They won’t even let her die
Spencer and Alanah are neo-luddites who have as little to do with technology as possible. But when Alanah is in an accident her wealthy family aren’t willing to let her die the way that Spencer knows she would want. The only person who can keep her from a fate worse than death is him, but does he have what it takes to say goodbye to his wife forever?
Clack-click, clack-click, clack-click-ding!
The typewriter was loud enough that he couldn’t hear her music in the kitchen. The rhythm reminded him of a steam engine.
Spencer pulled the finished page out of the roller and put it on the pile beside him, which was growing taller by the day.
Next to the manuscript, there were three sealed envelopes. Two of them were to be sent to Paul next time he saw a post-box. The third was addressed to himself. He opened it and took out a pile of well-used ten pound notes and a letter thanking him for his latest articles.
He shook his head and stood up. Paul could wait until tomorrow for a reply. Now he was tired and hungry and the smell of whatever Alannah was cooking had found him at last. He switched off the light and went to the kitchen.
The music (Elvis? The Beatles? The Stones? He didn’t know enough about the era to tell them apart) was loud. Alannah’s shadow danced across the wall. Spencer listened to her singing the words that she knew and mumbling the parts that she didn’t.
He put his hands on her hips and caught the rhythm. When the song finished he kissed her and made as if he was going to carry her to the bedroom.
She broke the kiss and playfully pushed him away. “Later. Dinner’s almost ready.”
“What is it?”
“A little of this, a little of that.”
“It’s Spanish. Tapas,” she said, as if that cleared up any confusion. “Go and sit at the table. I’ll bring it through.”
He slid the volume down on the record player as he passed. He wanted to hear her talk while they ate.
She placed small bowls and plates, that he didn’t even know they owned, around the table. “I borrowed them from Adam and Nick.” Her upper lip curled into a snarl and she added: “I think they printed them.”
“Okay,” he said, amused by her reaction. True, he wouldn’t have wanted a 3D printer in the apartment, but he also wouldn’t have wanted a pottery studio. He could still use the product without approving of the production.
“I finished another couple of articles for Paul.”
“And the book?”
“Another few pages.”
“It’s going well then?”
“I guess,” he said, not wanting to talk too much about the idea while it was still fragile.
She filled her plate with items from around the table while Spencer poured them each a generous glass of red from the bottle she had opened earlier.
“How was your day?” he said.
“That bad? Anything in particular or…”
Alannah shook her head. “You know what it’s like.”
The last time he’d worked for a corporation, AR and VR had been toys. Now they were part of the material of things. Alannah didn’t even have a computer monitor. Instead she had AR glasses that turned her whole office into a screen.
“Are we still going to the village next weekend?” she said.
“If you want.”
“I need to get out of the city,” she said.
Spencer nodded. He understood and empathised. If she needed time away then he was more than happy to take her.
“Mum tried to call me at work,” she said.
Spencer scowled. He hadn’t expected the conversation to turn sour. He reached for his glass and drank half of it in one go. “What did she want?”
“To meet up tonight.”
“Where did she want to meet?”
Alannah shook her head. “Not ‘meet’. Online.”
“Oh.” That made more sense. He didn’t think Diane was even in the country. “What did you say?”
“You didn’t answer her?”
“I was at work. She knows I don’t socialise online. If she wants to talk she can write a letter. Or come and visit. She wanted to pay for us to have a projector installed.” Alannah shook her head. “As if I want her showing up here unannounced whenever she feels like it.”
Spencer continued to eat while she listed the reasons why her mother’s latest act had annoyed her. His job was to sit there, listen and agree. A job that he performed well.
After dinner, he washed up while Alannah opened a second bottle of red and put on some slower music. When he went into the living room he found her stretched out on the sofa reading.
She put down her book and looked up at him. “I’m going to bed. Do you want to join me?”
Spencer took her hand and led her into their room. They made love and then fell asleep entwined in each other’s arms.
The knocking continued and became more urgent. Spencer put down his notebook and pencil and opened the door.
