by Fred Warren
“This interface provides much less fidelity than a fully-integrated network connection, but we’ve found it useful as a means of conferencing with outsiders from time to time.”
Cyborgs assisted John as he shuffled to a contoured couch and lay down. The full-immersion helmet permitted a narrow, foggy, green-tinted view of the room, and of Anya’s holographic image standing to one side. “It’s like a gaming rig, but it’s a lot heavier,” he wheezed. Tubes and wires ran from the suit to a conduit in the ceiling, high above. He felt like a life-sized puppet. “I can barely move in this thing.”
“I think you’ll find this simsuit is more sophisticated than the ones you’re used to. Of course, when you experience the hardwired connection, you won’t be able to distinguish it from real life.” She turned away. “I have a few more preparations to make, but I think you’re ready to enter our virtuality now. I’ll see you inside.”
“Wait. I still have questions…”
Anya motioned to a cyborg sitting at the control panel. “Activate the interface.”
John’s muscles convulsed, and a wave of vertigo tunneled his vision, then expanded it to infinity in a rush of color and light. As focus returned, he found himself standing in a bare, white room containing a table, a chair, and washbasin with a mirror. There was a single door, closed, and the doorknob didn’t turn when he tried it.
He looked down at himself. He was clad in a thin blue gown that tied at the back. His arms and legs were stylized , smooth and hairless, like a doll’s, but the hands and feet had the proper number of fingers and toes. Turning to the mirror, his own face gazed back at him. It wasn’t a perfect image, maybe a shade more lifelike than the virtual-reality games he had played as a teenager. Dark brown hair, parted at the middle, green eyes, prominent cheekbones, a trace of stubble at the chin.
“Hello, Mister Milton. Welcome to Paradise!”
He spun round. Smiling up at him was a little girl wearing a pink-pinstriped dress, white pinafore, and a square cap emblazoned with a wide, red cross. A stethoscope was tucked into a pocket on the pinafore.
He couldn’t help but grin back. “Paradise, eh? I thought it would be bigger. Who are you, and where’s Anya?”
The girl tilted her head, light-brown curls bouncing with the motion. “I thought you would be taller. I’m Doctor Vicky. Miss Sherikov is arranging your meeting with the other Commanders, and she said I should see to your examination in the meantime.”
“Anya said nothing to me about an examination. Is this some kind of joke? You’re just a kid.”
Her smile vanished, and her eyes narrowed. “I’m ten Foundings old, and I’m the Avenir Medical Officer. Sit on the table so I can begin your examination.”
“Listen, Doctor…Vicky? Nobody’s examining anything on me until I see Anya.”
“Hmm. I guess Miss Sherikov forgot to tell me you’re a moron. Get on the table. We can do this the easy way, or the hard way. Makes no difference to me.”
John slid himself into a sitting position on the table, clutching the gown tightly around him. “This can’t be right. It’s…it’s indecent.”
“Mister, if you’ve seen one avatar, you’ve seen ’em all, and that goes double for this piece-of-junk interface you’re using. I’ve got stuffed animals with more physical detail.” She pulled the stethoscope from its pocket, set the prongs into her ears, and pressed the diaphragm onto his chest.
“Hey, that’s cold!”
“Shut up. Lungs clear, heart function good, slight hypertension, minor plaque buildup on the aortic wall.” She reached up on tiptoe and set the diaphragm against his throat. “Some narrowing of the carotid artery, but that’s easily reamed out.”
“What do you mean, ‘reamed out?’”
“Do I have to tape your mouth shut? Bend over so I can reach your head. EEG recording…complete. Hmm. A couple of freaky spikes. I’ll take a closer look at that later. Mm-hmm…intracranial pressure normal, pituitary normal, thyroid normal. You can sit up straight now.” She moved to his stomach and frowned. “Wow, you’ve got the liver of a sixty-Foundings man. What have you been drinking?”
“It’s killing you. Stop it. Now, turn over.”
“This thing is open at the back. There’s no way I’m letting you…”
“Okay, the hard way, then.” Vicky began rolling up her sleeves.
The door opened, and to John’s great relief, Anya entered the room, cradling a large datapad. Like his own image, her avatar wasn’t nearly as realistic as the hologram he was familiar with. She was dressed like a secretary, in a burgundy suit, and her red hair was pinned into a conservative bun. “Ah,” she said, “I see you’ve met our Doctor Remsen. Victoria took charge of Medical and Life Sciences after her father’s death, two Foundings ago. We would have liked her to have more time to ease into her responsibilities, but she’s doing a fine job. She’s extraordinarily bright.”
“I wish you’d call me Vicky. Victoria makes me sound like an old lady.”
“You’re an officer now. We must maintain decorum.”
“Whatever.” Vicky pointed at John. “He won’t cooperate with the examination.”
Anya laid a hand on her shoulder. “Victoria, do you remember what Captain Aziz said about your bedside manner?”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Vicky sighed. “Less attitude, more professional.” She produced a huge syringe, with a disturbingly long needle, from somewhere behind her back. “Ahem. Mister Milton, I will need samples of your blood, bone marrow, and cerebrospinal fluid to complete your physical examination and obtain the necessary data to prepare for your integration into the Avenir Command Network. Please roll onto your stomach, as the necessary control points for your simsuit are located on your avatar’s back.”
“Wait…bone marrow? Cerebro-what?”
“This will hurt.”
Over his shoulder, John could see Vicky’s cherubic face grinning from ear to ear as the needle descended.