if someone had lovingly played it many times before.
Ten stands behind the piano, holopad in one hand, the other resting on the wood. “Are you ready to begin?”
Kun looks at him and feels his heart sink like a stone. The entirety of him ripples with the soft, falling motion. “What would you like me to do?”
“Play for me.” Ten steps back, motioning at Kun to sit. Technicians seem to form out of nothing, placing electrodes on his head, angling screens away, sliding a metal cuff around his wrist. “Something you like.”
“Anything?” Kun sits at the piano, hands hovering over the keys.
“Anything, as long as you like it.” Ten sits in a chair several feet away, pen in hand. “You are playing for yourself, not for me.”
Kun knows music. Knows it like he knows life and death and breathing. But in that moment, hands resting on the keys, something unknown fills him. Something like trepidation, like fear, like loneliness.
You are playing for yourself.
“I think,” Kun says, voice catching in his throat. “I think I’m going to play Consolation No. 3, by Liszt.”
Ten gives him a reassuring smile, nodding. He writes something down.
The first note comes through clear, loud, perfect. The second note, the third—all perfect, all familiar, all safe. Kun plays and in his chest he feels his heart grow warm and then cold.
Memory: him at his high school recital, playing this song. In this memory he messes up halfway through, feels his face burn with embarrassment when he hits a sour note.
But it is only one note. It is only one note and he keeps going and when he is done he stands and sees his mom filming him with her clunky camcorder, his dad smiling and clapping. Pride washes over him. Happiness, distilled to a moment.
The memory vanishes, and even though Kun’s heart stutters he does not stop. He continues to play. His fingers are cold—the white room never seems to get any warmer.
Another memory: he’s playing a different song on the battered keyboard in his friend’s basement. He doesn’t remember the friend, not now, only that he cared for him very much. He remembers the way the keyboard was so broken that every other key was woefully out of tune.
Laughter. Of course you could make this piece of junk sound good!
Kun smiles softly. The memory is pulled from him like a thread, unraveling as it goes.
Halfway through the song, almost done. The music falls and rises and slows, each note a parting farewell. He feels something tugging at him, and he realizes he cannot remember what the beginning of the song sounded like. He can only remember what comes next, and even then only dimly. Only in pieces of muscle memory.
Memory: a sad song, played in silence in silence in a large empty room. He is practicing but the memory is somehow more than that. His fingers are raw and sore and he is crying but he cannot remember why. All he remembers is the feeling that he could drown everything out if he was loud enough, that if he played long enough the world would fall away.
The feeling comes to him. Heartbroken.
His hands waver. The song is simple, he knows it by heart, and yet he feels his fingers shake. He feels pieces of that memory slip away and he can hear it in the way he hits the keys a second too slow, a beat too fast.
He’s forgetting it. The song is being taken from him—he can’t even remember the name.
The ending is jumbled and unclear, and it is only after the last drawn out notes of the song are done resounding around the room that Kun realizes his eyes are wet. He holds his hands over the keys, trying to recall what he would do next. How he would play the song again.
Ten is silent for a long moment. “Can you play another song for me?”
Kun racks his mind for another song, for a memory he may or may not have. He grits his teeth when he finds nothing but emptiness, a gaping hole.
“No. I cannot.”
Ten gives him another smile, but it is strained. His eyes do not smile with his face. “You’ve done very well. Good job.”
Hollow. Kun feels hollow, hollow, hollow.
“Good evening,” Ten says, hands clasped behind his back. It's late, the moon already rising into the pitch black sky. “May I speak with you for a moment?”
Kun opens the door. “What is it?”
“I just wanted to say that you’ve been making good progress,” Ten says flatly. “We’ve had to accelerate the course of the program, however, due to your deteriorating condition.”
“Is that all?”
Ten’s lips are white. “That's all.”
“What's your real name?” Kun asks, pressing his hands together to keep them from shaking. Ten raises an eyebrow, mouth opening and closing.
“Ten is my real name,” he says. “It's been my nickname ever since I was young.”
“I liked the way it sounded.” Ten takes a deep breath. “Kun, my offer still stands. You can still walk away.”
Kun shakes his head.
