Opening my eyes felt like the hardest thing I’d ever had to do, as if they hadn’t been opened in years. It was a strangely nostalgic feeling.
As my blinking eyes adjusted to the light, I began to take in the room around me. It wasn’t anywhere I’d seen before, looking like a cross between an office and someone’s living room. I was weirdly okay waking up in a completely unknown environment.
I was lying on a couch, staring up at the ceiling. Opposite the couch was a desk, and the most comfortable looking office chair I’d ever seen, currently unoccupied. Bookshelves covered every wall, the shelves sagging a little under the weight of heavy textbooks and medical journals.
Was it a psychiatrist’s office? Why on Earth would I be here? More importantly, why didn’t I remember how I got here?
Well, maybe that’s why you’re here in the first place.
I cringed at my weak attempt at humour. Somehow, it didn’t seem the time.
The only door to the room opened, and a middle-aged woman who seemed to be greying prematurely entered. She was dressed like someone who’d been told to wear business casual without really understanding what that meant, more so than just forgoing a tie. Too formal to look comfortable, not formal enough to look corporate.
She smiled at me as she closed the door behind her, and sat in the chair behind the desk. I sat up groggily, feeling unexpectedly sluggish.
“How are you feeling?” the woman asked, her voice gentle and kind. “Do you remember who you are?”
“I’m fine,” I lied. “And yeah. My name is Tamsyn. I’m, uh, not really sure how I got here, though. Or where here even is.”
The woman tried to smile reassuringly, but it was easy to see she didn’t want to say whatever it was that was about to come out of her mouth. I could guess that she had bad news to deliver, but I wasn’t quite expecting what she said next.
“You’re sick,” she told me. “Some kind of viral infection, we think. Honestly, we’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s attacking your nervous system. By the time we caught it, you’d already lost control of most of the muscles in your body. You weren’t even conscious when they brought you in. When we finally got you conscious, you couldn’t even move your mouth.”
Images flashed through my mind. Sitting alone in my room, feeling inexplicably tired. My limbs feeling heavy, unresponsive. Collapsing to the floor, trying to shout but barely able to conjure a whisper. Lying there for hours, terrified and alone. My mother finally finding me, calling the ambulance, rushing to the hospital. Waking up again, unable to move, even to open my eyes. The fear and panic that gripped me, strangling me. The gentle but unnatural peace of sedatives pumped into my system.
“I feel fine,” I repeated myself. Compared to those memories, it was true. I could move, I could talk, I could probably stand up if I wanted to. A miraculous cure?
No, that didn’t make sense. The tone was wrong. She didn’t seem celebratory, she seemed morose. She was delivering bad news. The penny dropped.
“This… isn’t real, is it?” I asked, barely able to get the words out. We’re online right now.”
None of this was real. A virtual reality simulation, just another part of Eden. This wasn’t my real body. All fake.
“That’s right,” she said, too softly. “Your brain, thankfully, seems unaffected. And your neural interface still works. It was the only way to reach you.”
I could feel the fear returning, but it felt distant, muted somehow, like it was happening to someone else. I didn’t like it.
“We’re in a private simulation,” she continued. “Just you and I. You’re safe here.”
“Why am I talking to you before my family?” I demanded.
“My name is Doctor Swanson,” she said gently. “I’m a psychiatrist. Your family weren’t sure what sort of…. Condition you would be in, after you learned what happened. We all decided it would be best to have me break the news, and to talk you through it.”
“Is there a cure?” I asked, already expecting the answer.
“No,” she said, unable to meet my eye. “Not yet. Maybe some day.”
I let out a slow, ragged breath. Everything still felt uncomfortably distant.
“So I’m a vegetable. Can’t move. Can’t even talk. That barely upsets me. Why?”
“Right now, you’re on some pretty powerful drugs,” Doctor Swanson said with a sigh, looking down at the floor. “They’re suppressing your emotional responses. Another safety precaution.”
Right. That made sense. That’s why my feelings felt so far away. Maybe that would have bothered me, but I wasn’t really capable of feeling bothered, not until the drugs wore off.
“Okay. So what happens next?”
A painful silence.
“There are really only two options,” Swanson said, reluctantly. “You’re physically incapable of looking after yourself. I’ve already talked to your family, and they can’t afford to maintain hospital support for long. However, there are financial aid plans available for renting the necessary machinery for home usage. It’s still expensive, but your family believe they can manage it.”
Great. A life of lying in bed whilst my parents wiped up my drool, growing more and more resentful by the day. Fantastic.
“And the other option?”
“So far as we can tell, the virus isn’t lethal,” the doctor said slowly. “It won’t kill you. It’s also almost entirely undocumented, so if you were to pass on…” she trailed off awkwardly.
“Yeah, I get it,” I said, following her. Euthanasia was illegal, and she couldn’t even suggest it without risking legal action, but if she was just subtle enough about it, well…
I had to admit, it was a powerfully tempting offer. From a rational perspective, which seemed all I was really capable of while the drugs quashed my emotions, it seemed like the best choice. It was better than an empty life that would never amount to me being more than a burden on my family.
“I’ll give you some time to think about it,” she said. “I’ll come back to talk to you again once the drugs have worn off, and you can think a little more clearly. For now, I believe your parents are very eager to see you.”
I just nodded. She got up, walking over to the door again. She opened it, disappeared out into whatever was behind it, leaving me alone for a few minutes. I could only guess that she’d disconnected from the simulation, and was talking to my parents in the real world.
Eventually, there was a knock at the door. It opened, and the doctor led my parents in.
Unlike me, they were under no emotional inhibition. Neither of them could hold eye contact for more than a few seconds without bursting into tears, and I spent more time comforting them than anything else.
