Issue 190 – July 2022

3460 words, short story

To Be


Raza stepped downstage, using the warmth of the lights on his synthetic skin to find his spot.

Waiting in the wings, he had tuned his embod unit’s still unfamiliar receptors for this moment. Turned up touch until light and shadow were tactile pools of warmth and cool. Turned down sound as Eric exited, stage left, leaving the empty space solemn, softened. The video feed from his visual receptors was out of focus, even as he stepped to the edge of the stage. He had always found it easier to act when the audience was a blur. He would perform without his spectacles, without the smart lenses most of their ensemble wore. Now, he calibrated the visual feedback in his embod to recreate the same effect, finding comfort in deliberately diminished capacity.

Raza found his spot. He drew in a breath, deep enough to feel his shoulder blades press into the synchronization rig’s recliner in Karachi, the wires around him shifting gently as his body moved. Elsewhere, before a sea of blurred out onlookers, Raza spoke into the hush.

The hush of the hospital had been different.

It was the hush of his limbs, refusing to shift beneath the bedclothes. It was hush of the doctors, the minutest of silences before each test reported, each line on a list crossed off. It was his mind, trying to still itself, to join the hush of his limbs and of their mouths.

Raza could feel Ayesha watching him. He kept his eyes on the ceiling, the edges of the room fuzzing into indistinction as he tried to bring the fan rotating slowly overhead into focus. After seven complete revolutions of the ceiling fan, Ayesha hunched down and pressed her lips to his forehead. Something wet leaked out of Raza’s eye as the soft pressure on his forehead withdrew, as Ayesha stepped away.

“I’ll check back in later,” she said. Three fan revolutions and the door clicked.

Outside the window, the warm winter rain came down in sheets.

It was Ayesha who had come up with the idea.

The months following Raza’s accident had been a monotony of increasing isolation. Visitors had been frequent to begin with. They had come with lush flowers and uncertain smiles, playing out familiar scripts restaged in unfamiliar circumstances. Some had energetically pulled aside the curtains, letting in the simmering autumn light. Others had sat quietly, in silences that verged on comfortable but never quite arrived. Sometimes, there were tears, running the gamut from sincere and held back to socially engineered and proudly on display. Those last had been aunts and uncles, mostly, visiting during the afternoon rush to bear witness and to be witnessed doing their due diligence.

“So young,” they said, in all their wisdom, nodding all the while. “Too soon,” they said, as though a life had ended.

Ayesha didn’t come during visiting hours. Aga Khan was an old institution, with old niceties in place. The nurse on Raza’s floor didn’t ask difficult questions when Ayesha visited, usually at the brink of twilight. He didn’t ask about their parents, or about the late hours, or about how Ayesha herself was doing.

“What have you brought him today?” he would ask instead.

“Books,” Ayesha told the nurse one evening, and he nodded sagely, before turning back to uncrease the earmark on his own yellow-paper volume.

“Obscure oldies,” she told him, a few evenings later. Raza spent the weeks that followed listening to Arlo Jimenez on repeat, the music fed into his auditory cortex with a clarity that felt like a confession.

You know, I . . . want something that feels real . . . Jimenez told Raza as the evenings grew colder. A touch, an ideal . . . A moment to be me . . . In a world that’s unkeeled . . .

The following month, Ayesha brought him a brochure.

The materials were slickly done.

Raza flicked through the marketing copy with the darting movements of his pupils, the unconsciously timed blinks of his eyelids. Embods hung in the air above the hospital bed, rotating as his attention focused on them, coming to stillness as he looked away. The light display bled into the darkened room, casting gentle illumination across Ayesha’s face. She stood with one arm crossed behind the small of her back, her hand clasping the opposite elbow, holding it in place.

“We can’t afford this,” Raza said. He watched the floating embods. “Even the base models, let alone . . . ” He blinked erratically, the embods stuttering in confusion. “Why did you bring me this?”

Bizarrely, Ayesha grinned.

“I wrote a grant,” she said.

“A grant,” Raza said, looking away from the light display to peer at her. The embods stood still. “A grant for what?”

“They’ve been expanding the scope of education and outreach,” she said. “Community-based organizations qualify, now.”

The ceiling fan overhead creaked through four revolutions.

“Arts organizations, Raza. Even small-scale, as long as they’re not-for-profit. The ensemble. We got one.”

“You got the grant?”

“We got the grant,” she said. Then she leaned into the interaction capture field of the light display and flicked rapidly through floating embods.

“This,” she said, stepping back. “We got one of these.”

