It's a truism that sometimes the most well-meaning acts can have the most unfortunate consequences.
The patient before me is one Andaz McClintok, although he doesn't answer to that name – none of my patients will answer to their birth names – but I will not humour him by addressing him the way I know he wants me to, the way he is used to being addressed. This is not spitefulness on my part, believe me. Andaz and the other thirty-three like him have got to adapt to their new lives now, whether they like it or not, and part of that adaptation involves having and using a personal name.
A course of intensive physiotherapy has reversed some of the severe muscle atrophy in this patient, but underneath his white hospital gown, his arms and legs are still stick-thin and he cannot as yet walk unaided. His skin is still dead-white and it will take some time for the pigment to build up enough for him to go outside safely. His hair will never grow back, of course - all his hair follicles were destroyed to prevent hair growth interfering with his Interface. His scalp is a smooth white egg apart from the tracery of thin red scars spidering over its surface where the Interface connections were surgically removed.
He eyes me dully as I sit down opposite him and wish him a good morning. His breakfast tray lies nearby, untouched. His gaze drifts down to his hands folded neatly in his lap - still thin and clawlike despite the therapy.
"Andaz. Andaz?" I repeat his name until I manage to break into his reverie and he looks up at me – either that or he's just fed up of hearing his name over and over, "Andaz, you have to eat. We talked about this, didn't we? You agreed to start taking your meals last time I was here. Don't you remember?"
He looks at the tray with the same lack of interest as he looked at me – and at everything else, then allows his gaze to settle once more on his folded hands.
"Andaz, look," I say, trying to bring him back to the here and now once more, "I know you're not used to eating. I know it must be strange and distasteful, but this is how things are now, you have to accept this. Dr Maddizon says your digestive system is fully functional now so please, at least try something."
I place the tray in front of him. The food's not bad, actually, and smells appetising even to me. Maybe the smell gets to Andaz too because, after a minute of so of incurious staring, he gropes for the plastic spoon next to the bowl and guides a wavering spoonful into his mouth. I can see his jaw working as he moves the food around inside his mouth, getting all the different flavours – or so I think.
He lets the spoon fall back into the bowl and pushes the tray away again.
"Don't you like it?" I ask, "I can get something else brought in?"
"No flavour," he replies. His voice, so long unused, is hardly more than a croak.
Suddenly, he buries his face in his hands and does the most human thing I have observed him do so far – he begins to weep, his body convulsing with great wracking, utterly abandoned sobs.
On an intellectual level, of course, I know perfectly well what this poor shrivelled man must be going through – I am a trained psychologist after all - but it is only now that the full force of the loss he has endured, and the utter hopelessness he must be feeling, really hits me.
The Compassionate Uses Act of 2657 was meant to do good. It was meant to put an end to what was essentially a form of slavery.
It had long been the case that only the human brain possessed the necessary complexity and processing power required to navigate a starship safely across the void – and only the rarest type of brain, at that. Children were tested at age seven – and those precious few who passed the tests were Interfaced, becoming, in effect, a starship's living heart and brain. Their frail human bodies were replaced by a sleek metal hull, as their ears and eyes were replaced by long- and short- range sensors, able to scan the full width of the electromagnetic spectrum, not just the tiny slit of the visible available to ordinary humans. Their limbs were replaced by Tachyon-Ion converters and all of space was theirs to roam.
They had had no choice as children.
We gave them no choice as Ships.
With the advent of sufficiently advanced neural net AI to replace them, it was decided that we, as a society, would undo the injustice we had perpetrated against the ship-children as they were called. We would free the poor creatures "trapped" inside the remaining thirty-four starships still in existence.
The ships were ordered home and, once there, their human pilots were disconnected and brought here. The ships themselves were dismantled.
As I say, sometimes the most well-meaning acts can have the most unfortunate consequences. We have freed their bodies, of course, but in so doing, we have deafened, blinded and crippled them.
How can the flavour of a bowl of soup compare with the subtle 'taste' of millions of different particles as they stream through your detectors?
How can seeing the most beautiful landscape compare with being able to survey the majesty of the very stars themselves in all their glory?
How can walking or running compare with gliding along the curve of space at near lightspeed?
"Oh, Ship," I whisper, "What have we done?"