by Fred Warren -
“Good grief. Took you long enough to wake up.”
John blinked and groaned as the leering face of Victoria Remsen gradually came into focus above him, framed in dangling brown curls that bobbed and waved like a collection of springs--or snakes.
“Where am...oh, right. I remember. Doctor Vicky's House of Horrors. It feels like you ran over me with a forklift.”
The discomfort was real. John had to keep reminding himself he was immersed in a virtual reality simulation, and Vicky was suspended inside a life support pod somewhere nearby, practicing medicine by remote control, her brain hardwired into the Avenir computer network. She wasn't a little girl play-acting at being a doctor. She was a Dreamer, part of the legendary, hidden community that watched over the entire Avenir Eclectia colony from cyberspace--and wielded more control over it than anyone imagined. She knew what she was doing, and she was very, very dangerous.
She winked at him. “Good idea. Let's save that for next time.”
The cartoony nurse costume she'd worn at their introduction had been replaced by a modest red party dress and a white lace shawl that draped across her shoulders. She began unfastening the restraints that held him to the examination table. “Well, you may be a moron, Mister John Milton, but you're no coward. I expected you to scream like a baby when I took the spinal tap, but you didn't make a sound. Impressive, but boring. Instead of letting the pain drive you into unconsciousness, I sedated you.”
“How kind. Thanks.”
“You earned it. It also gave me a chance to start attacking your liver problem, so the time wasn't completely wasted.”
“What did you do to my liver?”
“Programmed some nanobots and set them to work reconstructing the right lobe. They should be finished in a couple of weeks. Don't worry...it won't hurt, but you can expect a little nausea mornings and evenings. Okay, maybe a lot of nausea. Anyhow, you're lucky. Without the repairs, you would have been dead inside five Foundings. As rich as you are, I'd think you could afford better hooch than that battery acid you've been drinking.”
“I only buy the best vodka on Avenir.”
“It's battery acid, and if you drink any more, I won't fix you. I don't warranty my work against stupidity. Now, get up. We're running behind.”
“Behind what?” John sat up, and nearly fell off the table as a wave of vertigo washed over him, setting the entire room awhirl.
Vicky grabbed his arm, somehow managing to keep him upright and stable. “Whoa, guess I overdosed you a little on the sedative. Take it easy. Slow breaths, in and out. You'll get your balance back in a minute.”
The oscillations subsided. John cautiously set his feet on the floor and stood up. He was fully dressed, the thin hospital gown exchanged for an expensive-looking formal suit in pinstriped gray with silver buttons, a starched white shirt and bow tie, and shiny black shoes. He tugged at his sleeves. “Why am I wearing a tuxedo?”
Vicky sighed. “The same reason I'm wearing a fancy dress. The command staff is honoring you with a welcome banquet. They're all waiting for us, and Captain Aziz isn't known for his patience. C'mon, this way.”
She guided John by his elbow to the examination room's single door and unlatched it. Bright sunlight flooded through the opening, and John could hear strange twittering sounds and a low, repetitive rush of air. He stepped through the doorway onto soft, verdant grass that carpeted a broad clearing ringed with tall, thin trees. They swayed in a warm, gentle breeze that smelled faintly sour and tangy. The leafy foliage at their crowns danced in the wind, dark green fronds that stood in sharp contrast to the brilliant blue sky. Tiny winged creatures with indigo, crimson, and vermillion plumage fluttered among the treetops. Birds. He'd only seen pictures before, on his computer display or in old, old books.
In the distance, visible between the trees, was an expanse of translucent blue, tipped here and there with frothy white. The door had vanished behind him, and as he turned first to the right, then to the left, then all the way around, he could see the water encompassed the land on all sides.
It was an ocean. A real, living ocean.
He was on an island.
There was a long table at the center of the clearing with people seated around it, half a dozen or so, talking and laughing.
Vicky jabbed his shoulder with a manicured fingernail. “Quit gawking, and start walking.”