A man and a woman in identical blue uniforms stood in the hallway. They had small cameras in the middle of their chests and a variety of non-lethal weapons on their belts. Their eyes flickered back and forth behind transparent goggles, reading information about him, watching feeds from the three drones that hovered behind them like humming birds.
“Mr Cartwright?” the woman said. She didn’t make eye contact with him.
“Your wife is Alannah Cartwright?”
He nodded again.
“We’ve been trying to reach you on CloudUs.”
“I don’t use it,” he said. He’d created a profile while at college, but hadn’t checked it in years.
The woman glanced at the man. It was the first genuine human contact he’d seen since opening the door. In that moment, which lasted only a fraction of a second, they were both in the same place, experiencing the same thing.
“Can I help you with something?” Spencer said.
“Yes,” the woman said, regaining her distracted normality. “I’m afraid your wife has been in an accident.”
Spencer was silent. His mind had wound down like faulty clockwork. He didn’t feel anything.
“Did you hear what I said Mr Cartwright?”
She expected him to emote more, it was what she was used to. The camera on her chest was recording him and A.I. was analysing the footage, flagging his lack of response. A message on her goggles was telling her that he should be considered suspicious.
“What happened?” he said.
“There was a car crash.”
“Alannah doesn’t drive.”
“Of course not sir.” Nobody drove anymore.
“She cycles,” he said. Alannah refused to travel in autonomous cars and busses.
The woman nodded.
“How bad is it?”
“That isn’t for us to say.”
“Is she… is she going to…”
“She’s alive,” the woman said. Unsaid, but still clear, was the proviso ‘for now’.
“Can I see her?”
“I’m sure that can be arranged. She’s at the Berks Free Clinic.”
Spencer considered asking if they would take him there, but they were walking away before he got a chance.
He closed the door and stood silently in the flat. He expected to feel as if something had changed, but that would come later.
He walked out of his apartment in a daze. There were people everywhere, but they didn’t see him and they registered as no more than background colour to him. Usually he wondered how people could live in such a state of distraction, but now he was one of them.
He stopped beside a woman at the side of the road. She had a double buggy with two small children and two small screens. While the mother’s attention flitted back and forth between the various feeds on her glasses, the two children stared at their own feeds. They were so still that they might have been mannequins.
“Ninety seconds,” the woman said.
He didn’t know if she was speaking to him. Other people seemed to know the difference between physical and virtual communication, but he didn’t. Perhaps there was an application that told people when they were being spoken to in the real world.
“The bus,” she said. “Are you here for the bus?”
Spencer nodded. He didn’t feel capable of actual speech.
“It’ll be here in a minute,” she said. Then her eyes glazed over and she was gone.
A minute later a white, pill-shaped object glided silently into view. The other vehicles slid seamlessly out of the way to let it stop in front of the woman. She wheeled her buggy onto a platform which lifted her inside.
Spencer climbed in after her and a display flashed red warning him that it hadn’t been able to take payment. Usually Spencer preferred not to use privatised money, but the bus didn’t accept anything else. He fished out his bank card and held it out to the reader. The display changed to green and wished him a pleasant day.
He walked past the dead eyed passengers, and found a seat at the back. He stared out the window as the grey world flashed past. Every time he managed to forget where he was going, the knot in his chest tightened and provided him with guilt to go along with the fear.
The journey took no time at all.
Inside the hospital Spencer found a dusty information kiosk and managed to work out where Alannah was being looked after.
There were two lines of traffic. A mixture of people standing on buggies, sitting in wheelchairs, and walking with the aid of exoskeletons. Spencer appeared to be the only one not clutching a branded drink and walking under his own steam.
A man wearing a lab coat was waiting for him outside the ward. He wasn’t wearing glasses or contacts, but his eyes were an unnatural purple colour which suggested he had ocular implants. “Mr Spencer?” the man said.
“It’s Cartwright,” he said. “Spencer is my first name.”
There was a momentary pause, buffering film, and then the doctor nodded. The exchange was challenging for him, he was used to getting information through wireless protocols. If it was anyone other than Spencer standing there, then he would have access to everything there was to know about him.
“And you are?” Spencer said, because the man didn’t look as if he was going to introduce himself.
