[LEAH FAIRCHILD’S COMPUTER>>PROGRAM PC0.0]
Persistent vegetative state.
The doctors said that I had no awareness. They said I couldn’t recognize even my own husband.
They said it was a mercy to let me die.
Before administering the drugs that would kill me, Arien hovered at the edge of my bed. His white coat blurred before my eyes like an angel’s wings. He said it was just like falling asleep, and that he loved me.
I know he was lying.
The last thing I remember was him telling me that he would see me again soon. In heaven, he meant.
Now, those words mean something else to me.
As the drug worked through my body, shutting down my nervous system and targeting specific areas in my brain, I felt my scalp tingling along the centimeter-long scar hidden by my hair.
I never thought I’d be the first to test my own invention.
Even he doesn’t know about the data chip implanted in my brain. After mapping my neural network nanoseconds after my death, it interfaces with a virtual reality program on my computer. And if all goes as planned, he will never know.
I can’t see anything at the moment, but by now Arien has probably left the room. He stopped mourning me long after the car accident that caused my coma. Maybe the doctors are taking my body to the morgue, or doing final tests.
For all they know, and as far as Arien knows, I am dead.
But within the virtual reality programs contained on this computer, my consciousness lives on.
[THE VIRTUALHEAVEN CLINIC>>SECURITY FOOTAGE]
In the four years I’ve had to practice, I’ve managed to cut down the time it takes for me to hack into a computer network from hours to minutes. This is a new record.
I locate the patient suite on the second floor. The cameras there aren’t the sharpest out there, but it gives me a wide view of the room.
Arien lays out vacuum-sealed needles on the stainless steel tray, aligned in meticulous rows. He’s wearing blue-grey scrubs with an iron-on patch on the sleeve. It has a virtual reality headset embroidered on it.
The angle of the security cameras only allows me to see him from the back. His hair has turned grey on the sides and his waistband is about a size larger, but he doesn’t look much different from when I last saw him.
The human body, I’ve realized in the past few years, is limiting. It has a beginning and an end; it has boundaries to its capacity. But the benefits of existing as a computer program are vast. In my state, I can see through any piece of technology linked to a computer.
Arien pulls a metallic, three-inch cylindrical canister from a briefcase. He shoves it into a squat, saucer-shaped robotic device, as though it’s merely a pill cutter. It is disarmingly small. It contains several needles of different sizes and other tools.
He places the robot on the nightstand next to the patient’s bed, a single queen that fills the room, beside a vase full of cheery yellow flowers.
Pentobarbital. Secobarbital. Thinking about the drugs it contains gives me unpleasant memories.
I watch Arien walk across the white ceramic tile to the full-length mirror on the opposite side of the small room. He pauses in front of it and leans forward slightly. He’s checking his teeth, he always does that. It’s a nervous tic of his.
He steps back on one leg, and his hand strays to the neck of his scrubs. His hand goes to his hair. By the shift of his shoulders, the stance—unbelievable. Checking his reflection, at a time like this?
The opaque glass door swings open. Again, the cameras give me a bad angle, and I all I can see is a tall girl wearing an identical uniform.
She pushes a cart in front of her. It’s a rolling desk made of a black material that could be plastic or painted metal. A thin monitor projects from it. Cables and wires lie sprawled all over the desk’s little surface area, where a chunky VR headset sits in the midst of it.
The girl turns slightly, and for the briefest moment, I catch her face.
It’s the girl Arien was brazen enough to be seeing while I was still alive. He started seeing her in the last year of my life in the real world. Little did he know that I heard every phone call he had with her.
She puts a hand on Arien’s shoulder and sidles close to him. He turns his head towards her and kisses her. She begins laughing, and they both exchange a few words that leaves Arien with a smug grin.
Good thing the security cams aren’t equipped with audio. There’s nothing more disgusting than these two technicians flirting right before a mind-uploading operation. Especially the kind of operation they’re about to do—a form of physician-assisted suicide.