The image was a towering purple silhouette above the hospital bed. Bipedal, humanoid, but otherwise featureless. Key words jumped out at Raza as he looked rapidly around the information spread, trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

Enhanced expressivity matrix. Improved dexterity engine. Zero-lag voice modulation. Full-frame embodiment mapping.

“What is all this?” Raza asked. “What does all this do?”

“It’s a new model,” Ayesha said. “Part of the series designed for caregivers.”

“I don’t need a caregiv—”

“I thought it might work for actors, too,” she cut him off. “The corporation wants to see if I’m right.”

The day the customization team came to compile the initial mapping, Raza had asked the nurse to draw the curtains in his room before dawn.

The view from the window reminded Raza of a play he had been in a few years back: a biographical eco-drama in which Raza had played a lab tech, a dramaturgical stand-in for the audience.

Ayesha had played Dr. Sharmeen Hasan, the oceanographer who had led the Karachi Coastline Rehabilitation Project. Dr. Hasan had reestablished the mangrove swamps along the Indus Delta. The original population had been decimated between the twin pincers of land reclamation and water capture projects in the 1990s. As the Arabian Sea had risen, the water breaking free to reclaim the land in turn, Dr. Hasan had reintroduced the mangroves at scale. They had become the through line in a purpose-built, living coastline.

Raza hadn’t appreciated the scope of the achievement when he had been seventeen and looking to be anywhere but where he was. He had never stood still long enough to let it sink in, to feel it in the air and on his skin. Now he looked out his window at a sight that was, elsewhere, increasingly rare.

A view of the sea.

Fifteen grueling mapping sessions later, the ensemble was presented with an embod prototype: an exact physical volume facsimile of Raza’s own frame. They were at the last stage during which the embod’s physical specifications could be modified. Fully frame-mapped models weren’t as modular as rapid production models, the design team had told them. At least not yet. Any representational or mechanical design modifications had to be set before final production.

“You could be taller,” Eric had said. Raza had been released from Aga Khan and relocated to a room just off their primary rehearsal space. Eventually the embod synchronization rig would be installed there, too. Raza had wanted to be close to the ensemble, to the rehearsal space, to the teaching studios where their community workshops were held.

“How about a few more inches, eh?”

Ayesha had shaken her head as Raza had tried not to regret his decision about proximity. Eric had shrugged, and walked away, unapologetic and straight-backed.

He had suggested clearer skin the next day. The day after that, it had been more finely defined musculature. The list grew and became easier to smile at. A well-positioned beauty mark. A more interestingly broken nose. A more laconic lip. A stormier eye.

Raza had laughed at that one.

“I can’t help but feel like I’m being landscaped into a genre,” he had said.

“Just suggesting what I see,” Eric had said, a glimmer of mischief hanging in his eyes.

Then one of the students had suggested lighter skin, and Ayesha had had a seething conference with the ensemble. Outside, after weeks of rain, the spring blooms fought to establish themselves under the brightening sun.

The suggestions, whether in the interests of improvement or of felt accuracy, had stopped after that.

Each day of rehearsal began with games.

Raza, synchronized with the embod, walked the studio space with the ensemble. He imitated Eric’s walk as Aoi imitated his. They shifted speed and direction as Ayesha called out numbers or clapped her hands. They stood still, counting together to twenty, beginning again if anyone spoke at the same time as another.

It was, by turns, an exercise in familiarity and in frustration.

Taking on roles in a play had always come easily for Raza. Learning to play himself, to be himself, through the embod, felt like a series of dropped cues. He would catch glimpses of himself in the bank of rehearsal mirrors: his hair, his face, his eyes, his frame. Then he would stomp a toe in a game of tag, or shift left instead of right in a movement isolation exercise, and the illusion would separate in his mind.

That isn’t me, Raza would be reminded. He would look across the mirrors, find the door to the adjoining room through the video feed. I’m in there.

I don’t know these games in my bones, anymore.

The evenings were better. Ayesha directed them scene by scene, building first in broad strokes and then refining their choices.

The set, as with all their productions, was minimal: a few painted blocks that became desk chairs, became hillocks, became thrones. Each night, they added new props and costume pieces to the mix. The day they brought in the stage weapons, Raza laughed with the others as Eric stabbed the air with bravado. The day they pulled the period shalwar kameez from storage, Raza’s skin shivered beneath the fall of rich silks, cool in the summer balm.

The words themselves were familiar.

The remnants of a colonial schooling system meant that many in the company had known these words since their school days. Some had studied them for their GCSE exams. A handful of the ensemble members had played the parts before.