“Dr. McKee,” he said. “We have her in a private room. It’s this way.”
Spencer followed him into a silent anti-chamber. Everything was grey, but no one saw it that way except him. For everyone else it would be overlaid with colourful images, highly tailored to their individual history.
“I suppose you’ve seen footage of the incident?” Dr. McKee said.
It hadn’t occurred to him that footage would be available, although it probably should have done. It wasn’t only the police who wore body cameras, everyone in the vicinity would have uploaded their recordings straight to CloudUs. If he wanted to, he could watch the whole thing from a thousand different angles.
“No,” he said.
“It was a nasty business. A taxi A.I. failed apparently.”
“Were other people hurt?”
The fact that no one else was going through this felt very lonely.
“We’ve done what we can to make her comfortable.”
“Is she awake?”
Dr. McKee stopped. He wasn’t used to delivering bad news. “She’s not awake,” he said. “The accident was quite traumatic.”
Spencer didn’t want to consider the possibility that Alannah was gone, but that seemed exactly what he was being asked to do.
“Shall we?” Dr. McKee said.
He nodded and followed the doctor through the door.
The room was dark, except for the lights blinking on the medical equipment. The only sound was the whisper-gasp of the pumps that allowed her to breath. Her body was at sharp angles and there were plastic tubes coming out of every orifice.
“I’ll wait outside,” Dr. McKee said. “When you’ve finished, there are some things we need to discuss.”
Spencer heard the door close and reached for Alannah’s hand. A thick needle pierced her pale skin. He squeezed gently but she didn’t squeeze back.
He watched her face but she didn’t react. She lay with her eyes swollen closed and bruises blossoming across her cheeks. He squeezed her hand, bowed his head and allowed himself to cry.
Dr. McKee indicated that Spencer should sit in one of the chairs opposite him.
“Ordinarily I would give you more time to deal with what has happened. But it is imperative we move quickly. There are a number of treatments we could try, including surgery or nanobot injections. Unfortunately, I don’t believe that traditional treatments are going to make a difference in this case.”
Dr. McKee leaned forwards and seemed to look through Spencer.
“Mr Cartwright, I am part of a research project which might be able to help. You are familiar with CloudUs, of course?”
“What you may not be aware of is their experimental platform, ResearchUs.”
He had never heard of them, but was immediately suspicious that a company as vast and wealthy as CloudUs was funding any research. They had a vested interest in just about everything.
“They have developed a social platform in which it is possible to live full time. It functions in much the same way as the real world, only with the usual enhancements.”
“You want to upload her to a social network?”
Dr. McKee buffered for a moment and Spencer realised that he was part of simultaneous conversations. “It isn’t a social network,” he said. “At the moment, the platform exists in isolation, strictly for medical research. And we don’t upload anything. Her body remains in a secure storage facility where she will be taken care of. She accesses the platform via a neural lace which we implant.”
Spencer could see the difference, but he wasn’t sure it mattered.
“I understand that this is difficult for you,” Dr. McKee said. “You should take some time and think it through. Not too long though. We find that after a few days it becomes very stressful for the patient to wake up in the virtual environment. Ideally the transition should happen as quickly as possible.”
“How many people are on it?” Spencer said.
“At the moment? One hundred and forty-seven. The beta trial is coming to an end shortly and then it will be available to everyone with suitable insurance.”
Spencer wondered what it cost to buy a second life. He thanked the doctor and told him that he would consider it.
“Mr Cartwright, just so we’re clear, if you choose not to go ahead with this treatment, there is only one possible outcome. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” Spencer said.
“Then I look forward to hearing from you shortly.”
When he woke the next morning, he couldn’t remember how he’d gotten into bed. Instinctively he reached out for Alannah, but she wasn’t there. She never would be again.
He left the flat as soon as he was in a fit state to do so. He couldn’t stand to be surrounded by memories of the life they’d built together.
He considered going back to the hospital, but the thought of it made him feel sick.
The biting cold took his mind off everything. He walked past grey buildings, amongst strangers who didn’t see anything except the flashing lights in their eyes.
Spencer pitied them, but, for the first time, he also envied them. He had no way to take his mind off what was happening to him, no way to take away the pain.