It took me a couple of months to find any information on Arien. The weeks after downloading my consciousness were difficult as I stumbled my way through a different world. Eventually, I found Arien working as a technician, prepping mind-uploads and testing connections for a commercialized virtual reality afterworld called VirtualHeaven.
It was only a matter of time. Someone else has discovered what I had discovered, and capitalized on it. But whoever they were, they weren’t the first. Still, no one knows I am alive. Yet.
Arien settles into the high-backed armchair in the corner of the room, opposite the door. The girl—her name is Rachel—sets the monitor level with her eyes and begins tapping keys.
Technicians work in teams of two. One monitors the technical aspects and the other observes VirtualHeaven through a headset, which Arien is doing now.
I track Arien’s movements as he places the headset over his head.
The VR headset controls all the senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch. It offers a completely immersive experience, disconnecting the person from the real world.
In essence, a VR headset renders one helpless.
I’ve spent a long time planning for this moment.
From the dark simulated sky, rain patters on the pavement, filling the space between rich laughter, thick conversation, and strolling footsteps. It’s a cool rain, not too cold, but not warm either. The streetlamps reflect vast swathes of light over the sidewalk. Lazy leaves cast cookie-cutter shadows, black against the light.
VirtualHeaven is the cutting-edge VR world on the planet. That’s my personal opinion.
I assume the body of a background character who is shopping with her friends. After breaking off from the group, I move to stand under the awning of one of the brightly-lit shops.
Arien stands at the street corner, wearing a nondescript, dark rain jacket. Light from the streetlamp frames him in a sliver of falling golden rain.
I stand back in the shadows. Arien stands frozen in time, completely oblivious of my presence. Entering a VR world is momentarily disorienting for humans.
It will take him upwards of two minutes to acclimate, which gives me just enough time to begin fragmenting my consciousness.
Part of me controls the avatar in VirtualHeaven, and another part of me watches the security cameras. I monitor several devices in the patient suite.
It’s the closest thing to omniscience there is.
Rachel is still standing next to Arien in the real world. That part is easy. I leave a text message on the monitor calling her down to the office. She kisses Arien’s head, and he nods. She leaves the room.
It’s not that difficult to hack into the monitor. And once I control the monitor, I control the robotic device sitting on the nightstand.
It’s too easy.
I turn my attention back to VirtualHeaven. Arien stirs. He walks down the street with his hands shoved deep into his pockets, just any pedestrian on a fine night like this. By the time he crosses the empty road, I am waiting for him at the street corner.
“Hello, Arien,” I say. “It’s been a while.”
Arien’s blood runs cold.
The background avatars shouldn’t be interacting with him, since they aren’t programmed to do that. He is simply observing through a headset.
It doesn’t matter. This avatar shouldn’t know his name.
“Do I know you?” he asks.
Her dark hair falls around her hazy form. As though he’s in a dream, he can’t see her face. He feels her eyes watching him, sensing the hint of a frown on her lips. Somehow he knows her. But who exactly … he can’t place it.
“Of course you know me, Arien.” Her careful enunciation ends on an acidic note. “Let me jog your memory a bit.”
She pauses, holding his gaze with a steadiness that unsettles him to the core.
There’s something familiar about her. The way she carries herself, the way she speaks. It fills the pit of his stomach, solidifying as it consumes him.
“Leah,” she says. Bitter disdain leaks in between the syllables.
Arien’s mouth runs dry, his heart thundering in his chest. He doesn’t know why.
“Who are you?”
It’s just a dream, Arien reminds himself, just a dream. You’re only sleeping. And you had a nightmare again. Don’t worry, you’ll wake up soon.
“Who are you?” She mimics Arien’s voice, almost perfectly. “Leah Fairchild, virtual reality programmer. Least of all, your former wife.”
“Stop it.” In the real world, his palms are sweating. His breath comes, each one shallower than the last. “I’m getting out of here.”
The streetlamps cast an orange glow where her eyes should be. “Try.”
