Check out this sneak peek of the first chapter of my debut novel, Duplicate Minds. You can pre-order it here.
Rajeev Sundaram’s eyes flickered to life and saw only white.
He blinked, but his eyelids felt odd. Nonexistent. Even so, when he closed them, the blinding whiteness blinked out of existence. He kept them closed—the light was nauseating.
What’s the last thing I remember? He racked his brain, but it was no use. His mind was foggy and he couldn’t think of any reason he’d be . . . wherever he was.
He opened his eyes again. Still nothing but white. But he realized now that he was lying on his back looking up at a clinical white ceiling, like one would find in a hospital.
Maybe he was in a hospital. But he didn’t remember getting into an accident or having a heart attack. But then again, he wouldn’t remember something like that, would he?
He sat up and scanned the room. What he saw appeared to confirm his suspicions. The room’s walls were as blindingly white as its ceiling. In front of him sat a stainless steel sink similar to ones he’d seen in hospital rooms; to its right was a door that presumably led to the rest of the hospital. Against the wall to his right sat a small wooden chair with navy blue padding.
There was one peculiarity: Above the door was a circular green light. As Rajeev gazed at the steady green glow, it suddenly began flashing red. He didn’t know what that meant, but in his experience, flashing red lights were rarely good things. A wave of panic washed over him, but he suppressed it. Panicking wouldn’t help anything and besides, he didn’t know for sure what the red light meant. He wasn’t going to wait around to find out, though.
His legs felt odd as he dangled them over the edge of the hospital bed. It was like he didn’t quite know how to control them. He wondered if he’d been in a coma and his leg muscles had atrophied.
Before he could stand and put his theory to the test, the door swung open and a short, rotund man walked through the door. He carried himself with authority, but his smooth, light-brown skin betrayed his youth. He wore a long, white lab coat, which made Rajeev think he must be a doctor.
The men stared at each other for a long moment, as if each of them were dumbfounded by the presence of the other. The doctor broke the silence.
“You’re awake,” he said.
Rajeev tilted his head. “No shit.”
The words felt strange coming out of his mouth. In fact, his mouth itself felt strange, like he barely had to move it to form the words he wanted to say. And the sound of the words leaving his lips . . . there was a slight buzz to it, like something out of a nightmare.
“What happened to me?” Rajeev asked, a hint of panic creeping into his voice.
The doctor flashed a reassuring smile. His face was cherubic, devoid of facial hair, and he wore a pair of thick-framed black glasses over his chocolate brown eyes. He reminded Rajeev of his brother, Ajay.
“You’re in my laboratory at Next Level Technologies,” the man said. He pushed his glasses back up his nose as he spoke.
“This is a laboratory? I thought it was a hospital.”
The man—perhaps not a doctor after all—nodded.
“It’s a medical facility within the laboratory. Uh, let me ask you . . .” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a slim device that looked to Rajeev like an oversized, ultrathin tablet. “What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Nothing that explains how I got here. I’ve been trying to remember ever since I woke up. No luck.”
The man made a note on the tablet. “That’s not surprising,” he said without looking up. “But what about your long-term memory? Do you remember who you are?”
“Of course. I’m Rajeev Sundaram.”
“Very good . . . and your family? Are you married? Kids?”
“Yeah, I’m married. Have been for twenty-five years, with two kids, a boy and a girl. Listen, I don’t mean to interrupt your evaluation, but can you tell me what’s going on? I’m still completely in the dark here.”
The man looked up from his tablet, a pitying look in his eyes. “I realize this all must be quite disorienting for you, and I apologize. You were gone for a long time.”
So he had been in a coma. That explained the weird, dissociative sensations he was experiencing. But that left one very obvious question.
“How long was I out?”
At this, the man hesitated. “A very long time. Let’s leave it at that for—”
“How long?” Rajeev interjected, his tone insistent.
Again, the man hesitated. His reluctance to answer the question alone made Rajeev’s heart sink.
“Stop stalling and tell me how long I’ve been under. I have a right to know.”
The man sighed and nodded. “I’m sorry. It’s just . . . as you can imagine, this is difficult. You were in a coma for fifteen years, Rajeev.”
Rajeev froze, paralyzed by what he’d just been told. Fifteen years? Impossible. That would make him, what . . . fifty-four years old? That would put Sarah somewhere in her late forties. Dev and Mira would both be well out of high school.He brought his hand to his face, but . . . something was wrong with it.
He held the appendage in front of his eyes and marveled at his . . . was that skin? It was rubbery, stiff. This doesn’t look like my arm, he thought. Unless my muscles have atrophied . . . it’s so skinny.
The man’s voice broke Rajeev out of his perplexed reverie. He lowered his arm and scrunched his eyebrows in frustration. “There’s no way I’ve been in a coma for fifteen years,” he said.
The man gave a knowing look and nodded his head once. “Look, I know it’s difficult. But—”
“What’s wrong with my arm?” Rajeev interrupted.
“Ah. Yes, about that—”
“I don’t feel like myself. I don’t feel . . . normal.”
“That’s not unusual. If I can just explain—”
“Bring me a mirror.”
“Mr. Sundaram, if I may—”
“Bring me a mirror, dammit!”
The man sighed, but his face grew stern. “I will bring you a mirror, but not before I have a chance to explain a few things to you.”
Rajeev wasn’t eager to wait, but he didn’t think he had much of a choice. “I’m beginning to think I wasn’t in a coma at all.”