He passed the old library. Its windows were boarded up, the sign on the door announcing its closure was faded to pink. Pigeons clustered around the windless entrance, no one had cleaned away their droppings for years.
The high street was a wasteland. Most of the shops had closed, the few that remained only sold VR and AR rigs. He stopped outside one and looked in. A man dressed in a black shirt was talking to a teenage girl, both were wearing glasses, in two places at once. A shiny new thing on the table between them.
Spencer didn’t need to know anything about the girl or the shiny new thing to know that it wouldn’t give her what she needed. The promise of modern technology was always the same: the next thing would be perfect, the last one you needed to buy. Until the next shiny thing was released. All it would give her was an empty promise and hollow experiences. He turned away from the window and kept walking.
Somehow the day passed and he found himself on the street outside his flat, digging his keys out of his pocket. He didn’t notice the dark shape loitering in the hall ahead, until he was too close to do anything about it.
He stopped, keys in hand, poised in front of the door. “Paul?”
Before he knew what was happening, the other man’s arms were around him, squeezing firmly. He smelled of weed and beer. “I’m so sorry,” he said.
The apartment felt less lonely with Paul there. Spencer brought him coffee and they lit a joint.
“How are you holding up?” Paul said.
“I’ve been better.”
“What did the doctor say?”
Paul leaned forwards.
He didn’t want to discuss it. Doing so would make it real. It would also force him to decide what he was going to do next.
“You can tell me. You know I’m here for you.”
Spencer took a long pull on the joint and found his voice at last. When he had finished Paul looked pale and red eyed. “Jesus,” he said. “That’s the worst thing I ever heard.”
Spencer doubted it, Paul had his own share of tragedies, but he appreciated the sentiment. He handed what was left of the joint back to him.
“You know she wouldn’t want that?” Paul said.
“Being trapped in CloudUs would be her idea of hell. She’d rather you let her go.”
He thought that hearing that would be upsetting, but in a way, it was a comfort. He had come to the same conclusion, but hadn’t been able to trust his grief stressed mind. Hearing Paul speak his own thoughts back to him, made them easier to hear.
It seemed to take no time at all to reach Alannah’s ward. Dr. McKee was waiting for him. The room was exactly as it had been on his previous visit, with one exception: the ghostly form of Alannah’s mother hovering in the middle of it.
“Diane?” Spencer said.
“Spencer,” she said. Her voice came from speakers hidden around the room, rather than the translucent figure in front of him. “You took your time.”
“Where are you?” he said.
She looked at him blankly for a moment, her attention elsewhere. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. But Spencer thought that it did.
Diane turned to Dr. McKee. “What’s the delay?”
“Delay?” Dr. McKee said.
Their conversation had the quality of a pantomime, they were having it for his benefit.
“She should be in CloudUs. I should be able to talk to her.”
Despite her aggression, Spencer could see that she was upset. Beneath the technology, she was a mother, desperate not to lose her child. He stepped towards the hologram.
“Diane, you know she wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know how she felt about technology. Living in a virtual world would be a nightmare for her. She’d rather die with dignity.”
Her mouth opened and closed, but no sound came from the speakers. If she had really been there, then he would have taken her hand. “You’re going to kill her?”
He shook his head. “The car killed her.”
“But you can bring her back.”
“She wouldn’t be alive. She wouldn’t be able to do the things she loved. It would be hell for her.”
“Hell for you, you mean. A wife you can’t touch, a wife who will force you to stop living like a cave man and join the real world. I suppose you’ve already picked a replacement, have you? Some whore from that commune of yours?”
He was taken aback by the venom. The idea of replacing Alannah was the furthest thing from his mind. And, as far as he could see, he was the only one of them living in the real world.
“I’m not going to let you do it,” she said. “Dr. McKee?”
The doctor didn’t say anything.
“I want you to put her into the trial,” Diane said. “You have my permission.”
Dr. McKee looked at Spencer.
“You can ignore him,” she said. “I’m giving you permission.”
“Unfortunately, I can’t ignore him,” Dr. McKee said. “He’s her registered next of kin. The decision is his.”
