This is what it must be like to die.
A sudden sense of freedom, undeserved. I can feel myself drifting gently through the air, an ethereal figure made of light and sparkling lines of force, unbound by the confines of gravity. From this new vantage point, I gaze down upon the decaying, comatose object that once served as my body.
The monitors surrounding the bio-bed show no significant change in its condition. About two meters to my right, the young Ocampan nurse, Kes, observes the readings and comes to the same conclusion. I take a step backward, moving out of her way as she turns toward a nearby workstation. She ought to be able to walk straight through what I have become, this fleshless and bloodless apparition, no more real than a ghost from the ancient myths; but the parameters of the holographic program provide a harsh, unwelcome solidity.
She glances in my direction, if it can be so described: toward a holographic representation of a being that has not existed in living memory, a Vidiian woman untouched by the Phage. For just a second I cannot meet her gaze, and I look down at my hands. No, surely not my hands. Smooth and clear, these hands were never sliced from a captive’s corpse and transplanted to serve the needs of a diseased body, in a process by now almost as routine as a change of clothing. These hands never aided in bringing death and destruction to any species unfortunate enough to find itself in the path of a Vidiian harvesting ship.
No doubt Voyager’s Doctor intended only kindness when he transferred my consciousness into this mocking mirror of an impossible existence, but he could not have been more cruel if he had tried.
I look up into Kes’ face again. Her small, perfect white teeth have begun absently worrying her lower lip as she deliberates over what, if anything, to say. I realize that I must be a monster to her, the hideous embodiment of her childhood nightmares. Does it count for anything, I wonder, that I was once a child myself.
“When I was small, I thought that body parts came from factories,” I tell Kes, who blinks nervously in response. “Then my parents explained it to me, at about the same time they told me where meat came from. Do your people eat meat, Kes?”
Her teeth finally release her lower lip, revealing the deep grooves they have made. She blinks once more, standing with her back against the edge of the workstation, and declares, “No.”
“It’s fairly common among sentient humanoid species. Meat-eating, that is. Usually there’s not much guilt about slaughtering the animals, not much thought given to the morality of it. After all, the meat is needed, and the animals die quickly, without suffering.”
I can hear the sound of my words as they echo from the surrounding walls, but the voice itself is unrecognizable. A computer-generated approximation, I know, of the speech that would have come naturally from a throat unaffected by the Phage. Not one detail has been overlooked in creating the hellish perfection of my altered image.
“Vidiians once were known as a race of great healers, a compassionate and civilized people. Our world government devoted a vast amount of resources to medical research and treatment, with the goal of ending all disease forever. Many of the research projects involved animal experiments. Scientists created a genetically engineered variety of a docile herd animal to serve as a ready source of transplantable organs. No one knew that the organs contained a virus, normally harmless to the host animal, which would remain dormant in transplant recipients for many years before developing into an incurable, highly contagious disease. The Phage devastated our population within months. Our physicians, in desperation, managed to keep some of the victims alive by transplanting more of the animal organs to replace diseased and failing organs; but after a while, there were no more animals left, and our government decided that there could be only one way to prevent the extinction of our species.”
Kes twists her small, pale hands in front of her, looks as if she might be about to speak, but says nothing. I know that I cannot give her a reassuring touch on her shoulder; she would probably flinch away, even from this photonic illusion of a hand, as if it were the claws of a demon. Instead, I turn away and begin to pace the floor, wondering why I have even tried to explain what so obviously can never be justified.
“When I first decided to become a doctor, I hoped that I would be the one to find the cure.” The words sound hopelessly naïve in what should be my ears, but are instead holographic facsimiles thereof. The fact that I do not now exist as a whole person seems brutally appropriate. I stare down with loathing at the almost-dead figure on the bio-bed, wondering why the wretched lump of decaying meat doesn’t just hurry up and finish the damned job.
“There were no research positions available. Maintaining a steady supply of organs had become the government’s overriding priority, so I received orders to serve aboard a harvesting ship. I was assigned to work in sickbay, not with one of the harvesting teams, so I never actually saw their faces. The captives, that is. Sometimes my duties included analyzing blood factors of harvested organs; it was quiet, routine, abstract work, and I had no reason to think about where the organs came from.”
The comatose form on the bio-bed sighs faintly as if in sympathy, and one gnarled finger twitches in a very slight movement. I find myself wondering how Kes would react to its touch. She would shrink away in horror, almost certainly, or perhaps in visceral disgust. I move away from the ghoulish creature that I once was, and I resume my pacing. In some distant and dispassionate corner of my mind, I observe that my footsteps sound almost normal.
“We attacked a Kazon ship and took heavy losses before overcoming its crew. I was directed to assist the harvesting teams by processing the body of an Ocampan slave who had been aboard the Kazon ship. The harvesters had already used a transporter to remove her lungs, which is a fairly common method of ensuring a quick death while keeping the organs intact . . .”
“I know that,” Kes interrupts suddenly, her voice high and strained. As she stares at me, I wonder if she is beginning to think that it might be prudent to terminate my holographic program. Once again I find that I cannot meet her gaze.
“She looked very much like you, Kes. Wide, innocent eyes. Young. But it clearly hadn’t been a painless death.” I close my simulated eyelids and find myself in an unforgiving darkness that does nothing to block out the memories, so carefully preserved in the circuits of Voyager’s computer. “Such a look of terror — it was like nothing I had ever seen or imagined. But I couldn’t look into her eyes for very long. After all, I had to remove them while they were still transplantable.”