We tried to talk about what we were going to do, but it was obviously too soon for either of them to think clearly about it, so we decided to just put it off, at least for another day or two. Health insurance would cover a couple more days at the hospital, so we basically had until then to decide.
The rest of the time, they just held me, passing me back and forth between them, not saying much. I felt so bizarrely detached from the whole situation, like none of it was real. I kept thinking that I would wake up from it, or something would suddenly change, or someone would jump out from behind the desk and tell me it was all a prank.
An hour later, completely exhausted, I bid my parents farewell, as they disconnected from the simulation I was more or less trapped in. At least it was something, though. I could move around, pick things up, talk to myself. If I really wanted, I could pull a book off the shelves and read it. If nothing else, it was better than being trapped in my own body, motionless in a hospital bed, so I was glad they let me stay inside of it.
There was a phone on the desk. Out of curiosity, I tried picking it up, and dialled a friend, just to see if I could. The line was dead.
“Figures,” I muttered. “Guess I’m stuck talking to myself, then.”
“Or you could talk to me,” a voice behind me said, startling me. I spun around to see a young man leaning against the wall. He had striking yet peaceful blue eyes, and a gentle smile.
“Another doctor?” I asked, putting the phone back on the desk.
“Not exactly,” he said. “I am a doctor, but I’m really more of a scientist than a healer. Neuroscience and digital/neural interfacing. I helped the device you’re using to be here right now, in fact.”
That probably would have impressed me, if I was capable of feeling impressed.
“Okay,” I said. “And why are you here right now, if you’re not here to help me?”
“Who says I’m not here to help you?”
“Does your neural interface device cure nerve-destroying viruses?” I asked, a little more snidely than I’d intended.
“No,” he said, sounding genuinely disappointed. “I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do about that.”
“Then I’m not really seeing how you can help me,” I said.
“You might, if you listen to what I have to say.”
I sighed, and sat myself back down on the couch. It wasn’t like I had anything better to do, though I really didn’t feel like company, despite my previous statements. I was tired, and all I wanted was some peace and quiet, and maybe a nap.
“Alright,” I said. “Talk to me.”
He sat down in the desk chair.
“Before today, how much time did you spend online?” he asked. “In Eden?”
“I dunno,” I said, not really wanting to admit I spent pretty much all of my waking hours online. “Maybe like eight hours a day?”
“More like eighteen, but that’s okay,” he said, smiling as I cringed. “So now, let me ask you something. What are you doing right now?”
“Well, depending on your perspective, I’m either lying in a hospital bed, not moving, or I’m sitting in a fake office talking to a complete stranger.”
“You’re also online,” he said. “Now, I know this isn’t Eden, but it could be. Your body may not be functioning, but your brain works just fine, and that’s all that Eden needs.”
That idea had occurred to me, if only briefly. It wasn’t without merit. I could run around and be active all day, even while my body atrophied and decayed in a bed. It didn’t change the fact that I’d still be a huge emotional and financial burden on my family.
“Sure,” I said. “And who’s gonna look after my meat sack of a body while I’m online? I can’t do that to my family.”
“You don’t need to,” he said calmly. “There are more premium life support set-ups, ones that will take care of everything. You wouldn’t even need to live with your family.”
“Okay, look. I’m sure you’re just rolling in cash after inventing the device that like, eighty percent of the world uses to get online now, but most people can’t really afford that kind of high-end medical equipment. Especially not me. I barely even have a job. And again, my family-“
“I’m really not talking about your family here,” he said, interrupting me. “And I know all about your financial situation. You’re a beta tester, running new Eden content before it’s publically released, to make sure it’s functional and bug-free. It doesn’t pay particularly well, but the thrill of seeing new content first tends to attract a certain level of interest anyway.”
I frowned, concerned that he knew that much about me.
“And you know that how, exactly?”
“Because I’m interested,” he said, as if that answered the question. “So let me make you an offer. I’ve already transferred enough money to your savings account to pay for one month of in-home medical care. Your family don’t need to know where that money came from, if you don’t want them to. In your Eden avatar’s mail, you’ll find the co-ordinates of a place where you can find work that pays a lot better than your current job, and can be conducted entirely within Eden. By the end of the month, you can be making enough to pay for the medical care yourself, pay me back, and still afford to move out and take care of yourself. Sound good?”
Sounded too good to be true. There had to be a catch.
“Sounds great,” I admitted. “Also sketchy as hell. Look, it’s a generous offer, but I’m really not interested in getting involved in criminal activity to pay for my medical bills. I’d rather just die with what little dignity I have left.”
“There’s nothing criminal about it,” the man said, standing up. “Though I know I won’t be able to convince you of that, not here and not now. But like I said, the money has already been transferred. There are no conditions attached to that. So at the very least, live out your one month, okay? You can check the job out yourself, and make your own decision about whether it’s criminal or not. You can even look for any other work you might be interested in.”
I shook my head, still feeling a little emotionally stunted. Everything he was saying seemed completely unbelievable. I didn’t know what to think.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why would you help me like this?” I clarified. “Assuming, of course, that you are helping, and not just trying to trick me.”
“Oh, there’s no trick,” he assured me. “And as for why, it’s honestly kind of personal. Suffice to say somebody I loved went through something similar, and suffered through a great deal of pain and effort to show me the value of life. Now I want to do the same, for as many people as I can. It’s… it’s all I have left.”
“Enigmatic and depressing,” I said. “Fine, I’ll bite. Not like you’ve given me a choice. And, uh, so long as this isn’t complete bogus, or a drug-induced hallucination, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Thank me if we ever meet again. That’s when I’ll know I’ve done the right thing.”
“Whatever you say,” I replied. “Weirdo.”