Spencer didn’t know how long the silence between them lasted, but when he looked at Diane again, she seemed to have calmed down.
“I’m on a flight to England,” she said. “Please, whatever you decide to do, wait until I’m there. If she’s going, then I’d like to be able to say goodbye, in person.”
He nodded and told her that he would wait.
“I don’t suppose there anything I can do to change your mind, is there?”
“Nothing,” Spencer said, and it was true. Having been forced to defend himself had strengthened his conviction and he was now certain that it was the right thing to do.
Spencer walked to the hospital. The world remained grey and ordinary. It was two-thirty when he arrived, giving him thirty minutes before the letter advised he was to meet Diane.
He bought coffee from a man who seemed flustered to be spoken to, and mildly pissed off to be presented with cash. He sat at one of the small tables and stared at the skeletal trees through the window. At ten to three he dropped most of his coffee in the bin and walked to the ward.
Diane was waiting for him. She seemed larger in real life, certainly more imposing.
“Where’s Fleur and Max?” he said.
“They couldn’t make it,” she said.
“Where’s Dr. McKee?”
Diane’s heels clopped as she walked towards him. She reached into her jacket pocket and removed a white envelope. “They wrote it down for you. I insisted.”
Spencer took the envelope. The paper was brittle with age. Inside there was a letter. “What is this?”
“Read it,” Diane said. The corners of her mouth flickered upwards as she supressed a smile.
He read the letter and felt his heart drop. When he was finished he looked at Diane. “I don’t understand.”
“The Judge was very dismissive at first. She seemed to believe that you were the best person to decide what Alannah would want. Even if you are technophobic. I think she may have had some sympathy. Her CloudUs profile was sparse and she made notes with pen and paper.”
Spencer wanted to read the letter again, to make sure he understood it, but he couldn’t take his eyes off Diane.
“Then I told them about Alannah’s trust fund. As her husband, you would have inherited everything. That showed you had a vested interest and then they took me much more seriously.”
“Alannah had a trust fund?”
“Yes. She was quite well off. She refused to touch it of course.”
They could have left the city and gone to live in the commune. They could have had the life they’d often spoken about.
“Once the Judge understood how much you stood to gain from her death, it was simply a case of finding a precedent for passing the decision to me.”
He recovered quickly. There was too much at stake to do anything else. “I should have been there. I had a right to defend myself.”
“You were invited, you should have checked your messages.”
The door open behind him Dr. McKee came in. “Is it just the two of you? There are usually more people to say goodbye.”
“We’re not here to say goodbye,” Diane said.
Spencer found that he couldn’t look at either of them. He felt like a child in a room full of adults. He had been tricked.
“If you check your messages, you should find one from The Court.”
Dr. McKee went blank for a moment and then a smile crossed his face. “This is excellent news. Really, excellent.”
It took Spencer the entire walk home from the hospital to decide that he didn’t want anything to do with the resurrection. He went to the kitchen, opened a bottle of red and started packing. It would take Dr. McKee twenty-four hours to prepare, by which time he would be living in the commune.
A knock on the door. Spencer looked up.
“I know you’re in there Spencer. Open up,” Paul said.
He put his glass on the table and opened the door. Paul was drenched and red faced.
“Have you got a towel?” Paul said.
Spencer went to the bedroom to get one. He hadn’t been in there since the accident. It still smelled of Alannah.
When he was dry and dressed in Spencer’s old clothes, Paul sat on the sofa and helped himself to a glass of wine.
“What are you doing here?” Spencer said.
“I heard about Diane.”
“How?” Spencer said.
“We have people.”
“What do you mean ‘people’?”
Paul sighed, as if he didn’t think he should have to explain something so obvious. “Spencer, you need to understand that the world isn’t black and white. There are shades.”
“I’m not an idiot.”
“I’m not saying you are. You’re just…”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You need to look at the bigger picture.”
Spencer shook his head. He was supposed to be grieving, not getting a lecture.
“At the moment they tolerate us,” Paul continued. “We’re eccentric freaks, but harmless.”
“Have you heard of the Unabomber?”
