by Fred Warren -
He was conscious, though he lacked objective evidence that this was the case. No light, no sensation of heat, cold, pain, or pressure on or within his skin. No odors, either pleasant or offensive. No lingering flavors within his mouth, not the faintest whisper to stir his eardrums to life.
If his heart was beating, he could neither feel nor hear his pulse.
Am I dead?
He was thinking, at least. That he was able to methodically catalogue the utter absence of any sensory feedback bore witness to cognition, if only via a slow and feeble synaptic spark.
There was memory, too. He had an identity: John Milton, resident of Avenir, businessman. Wait…that wasn’t quite true. He’d abandoned that life for something else, something new, something…no, someone…
The Dreamers. That was it. He was being wired into the virtual reality inhabited by the Dreamers. He’d taken the long, spiraling journey into the heart of the Avenir station, where he was led into a brilliant white space. He’d disrobed and entered a life-support pod, there was a sharp sting, and the light faded into nothingness. Until now.
Something was wrong. Anya said he’d awaken into a world both vivid and boundless, as subjectively real as the mundane, sterile, hopeless environment of Avenir, but so much more. So much better.
Myriad horrifying possibilities began scampering about his mind, pursued by a fear that ever-so-slowly took form—lithe, feline, and clawed—from somewhere deep within his imagination. It crouched and bristled, ready to pounce. What it ensnared would become real.
He needed to take a deep breath, steady himself.
He couldn’t expand his chest to pull in a fresh lungful of air. He couldn’t even tell if he had a chest or lungs to fill with air. He was drowning in a viscous soup of nothingness.
He screamed, soundlessly. Again and again and again.
A wave of calm spread over him then, for no particular reason and from no perceptible direction. It didn’t matter so much anymore that he couldn’t feel himself breathing. Something tickled inside where his head ought to be. Something familiar…
“What’s the matter? What does that alarm mean?”
“His heart and respiratory rates were spiking. I gave the big baby a shot of sedative to settle him down until I’m ready to activate his neural net.”
“It’s been a long time since anyone’s tried to plug an adult into our network, Victoria. A panic attack isn’t an unreasonable reaction to sensory deprivation.”
“It should feel restful, like floating inside a cloud.”
“That’s easy to say. You were integrated as an infant, so you can’t imagine how it must feel to someone who’s lived his entire life outside virtuality.”
“I remember exactly what it feels like. I loved it. In fact, I was really upset when they brought me online and I had to deal with all that noise and confusion again.”
“How could you possibly…”
“Did you forget who you’re talking with here? I’m precocious. Okay, all the connections are in place, self-check complete, statuses green. Time to light him up. I’ll engage the cycle extra-slow so we don’t kill him with sensory overload.”
“Yeah, he may be a whiny baby, but he’s the most interesting thing to happen in Paradise for the past five Foundings. There’s one thing I don’t get, though.”
“Why did you bring him in? I mean, he’s smart and devious and all that, but there are plenty of colonists who are more tech-savvy, and I would’ve expected you to find some kind of electronics wizard to take over Communications.”
“It’s…well, it’s complicated. I wanted someone who could hold his own with Aziz and the others, someone who understands the social and political dynamics of both Avenir and Eclectia. Well-rounded. Someone like that.”
“Then why not a politician? Admit it, Miss Sherikov, you’re sweet on this clodhopper. You know I’m going to find a cure for you, so you’re planning ahead. You want a boyyyfriend. You looove him. You want to…”
“I want…nothing of the sort. You’re being ridiculous. I suggest you refrain from further speculation on my motives, and stay focused on the task at hand. How much longer until he begins to regain sensation?”
“Oh, he’s been able to hear us for about three minutes or so.”
“He…what? Victoria Remsen, you little laska! I’m going to deactivate your sensory inputs, permanently!”
“Take it easy. Maybe he won’t remember. Or, maybe he will.”
“Hee, hee… Moving on to the sense of touch.”