In the long silence that follows, my mind catalogues small sounds that impinge upon its self-imposed darkness: an electronic humming, the soft chime of a monitoring device beginning another cycle, and the slow breaths of the dying Vidiian on the bio-bed. Surely Kes will understand now that Voyager’s rescue attempt was ill-advised and that the only rational choice is to allow nature to take its course.
Instead, she speaks again, in a calmer, quieter voice that has somehow acquired an unexpected note of empathy.
“You were a conscript. There was nothing else you could have done.”
To some extent her words are true, I know, but Kes — whether intentionally or not — has overlooked the one choice that remained to me: the choice to die. Vidiian law seeks to prevent suicides by imposing heavy penalties and social stigma upon the family members of a suicide, but the act still occurs, almost always disguised as an accidental death. Most of our medical examiners have neither the time nor the resources to conduct a thorough investigation of every fatal accident.
When I received permission to take a brief leave to attend a medical conference, soon after the incident with the Ocampan captive, I did not find it difficult to damage my small ship in such a way that the craft, when found, would appear to have been disabled by an unfortunate accident. Without my usual medications to slow the progress of the Phage, death would come quickly. Knowing myself for a coward, I made sure to bring enough narcotics to ensure the painless death that the captive had not been granted.
But I had not taken into account the strength of the Vidiian survival instinct. Somehow, in my final delirium, acting completely without any rational consciousness, I managed to reconnect the damaged communications circuits and to send the distress call that Voyager answered.
I do not intend to make such a mistake twice.
The slow, labored breathing of the dying woman on the bio-bed finally begins to falter, and an insistent beeping commences. Opening my eyes once again, I see Kes examining a monitor in concern, her pretty young face now marred by a slightly furrowed brow. She will not have to worry about this patient for much longer. In a moment she will alert the Doctor, that well-meaning fool who absurdly imagines himself to be in love with me, and his heroic efforts to save the object of his preposterous infatuation will begin. The Doctor will probably never know why his treatments failed, and if the Vidiian government ever acquires Voyager’s records of this incident, my death will appear to have been entirely natural.
I take a step backward, out of Kes’ field of vision, and a brief smile touches my holographic lips.
The music of Sandrine’s nightclub still seems to echo faintly from the holodeck walls as the program shuts down. Welcoming the silence and emptiness, I walk out into the corridor, alone. I would not have expected to be left alone after having been placed under a suicide watch for the past several days, but Voyager seems to be much more lax in this regard than any Vidiian ship would have been. The Doctor, after discovering that I had sabotaged my treatment, was actually gullible enough to believe that I did it because I loved him too much to let him see me in this ugly, diseased form. Clearly he knows nothing at all about Vidiian women; our circumstances have not allowed us to indulge in the luxury of being vain about our appearance for many generations.
I reach an intersection and turn to the right, finding another long, empty corridor. Just before I left the holodeck, I told the Doctor that I was going to make my last farewells to Voyager’s crew before my return home. I suppose this will be a last farewell of sorts. I plan to walk into the nearest airlock, bypass the safety sensors, and vent the air into space. Not the most pleasant death, but at least this will be much quicker than the Phage; and it seems unlikely that the Vidiian survival instinct will be able to do much for a body floating in the vacuum of space.
As I approach another intersection, Kes abruptly turns the corner and falls into step beside me, lengthening her stride just a little to match my pace. She is carrying a box of data storage chips: a pretext, I strongly suspect, for a nonexistent errand.
“The Doctor has taken me off the suicide watch,” I remind Kes, allowing my tone to sharpen with an irritation that must seem only natural. “I would prefer to be left alone for now.”
Kes maintains her stride, not slowing at all as she scrutinizes my face. “I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
I start to open my mouth to argue, but something in Kes’ expression leads me to the realization that any such attempt will be futile.
“You’re telepathic, aren’t you?”
“I wouldn’t put it quite that way, although my people do have certain rudimentary mental powers.” Kes slows to a halt and stands in the middle of the corridor, watching me intently. Something in her gaze compels me to stop beside her, and all at once I can’t even remember why I decided to walk this way.
“About three hundred years ago,” Kes informs me, “humans learned how to grow replacement organs in laboratories, using cell samples from patients’ own bodies. The process is described in detail in Voyager’s medical database. I took the liberty of downloading the data to give to you. It’s not a cure for the Phage — but perhaps, several years from now, when your children believe that replacement organs come from factories, it really will be true.”
She holds out the box toward me.
“I’m a conscript on a harvesting ship. It’s not likely that I would be allowed to transfer to a research facility.” I stare down at Kes’ healthy young hands, so different in every way from my twisted, diseased claws. My few days as a hologram seem a distant memory by now. Again I imagine Kes’ likely reaction if I were to touch her, the extent of her disgust when she contemplates the fact that I do not know where these hands came from, and the thought of how their previous owner must have died.
Undeterred, Kes places the box into my right hand. “Maybe you can set up a small laboratory in your ship’s sickbay,” she suggests. Her fingers brush mine softly. I can smell her perfume, a light floral scent. She is alien to me.
“I don’t even know where my hands came from,” I confess, as my ghoul-fingers curl around the smooth handle of the box.
Kes embraces me in a gentle hug, surrounding me for the moment with all of her warmth and softness and youth and health and sweetness and beauty — and just maybe, maybe, the faintest breath of hope.
“What really matters,” she tells me, “is what you do with them.”