“You were in a coma,” the man said, his patience beginning to fray, if only slightly. “You were in a car accident. A bad one. When they brought you into the hospital, you were barely responsive. The doctors managed to restart your heart, but you were comatose.”
“For fifteen years.”
The man nodded. “For fifteen years.”
“And no one tried to pull the plug after all that time?”
“You didn’t have a DNR. Your family didn’t know exactly what your wishes were and they held out hope you’d come out of it, or that some new medical technology would bring you back.”
Rajeev nodded. “But it must have been expensive to keep me here. My family isn’t rich.”
The man shrugged. “They found a way. And here you are. Their hope wasn’t misplaced.”
“And yet they’re not here. It looks like they’ve moved on.”
“I wouldn’t say that. They visited you almost every day, in the beginning. Naturally, the visits dropped off over the years, but they’ve never stopped coming. You’re not allowed visitors currently, anyway.”
“But . . . this isn’t a hospital. It’s a lab.”
The man nodded. “That’s correct.”
“So if I’ve been in a coma all this time, why am I in a lab and not a hospital?”
The man frowned and crossed his arms. “I’ve been working my way up to that. One of the things we do here at Next Level is help people in situations just like yours, Rajeev.”
The man’s insistence on using Rajeev’s first name, as if they were best friends and not total strangers, was beginning to wear on his nerves. There was a slight edge to his voice when he spoke next.
“So in fifteen years time, you’ve figured out how to cure comas, have you?”
The man’s face fell. He grabbed the chair, dragged it in front of Rajeev and sat down.
“Not exactly,” he said. “Medical science has made some progress in treating comatose patients. But cases such as yours—persistent vegetative states with no apparent end in sight—require more innovative solutions.”
“So how’d you wake me up?”
The man’s brow furrowed. “Well, that part may be difficult for you to comprehend, given the state of technology at the time of your accident. Specifically, the state of, ah . . . robotics.”
“Yes. That’s our primary area of study.” He sighed deeply. “I’ll be frank. Things looked bleak for you, Rajeev. Drastic measures had to be taken, and your family figured it was best to—”
“I’m not sure I like where this is going,” Rajeev interrupted. He began reviewing all of the odd sensations he’d had since waking up. The disorientation, the difficulty moving, the unsettling feeling that he was having an almost-out-of-body experience . . . it was all pointing toward a reality he didn’t want to accept.
“We’ve developed a technology that gives patients in dire circumstances a second chance,” the man said. His words sounded like a rehearsed sales pitch. “When the mind or body is so damaged that conventional medical treatments aren’t enough, we’ve created a way to provide the patient with a new body . . . and a new mind.”
A wave of panic shot through Rajeev’s body; his mind raced. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
The man nodded gravely. “I think so.”
“Then say it,” Rajeev spat. “Stop dancing around it and tell me outright what you’ve done.”
“Mr. Sundaram . . . we’ve duplicated your mind, your consciousness, and placed it in a state-of-the-art roboticized body.”
“You’re saying I’m a robot.”
The man nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Well, an android, technically. But you’re still you. It’s just your body that’s artificial.”
Rajeev’s mind reeled—whirred? He stretched his arm out before him and studied it. He saw now that the unnaturally rubbery skin that had looked so alien to him was, in fact, rubber . . . or some material similar to it. Now that he knew what he was looking at, he recognized the crude facsimile of the human body for what it was.
“Bring me that mirror,” Rajeev barked. “Now.”
The man frowned, but retrieved a hand mirror from a drawer below the sink.
“Here,” he said, his hand outstretched. Rajeev snatched the mirror out of his hand, but took a deep breath before holding it up to his face. He was sure he wasn’t going to like what he was about to see, but he’d have to face this new reality sometime; might as well be now. He lifted the mirror to his face, and gasped.
The face staring back at him wasn’t quite human, but neither was it quite what he thought of as robotic. It wasn’t metallic, but rather coated in the same rubbery approximation of skin coating his arms. The shape of his face was far flatter than that of any human, and his “eyes” were made up of two oval photosensors. A slight mound served as a nose, but it was nonfunctional—he realized for the first time that he couldn’t smell—and his mouth was little more than a thin horizontal slit cut into his faux-skin.
The face staring back at him, he thought, was the visage of a demon.
“I know this is going to take some getting used to,” the man said. “I want to assure you that you will acclimate to your new body. Everyone always does, and I don’t see why you should be an exception.”
“I don’t see how anyone could get used to living like a tin can.”
“You’re still you,” the man insisted. “You’re still Rajeev Sundaram. You’re just in a different vessel.”
Rajeev shook his head. “I can’t wrap my head around this. I’m not sure I’ll ever fully comprehend what’s been done to me.” He looked down at his hands, turning them back and forth, disturbed by how alien they looked and felt. He sighed, the first sign that he was beginning to resign himself to his fate. “So are you a doctor, or what?”
“No. Not in the sense that you mean, anyway. I have doctorates in both mechanical and software engineering.”
“That makes sense, I guess. What’s your name, anyway?”
The man didn’t answer right away. The authority he’d exuded since entering the room suddenly evaporated. He hung his head sheepishly, then raised his eyes to look directly into Rajeev’s. “Don’t you recognize me?” he asked softly, like a child addressing his—
Rajeev caught his breath—or at least, that’s what it felt like, despite his lack of lungs. As he studied the man’s face, he knew the realization was correct, and he couldn’t believe he hadn’t seen it sooner.
The man offered an awkward smile. “Hi, dad.”