“I'm watching my project ruin you,” Ten says quietly. “You came in here a full person and I've reduced you to just parts.”
Kun should hate him, but he can't. He made an agreement, and he has always stuck to his word, no matter how broken.
Ten rubs at the bridge of his nose with a thin, pale hand. “The experiment is designed to make the transition easy. The numbered technicians, the white room, the clothes you wear—you won't remember anything about this time. If the project works, you will wake up and remember nothing more about this place other than the fact you were here.”
“I won't remember anything?”
“You shouldn't.” Ten takes a breath, as if he wants to say something else. “You shouldn't try.”
“I made my choice already,” Kun murmurs, heartbeat thrumming beneath his skin. “You made yours when you asked me to be part of this experiment.”
“Kun…” Ten reaches out a pale, unsteady hand. “I know more about you than you do. I’ve seen your memories, every one you gave me, and I don’t want to see you lose everything.”
Kun knows this, He also knows he gave up all those parts of himself willingly, despite his reservations. He takes Ten’s hand in his and finds it cold, as if Ten has plunged his hands into ice water. He raises the hand to his mouth and holds it there, just barely brushing the skin with his lips.
Ten’s face is pale, and he looks at Kun as if he is a condemned man. His hand shakes. “You can’t do this.”
“Is it that bad?” Kun asks. “This?”
“This could have unforeseen effects on the project,” Ten murmurs, even as he steps closer. “It could make your transition unstable.”
Kun kisses his hand, gently, and releases it. He knows what Ten is saying but at the same time he does not care — he can allow himself these small trespasses, this toying with his own life. His heart beats dangerously slow, even as Ten takes his face in his hands and kisses him.
Kun has no memories of being kissed before and so he finds that this is his first, soft and kind and somehow sad. Ten kisses him as if he is afraid he will break him, but when he steps back there is something in his eyes that suggests he wishes he hadn't.
Kun reaches out but Ten is already turning away. His white coat is too bright in the semi darkness of his room, almost hostile in the way it intrudes. Ten gives him a strained smile and once again he is a technician, a scientist, a man of numbers and figures. Once again, he is almost heartless.
“Get some rest,” Ten says over his shoulder. “You'll need it.”
Ten’s voice is clear and blunt. “Good night, Kun.”
The door opens and closes, casting a bright rectangle of light onto the floor. When that small light disappears, Kun’s heart does so as well.
Kun imagines his memories a bit like a tree. One memory leads to another, one thought to another, each interconnected. When you saw off one branch, all the others connected to it fall as well, soundless if no one is listening.
The technicians take springtime from him, and with it they take the late sunsets, the blooming azaleas, the purple wisteria. They take the garden his dad lovingly tended to every day he had it, all green and lush, soil dark as night. They take the garden and the taste of the first strawberries of late spring: small, red, sweet from the sun. Kun holds onto a single strawberry, perfectly ripe in his mind. This, too, is whisked away. This, too, is another branch on the tree that is slowly being sawed apart.
They take summer and long days and the beach. They take fall and every brilliant color that comes with it. They take winter and its pristine clarity, its bitter cold. But even then they do not take all of it — they leave the whiteness, surrounding him in the walls.
Kun dreams of the fragments left behind, but they are never enough to make a full picture. The world summer recalls the blankest of definitions. The word spring gives him nothing but the last dredges of flowers.
Week three is over. He is almost done.
“How do you feel?” Ten asks, taping on the electrodes himself. His touch is warm, gentle—hands for wrapping wounds. Hands for holding the wings of injured birds, securing them so they can’t fly away.
There are fewer technicians in the room, now. Kun isn’t sure where all the others went, but it's comforting to know there are fewer people to see him fall apart.
“I’m tired,” Kun admits. He looks up at Ten. “Four weeks is almost up.”
“It is,” Ten says. “The technicians have completed your replacement body. Would you like to see it?”
Kun shakes his head and coughs, lungs shearing together from the inside out. “No,” he wheezes. “I like surprises.”
Ten gives him a soft smile. “Okay, Kun,” he says. “Let's begin.”
What is there to dream of when you have no memory of the things you used to dream about? What is there to feel when you’ve given half your heart to a machine and the other half to a man that might as well be a machine? Kun lies awake at night and his mind wanders to these same endless questions, the unchangeable facets of his life.