For Raza, speaking through the embod had come most easily. While his limbs couldn’t model movement, his voice was unchanged. The embod’s voice model had been painstakingly calibrated to match his own. Its vocal affect didn’t have the flattened tonal register of the embods Raza had seen at construction sites or on rescue missions on the news. It wasn’t overenunciated, as the voices of the computer-generated embods in films tended to be.

It was as rough as Raza felt, as cultivated as his theater training had made it.

Breath and voice. It was a place to start.

“You hate Hamlet,” said Eric.

“‘Hate’ is a strong word.”

“You called it—how did you put it . . . ?” Eric tilted his head. “Ah yes: ‘An emo kid paralyzed by indecision.’”

Raza blanched. Outside, the crows sought their afternoon meals amidst the babble of rush hour foot traffic. The calls of hawkers selling fruit from their rayris meshed with the chatter of school children released from their studies, then jostled uncomfortably against the silence creeping into Raza’s room.

“Nice,” said Ayesha from the door. She had been lounging against the doorframe, reading through the morning’s rehearsal notes.

“His words, not mine,” Eric said with a carelessness undermined by his studied shrug.

“I’ve played parts I didn’t like before,” said Raza. “You have, too. We all have.”

“Like, hate, love . . . ” Eric curled a finger with each word.

“You know who loves Hamlet?” asked Raza. “Billionaires with deep pockets, that’s who.”

“Ah, yes,” said Eric. “The space tycoons.”

As with most things involving large sums of money, it moved slowly and then very, very fast.

Ayesha had been mulling over the possibility since their grant had been approved. She raised the idea with Corporeal Co. a month into their rehearsal process. What had been an exploratory note in a progress report had become a phone call; had turned into supplementary evaluations by the in-field engineers; had become livestreamed rehearsals with the publicity branch.

The others only realized that something was in the works when Corporeal Co. representatives in snappy suits started dropping by for visits to Karachi. They would lounge along the edges of the rehearsal studio, then take phone calls in the hallways. Raza watched them chatter over shawarmas with the techs in the rig room, rehearsing in his mind the ethics of listening in with the embod’s auditory receptors instead of his flesh-and-blood ears.

Ayesha broke the news before he had given in to the temptation of breaching embod privacy legislation by eavesdropping on the Corporeal Co. executives.

Word had been passed up the chain. A board of international theater critics with nondisclosure agreements in place had reviewed the spatial video footage and passed judgment. Their performances—both human and embod—were deemed to be of sufficient quality, at least at that stage in their rehearsal process. In a few months, it was felt, they might be worthy of a larger audience.

A much larger audience, as it turned out.

“How large?” Marium asked when Ayesha gathered them in the rig room to break the news.

“The maximum seating capacity is approximately a thousand,” said the suited executive who had joined them for the briefing. “Depending on the accessibility needs of each audience.”

“Bloody hell,” Hamid said under his breath. Their usual venue at the Karachi Center for the Performing Arts could hold two hundred and seventy.

“We’ll be streaming live from the station, of course,” added the suit. “And expect historical numbers to tune in.”

“I’m sorry,” said Raza. “Station?”

Ayesha grinned slowly.

“Oh—sorry,” said the suit. “I should have said Platform. The Akashi-Nur Orbital Platform.”

There had been a stunned silence, although not, as they were to discover, from all quarters.

Raza placed the embod’s fingers on Marium’s shoulder. He pressed gently down and felt the pressure beneath its fingertips.

My fingertips¸ he reminded himself. My hand.

They had spent the first half hour of the rehearsal warming up with minute gestures, getting Raza used to teletactile feedback. The embod stood in a circle with the ensemble in the rehearsal studio. In the adjoining room, Raza lay in its synchronization rig.

He felt the soft give of the rehearsal studio’s Marley flooring beneath his feet.

Their eyes—his flesh-and-blood eyes, and the embod’s synthetic eyelids—were closed. He felt Marium shift as she applied pressure to Hamid’s shoulder, who pressed down on Eric’s, who pressed down on Ayesha’s. Around the circle it went, a message coded in pressed and pressing skin.

Raza waited. The embod’s chest rose with each of his indrawn breaths, fell with each exhale.

Six, Raza counted. Seven.

Then he felt it: a gentle pressure on his shoulder as the loop completed.

“BURGER GOES TO ORBIT!” flashed across the light display in retro typography, underscored by a breaking news fanfare. The text blurred into an animated video. Dramatic narration guided the viewer through the steps of the launch, the journey to Akashi-Nur, the opening at the W.B. Yang Auditorium.

Outside, dry desert winds tugged at curling leaves crisped and yellowed by an unrelenting summer sun. Inside, in the air-conditioned gloom, memory unspooled under the light display.