“Guy in the 20th Century?”
“Right. Have you read his manifesto?”
“He was anti-tech. A complete nutcase, but that doesn’t matter. The thing everyone remembers about him, apart from the letter bombs, is that he was anti-tech. As if one caused the other.”
“So, what’s that got to do–”
“I’m getting to it,” Paul said. He topped up his glass and leaned back sipping from it. “One day there’s going to be another Unabomber, maybe a few of them. You know the Primitivists? The Neo-Luddites? One day a group is going to arm itself.”
Spencer looked at him. He’d known Paul most of his life, but suddenly he felt as if he didn’t know him at all. “You’re not planning to attack someone are you?”
“Of course not. But that won’t matter. Someone will and then they’ll come after all of us.”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“If we’re going to protect ourselves then we need to know what they’re saying about us. We have to know when they’re coming.”
“So you’ve got network?”
Paul shook his head. “Not us. Never at the commune. We have sympathetic allies. People who pass us relevant information.”
“Did you know about the court case?”
Paul looked away, which was enough of an answer.
Spencer wasn’t angry. He doubted he could have made a difference, even if he’d been there.
“When are they switching her on?”
“Three o-clock tomorrow.”
Paul looked at the bags Spencer had left by the front door. “Are you going somewhere?”
“The commune,” he said. “It’s time.”
“What about Alannah?”
“Not unless you do something about it,” Paul said.
They sat in silence and Paul rolled a joint. Spencer wondered whether there really was anything he could do about it, and he knew that there was.
The street was dark. There were still some streetlights, but they were becoming increasingly rare. Most people now just switched on night vision mode. Usually it didn’t concern him, but tonight Spencer was uncomfortably aware that everyone would be able to see him, while he couldn’t see his own hand in front of his face.
Somehow, he made it to the hospital.
Nobody tried to stop him going inside. The coffee kiosk and all the shops were closed. He walked into her room and the lights flickered on. She was laying on her back on the narrow bench.
He stopped beside the bed and took her hand. If it wasn’t for the warmth, she might have been dead already.
“Is this what you want?” he whispered.
Alannah didn’t respond to the sound of his voice any more than she had responded to his touch.
“It would be easier if you could tell me.”
But the only way for her to do that, would be attached to the virtual reality system. And if he allowed that to happen then he didn’t think he had it in him to switch her off again. Regardless of what she wanted.
The light came on in the room behind him. He turned around. Half a dozen drones flew into the room and began circling around his head. A moment later two police officers arrived.
Spencer didn’t protest when they arrested him. They were likely to be augmented, so fighting would have been a waste of time.
The cell they put him in was small, but comfortable. A single bed and a toilet with a screen to give him privacy. They would still be watching him on hidden cameras, but the illusion was nice.
He hadn’t done anything worse than trespassing, and even that was debateable. They brought him food and a hot drink that might have been coffee. They talked to him. They made it very clear that they intended to hold him for the maximum 48 hours allowed by law.
Spencer suspected that was Diane’s decision. Her company had large stakes in many of the security firms that made up Police Inc. and she would have used her influence to prevent him causing trouble.
By the time he got out, Alannah would have been awake for twenty-two hours.
He sat on the thin mattress and watched the door. The room was a faraday cage, so there was no access to network. He was sure that pushed some addicts to the brink of madness, but sitting alone with his thoughts was second nature to him.
Which didn’t mean he wanted to be left alone with these thoughts.
After a while he got tired and lay down on the bed. He closed his eyes and fell into a shallow, restless sleep.
“Don’t you want to know why I’m here?”
He woke shivering, certain that the voice had been part of his dream. He wrapped the thin blanket they had given him around himself.
There was no mistaking the voice this time. He sat up, still shivering and looked around. He was alone. “Diane?”
“I need you to come to the hospital Spencer.”
The door opened. A young man walked in, twitching as his connection faltered. “You’re to come with me.”
Spencer followed the man into the corridor. The next time the police officer looked at him, it was with the glazed expression of someone sharing his attention a dozen different ways.
He got into the car that was waiting for him and minutes later they were at the hospital.