It should be easy to reach up in the real world and pull off the headset. But his hands … his hands don’t move.
“You can’t do anything to me,” Arien says, to reassure himself. He grows more certain. “You’re just an avatar with Leah’s face. Some creep probably got it off the Internet.”
“It’s already too late.” Somewhere, there’s a smile hidden in Leah’s words.
It’s a little harder now to get out the words. Arien struggles. “What did you do to me?”
“Oh, it’s easy,” Leah says. “I had time, and I’m patient. I’m used to it. Rachel got a call down to the office. She kissed you and told you she’d be right back. Don’t worry, she will be.”
“But you won’t,” she continues. “And then I reprogrammed all the equipment in the patient suite to do what I wanted them to. That vial … well, you know the rest, Arien, you do this every day.”
“It’s not like that.” Hot rage flashed inside Arien’s chest, but it quickly cooled. His voice shook slightly. “We allow our patients to die with dignity. It’s their choice. They would suffer too much if they lived. Don’t you get it? It would be cruel to make them live. I’m not a murderer if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
“I can’t believe you.”
You realize that there was no way out, right? Arien thinks. You realize that I was spending thousands of dollars every month, dollars I didn’t have. And you were long gone. Long gone. You died in the car accident.
“I did,” he choked, “what was best for you.”
“Best for me?” Leah scoffs. “Liar. I heard you, Arien. I heard every conversation. I heard you talking to Rachel as you sat at the edge of my bed. I heard you tell her that you loved her. I heard you plan your wedding, right in front of me, even when I was still alive. And if you ever thought that by my death, your problems would go away, you were wrong.”
He remembers, now. Just little bits, snapshots.
Things he tried to forget.
Leah, nightmares, the crushing guilt.
It was the little things that triggered it: needles, tiny metal canisters, the vague momentary paralysis of falling asleep.
But he forgot it before, and he will again. He drifts off into empty darkness.
It’s an odd dream. He’ll wake up soon.
[PERSONAL PROGRAM>>VR AFTERWORLD]
Arien’s muscles slacken as the drug works its way through his bloodstream, slowing the activity of his brain and nervous system.
I watch Arien through his VR headset, through the unattended monitor, through the robotic device clinging to his skin. Using the device, I place metallic probes on Arien’s wrist, feeling his pulse slow. I sense the numbers on the monitor change, one by one, until each readout becomes a zero.
He lies very still, his head resting on the back of the armchair.
To transfer a person’s consciousness into a virtual world, the brain must be scanned immediately after death. I use the equipment in the room, and before long, the transfer is complete.
I redirect his consciousness data into an afterworld of my own.
It is a simple room. The walls are white, with one wall made of opaque glass, and a single hospital bed filling the room. At one end is an armchair. Beside the bed sits a nightstand, with a small vase of yellow flowers atop it.
Beside the bed, I wait for him.
A hand brushes Arien’s cheek, soft as a feather.
So it was a dream, after all.
Opening his eyes involuntarily, he expects Rachel’s smile to greet him. But something feels strange, deep in his chest. A vein of ice snakes coldly through his chest, raising his senses to full alert.
An IV slithers out of a port in his chest.
Rachel’s concerned face fills his vision, and she grasps his hand.
But he can’t grasp back.
Realization sinks in, grabbing deep and not letting go.
He’s paralyzed. He can’t respond. He can’t speak.
“I can’t believe you’re gone,” Rachel says, tears trickling from the corners of her eyes.
This is just a nightmare. I’ll wake up … I’ll wake up soon.
The transformation begins with her hair. The color shifts to a darker hue, the locks taking on coffee color highlights the way paper catches on fire. And next, her skin, then her face, and lastly, her eyes.
Stop it. Stop it.
A wry smile invades the new face, Leah’s face. Her body continues to morph, as though small creatures are moving under her skin.
He can’t scream, he can’t move, he can’t leave.
Leah continues to smile.
“Welcome, Arien,” she says, “to VirtualHell.”