He still dreams. He dreams about white walls and white coats and the feel of metal on skin. He dreams about the few things that haven't been taken from him yet, the few things he has left to cling on to. Half-formed ideas. The wisteria blossoms in spring. The color of his neighbor's house.The sound of his own heartbeat in his chest. His name, his name, his name.
They haven't taken all of me , Kun thinks, even as he dreams of a technician with dark hair and darker eyes. They haven't taken all of me yet.
On the last day of the fourth week, a technician meets him in his room. Their hair is cropped short, and Eight is stitched onto their chest, right over their heart. They hand him a small, silver pill.
“It's time,” they say. Kun swallows the pill dry.
Ten is the only one in the white room. There are two beds in the center of the room, surrounded by screens and machinery. One is empty. The other is not.
Ten smiles at him, but is an unhappy, solemn expression. “Meet the new you.”
Kun steps forward, feet stalling, heart beating in his throat. His mouth is suddenly very dry, and he wishes he could just have a glass of water, something, anything to consume.
The occupied bed has him on it. It has him wearing a dark shirt, not unlike the one he is wearing now. The other him has brown hair, has a resting expression that does not look strained or hurt. His replacement looks like it could be sleeping. It is a perfect replica—the mole under his eyebrow, the exact color of his skin, the length of his eyelashes—everything is just as it should be.
He’s seen plenty of androids in his lifetime, but none this lifelike. None this real. Kun reaches out to touch the replica’s hand. It is as cold as metal.
“You did a great job,” Kun says numbly, placing his hand on the replica’s chest. Nothing beats there. “It looks just like me.”
Ten’s eyes are sad. “It will make the transition easier.”
Kun nods and Ten motions for him to lie on the other bed and he does, inhaling as his head rests against the surface. It's padded thickly, different from an examination table you would find in a lab. He looks up at the ceiling, so blank it might as well not exist. The room feels unformed, as if it were a part of the universe that was not quite painted over. There are still gaps that need to be filled, holes that must be closed.
Ten attaches something to his chest, fingers working deftly and quietly. A monitor beeps somewhere to his left.
“Where are the rest of the technicians?” Kun asks. He watches Ten’s throat bob as he swallows, hands moving to his forehead.
“I figured it would be smoother if I did it,” Ten says quietly, attaching electrodes to his temples. “Fewer people, fewer things to distract you.”
Kun doesn’t respond. He rests his hands on his stomach as Ten works, clearing his mind. He finds it incredibly easy — there’s nothing left in his head to think about. He wants to cry, for some reason. He feels as if he has been wiped clean, as if he is a blank canvas with no artist to color it. He’s nothing without those memories, without those markers of self. What is there to miss? If this fails, what will he even be?
“Do you think this will work?” Kun asks. Ten’s hands do not still, but his face falters.
“I believe it will.”
“Good.” Kun nods. “That’s good.”
Ten steps back, tapping a screen. It beeps softly, display shifting. Kun can't make out anything it says, not from where he’s lying, so he watches the edge of Ten’s coat instead.
A soft beep. Ten places a hand on his chest. “Are you ready?”
Kun doesn't say anything, just nods. He’s suddenly afraid in a way he has never been before, desperate, wondering if there was anything he could have done differently. Could he have said goodbye? Was there anyone to say goodbye to?
Ten takes a deep breath. “This is going to be a little disorienting, okay? I’m going to ask you some questions, Just respond as you normally would.”
Kun nods and Ten places his hands on his head, holding him still.
“Where were you born?”
Why is his mouth so dry? Kun licks his lips and says “Fujian, China.”
Something beeps, and suddenly the answer is gone from him. He wants to reel it back but he can't.
“When were you born?”
“January 1st, 1996.”
A soft beep. Gone. His own birthday, erased in his mind.
Kun grabs Ten’s hand. “I’m scared. Ten, I'm scared.”
“I know,” Ten responds, taking Kun’s hand in his own. His hand is warm as he swipes his thumb across Kun’s palm. “It’s okay to be afraid.”
Kun realizes he’s crying, realizes his chest is heaving. “I love you.”