A nurse was waiting for him in the lobby. They walked together through a new maze of corridors into the oldest part of the hospital. There were still windows and the latest technology had been crudely grafted into places that had been designed for other purposes.
Diane looked at him as they approached the operating theatre. Her eyes were red and her cheeks pale. For a moment neither of them spoke.
“What happened?” he said. “Is she… did she die?”
“No,” Diane said.
She wiped her eyes, sniffed and drew herself up to full height. “You were right.”
“You were right Spencer. It was a mistake to bring her back. I’m sorry. She’s in a terrible state. I don’t know what to do. We can’t switch her off again.”
“No,” he said. “We can’t.”
“You need to talk to her Spencer. She’ll listen to you.”
“You don’t have an avatar?” the nurse said.
“No,” Spencer said.
“I’ll give you one of the default one’s and map your face to it.”
He wanted to protest. It felt like giving up a part of himself.
“She’ll want to see you.”
Spencer nodded. They were in a small room that smelled of stale skin. He was wearing one of the hospital’s VR suits because he didn’t have his own.
“And the goggles,” the nurse said.
He pulled the mask over his eyes and the nurse adjusted the straps.
The light faded in slowly until Spencer could see the room around him.
“How does it feel?” the nurse said.
He turned around slowly until he could see the nurse in the corridor. He looked bigger, a little less flawed, but still identifiably the same man.
“Try walking,” he said.
Spencer took a step towards him, then another. He couldn’t tell whether he was moving in reality or not. It didn’t seem to matter.
The corridor outside the room was familiar. It was brighter and filled with floating images telling him what he should buy to make himself feel better, what medicine he should ask his doctor about.
“This way,” the nurse said.
It was difficult to see through the visual noise. He focused on the back on the man’s head but ghostly images kept following him until he dismissed them with a shake of his head. He wondered how anyone managed to cope with it.
Diane was waiting outside the theatre. Alannah’s sister and brother were standing with her. In reality, they were on the other side of the world.
They looked at him and seemed to be speaking, but there was too much else going on for him to focus on what they were saying. The chaos of it all was enough to make him reconsider whether he could turn Alannah off now that she was awake. It seemed beyond cruel to make anyone live like this.
Then the flashing lights and muttering voices were gone. It was just him, the nurse, Diane, Fleur and Max.
“You can charge my account,” Diane said.
The adverts were gone but the corridor remained slick and modern, unlike the real one. Everything was spotless.
“Thank you for coming. I know this isn’t what you wanted,” she said.
“Is she in there?” Spencer said.
Diane nodded. Fleur and Max stepped away from the door. “Would you like me to come with you?”
“I’ll go by myself,” he said.
Her brow creased for a moment, but the expression quickly became a smile.
Spencer reached for the door handle. He felt it. Did that mean he was really there? Or was it the suit? It made his head spin. He thought that living like this would drive him mad.
Alannah was sitting on the bed with her back to him. They had done a good job on her avatar. Even from behind, he could tell it was her.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “I don’t want you to see me like this.”
He didn’t move. The room flickered around him. Displays showing her heart rate, body temperature, brain function, even sweat production, floated past. Spencer raised his hands and experimented with gestures until he managed to dismiss them. Then he ignored her request and walked towards her.
“What have they done to me?” she said.
He sat down next to her.
For a while, neither of them spoke. She reached out and took his hand. He felt her fingers between his, but they weren’t really there. They were the subtle manipulation of the pressure pads in the VR suit. It wasn’t real, but it felt like it.
“I don’t want to be here,” she said.
“But I can’t leave. Can I?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t think you can.”
She started to cry and he felt the bed moving. “What’s going to happen now?” she said. She turned towards him for the first time.
It was disarming to see her and his mouth opened and closed as if he had something to say, but no sound came out.
“What is it?” she said.
He shook his head. It wasn’t the real Alannah, it was someone else’s drawing of her. Yet at the same time, regardless of what she looked like, she was there. He didn’t know what was going to happen next, but he knew that he couldn’t leave her. She needed him now, as much as ever.
Spencer put his arms around her and she fell into him. It felt exactly like she was there with him.