Raza blinked and the sound from the satirical newscast fuzzed out. The spatial video hovered, bright in the dimness of his bedchamber, looping, a cheeseburger with Raza’s thick black hair squishing as it was stuffed into an orbital crate, stretching as it burst from its confinement upon arriving in space.

It’s a performance, Raza told himself as the cheeseburger squished. That’s all it is, as the burger stretched, jumped, took to the stage with a flourished cape.

The bank of machines alongside Raza’s bed neither affirmed, nor decried. They blinked, lights measuring out the words crossing Raza’s mind in a language he rarely thought in.

Laykin kis kay leyay?

The night, when it came, had no rehearsals and no answers.

They formed a circle in the rig room, as the ensemble had taken to calling it.

It was becoming a strange middle zone between equipment berth, hospital room, and prop storage space. At night, Raza slept surrounded by computing banks and stage-ready rapiers, blinking lights and draped backdrops. During the day, he was visited by embod engineers and curious community members. Night was falling quicker, but the sun set upon fuller days.

The ensemble had gathered after their first full run through. Ayesha stood to the right of Raza’s bed, her hands hanging easy by her side. The others completed the arc, standing with feet hips-width distance apart, knees unlocked, shoulders back and at ease, spines straight and unforced. Six figures in neutral pose and one reclined.

Ayesha began the old ritual, a way to bring the day’s work to a close.

“I’m Ayesha,” she said.

Around the circle they went, speaking their names into the shared space.

“I’m Haoyu.”

“I’m Hamid.”

“I’m Eric.”

“I’m Marium.”

“I’m Aoi.”

Raza breathed in.

“I’m Raza,” he said on the exhale, feeling his spine sink deeper into the recliner.

The embod stood as witness, hooked up to its recharging station. It was a strangely fragile form, soft against the clean-lined bank of monitoring equipment that took up an entire wall of the room.

I am part of this too, the embod seemed to say when Raza looked toward it.

Its face was his own. A prop skull lay jauntily at its feet.

Raza smiled.

They came to see Raza before the flight.

The theater-making detritus that had littered the rig room had been packed away. The chatter from the rehearsal room had stilled. The monitoring bank glimmered along one wall, but the embod itself wasn’t connected to its station. It stood near the entryway in a customs-approved transport container, its face visible through a clear panel at head height.

I’m going with them, Raza thought.

He looked around at the ensemble. They stood in traveling clothes, backpacks slung over shoulders and duffel bags dropped at their feet. Ayesha’s desert boots were soft on the floor as she stepped forward to press a kiss onto Raza’s forehead. Behind her, Eric winked.

“Who’d have thought, eh?” he said.

“This one, obviously,” said Raza, cutting his eyes toward Ayesha and flicking up a brow.

Ayesha lifted a shoulder but didn’t deny it. It had been a grueling three months since the final approval had come through: a blur of logistics and review, certification and press, and endless, endless rehearsal. The ensemble had fought hard to keep their production unchanged. What they performed might have felt, at times, like a compromise, but how they performed it was negotiable only amongst the ensemble-members. The scenography, the directorial choices, the situated specificity of the costumes, the intimacy of the staging—these they had shaped and reshaped together.

Now, they were going to take their production to space.

“Orbital premiere,” Eric said, shifting the strap of his backpack. He opened his mouth again, then closed it.

“Break a leg,” Raza said. “All of you.”

He looked around at their gathering, then past them at the embod in its orbit-approved hauler. His face looked back at him.

“You too,” said Ayesha. “We’ll see you up there.”

They picked up their bags, one by one. A cadre of Corporeal Co. techs filtered into the rig room as the ensemble trickled out. Raza watched as two of the techs attached motorized wheels to the embod’s hauler.

He listened to Arlo Jimenez as they wheeled it out.

Eric exited, stage left, Polonius’ kameez flapping.

Raza readjusted his visual receptors. He stepped out, moved through his blocking toward the stage edge, found his mark. Before him was an audience a thousand strong. They were a mix of permanent and rotating staff, of visiting dignitaries and the orbital press corps. Beyond their fuzzed-out mass, sharply in focus, were the stars.

He felt the light on his synthetic skin. He breathed in, deep.

“To be,” Raza began, on the exhale.

The rest followed.

Author profile

Ahmed Asi is a PhD candidate at UC Santa Barbara, where he studies roleplaying games as community-based performance. He holds degrees in theatre and dance and a diploma in classical acting. When he isn’t all-but-dissertating or teaching, he can be found sketching and experimenting with writing fiction. This is his first published story.

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