Ten squeezes his hand but does not answer. “Kun, I want you to repeat after me: my name is Qian Kun.”
Kun squeezes Ten’s hand back. “My name is Qian Kun.”
“Keep saying it,” Ten says. His voice is barely a whisper. “Keep going.”
“My name is Qian Kun,” he repeats, Something beeps. “My name is Qian Kun.”
My name is Qian Kun.
My name is
Voices. Shapes. The man on the table closes his eyes and dreams, but only of a white room with white walls. Someone is speaking in the distance. Someone is whispering. Someone is crying.
Come back to me. Follow my voice.
The man on the table is dreaming, but there is nothing to dream about. He does not even know what a dream is, what it looks like or does.
The man on the table feels someone's breath on his cheek, feels a soft touch that lingers only for a moment. It’s warm. Comfortable.
Come back to me, a voice says. The man doesn’t recognize it, but he listens all the same.
The man on the table opens his eyes and gasps, chest rising. He looks at the face above him, blurred slightly.
“My name is Qian Kun,” he gasps out as the face swims into view. “My name is Qian Kun.”
The face fades in and out of focus. Dark hair, dark eyes, white coat.
Kun’s lungs rattle. He looks over at the bed next to him, seeing his body lying there, completely still. Did it work? Did it even work?
Kun looks up at the technician leaning over him, dark hair falling into his eyes. “My name is Qian Kun.”
“I know,” The man says, cupping his face. “I know.”
Things come flooding back to him, names and faces he had forgotten. He sees his past, his present, all the little things. Sicheng. His mom and dad. His birthday. His house. He lets out a breathless laugh, sitting up.
“I remember,” Kun exclaims. “I remember!”
He remembers the crashing ocean, remembers wisteria blooming in the spring, remembers sadness and pain mixed into all the beautiful things. The memories revolve around each other, spinning and streaking together, so dense that he can imagine dipping his hand into them and pulling each one out.
The technician watches him, eyes filled with tears. His coat has Ten stitched on it in thick letters. “I know. I know.”
It takes a couple of days for everything to fit back together the way it should. He spends days recalling the most obscure things as the memories settle into their respective homes, leveling out. The new body is strange but it does what it's supposed to, takes him where he’s supposed to go.
The technician, Ten, checks him over and over, face calm and composed. Kun watches him frown at his holopad then shake his head, as if something isn’t quite right.
“Is everything okay?” Kun asks, watching Ten open a small panel on his wrist. Ten gives him a strained smile.
“Of course,” he says.
Kun gets the strange feeling that he’s forgetting something, but can’t remember what it is.
“You will be the first and last to experience this procedure,” Ten tells him. “After much consideration, we’ve decided the process simply puts too much emotional and mental strain on the subject.”
His room is empty. Kun opens and closes the cabinets as if he’s looking for something, unsure of what it is. “I don’t remember much of it anyway,” he admits. There’s the vague impression of white walls and metal but little else.
“That’s for the best,” Ten says, gaze clinical. “If you need anything feel free to contact us.”
Kun opens a cabinet and finds something nestled at the bottom, a thin sheet of paper. He pulls it out and sees his own name at the bottom in blue ink, a messy scrawl. He frowns and a memory comes back to him, creeping in like a swell of cold air.
May I come in?
Kun turns and sees Ten already turning away, headed through the door. His back is stiff.
I'm watching my project ruin you. You came in here a full person and I've reduced you to just parts.
Kun’s hand is steady as he holds the contract up to the light. “Ten,” he calls out, voice locking up in his throat. Ten turns, his eyes red as if he is struggling not to cry.
Come back to me.
“I remember you,” Kun says softly, walking across the room. “Ten, I remember you.”
Ten stares at him, face pale. He looks at the contract in Kun’s hands.
“I love you,” Kun says quietly, handing him the piece of paper.
Ten’s face breaks into a smile, his eyes tearing up. He lets the contract slip between his fingers and drift to the floor, cupping Kun’s face in his hands.
Tears run down Ten’s face, almost crystalline. “You’ve said that to me before.”
Kun kisses him, once, wrapping his arms around his waist. “I know,” he says quietly. “I remember.”