Lines. A grid of intersecting lines. Texture like birdshot through fine white paper. I moved my eyes. The glare was blinding at first. Blue sky and the leaves of a tree resolved through a window. Where am I, I thought. Woven in between the beep, beep, beep of my heart, I heard my name.
“Lydia, are you there?” The sound came from a woman in white who I recognized as my doctor. Her name escaped me, but the knowledge that I was in a research hospital dawned—I had volunteered for bio-augmentation. I was here by choice.
The far-away voice came again, “Can you tell me your first and last name?”
“Lydia—Ah—Lydia Boleyn,” I said. My voice sounded raspy, like bacon frying in a pan.
“Yes, that’s right. What’s your birthday, Lydia?”
“Um—October 6th, 2023.”
“Right again!” The doctor said brightly.
“What can you see?” She asked. Her tone turned probing and intense.
“A hospital room and you, doctor,” I replied, “a cart, an empty bed—” My words came more quickly now, but the sound of my voice rang strangely in my ears.
“Good! Okay, now listen closely. Don’t say anything aloud. Instead, I want you to think, display up. No words, just form the thought carefully in your mind. Display up,” she repeated.
I closed my eyes and commanded D-I-S-P-L-A-Y UP in silence. Fluttering my lids open, I tried once again to focus on the doctor’s face.
Dr. Abigail Strand floated in the air above her. On the good edge of my peripheral vision, another block of words scrolled. Biomedical Data - Lydia Boleyn appeared over the text, underneath, a string of information:
Heart rate 85
Systolic blood pressure 120
Diastolic blood pressure 74
As I gazed around the room, new information popped in and out of existence. Light level, media options, a biography of the doctor. I focused on the sliver of pillow I could see through the opening in the hanging curtain circling the neighboring bed. Unoccupied appeared in the air.
“What do you see?” Dr. Strand prompted again.
“I—I see everything. Whatever I focus on—I can search for information by just thinking about it. Whatever I want to know comes back. It’s incredible, doctor!”
“Good, Lydia! How exciting! I should have waited until you were cleared for testing. You’ve just come out of surgery. But congratulations. You’re our first successful Neurolink patient! Rest now. Here, I’ll give you something to sleep.”
The tray on top of the steel cart next to my hospital bed rattled as Dr. Strand reached for a syringe. The words Fentenayl blinked above the needle. She inserted the metal tip into the tubing of my IV bag and pushed the plunger. Warmth spread up my arm and hit my body like a cresting wave. The beeping slowed and I began to float. My body dissolved away, weightless and buzzing.
I woke to a dark and empty room. Garden lights along the path outside the window twinkled in the winter air. The monitor screen stood guard, tirelessly beeping.
Display up, I thought in a mental whisper.
Low Light flashed in the center of my vision for a moment. I banished the text with a thought. Biometrics reappeared and scrolled out of the corner of my eye. I closed that too. I glanced at the empty bed next to me.
Occupied? That’s strange. I couldn’t see anybody. Just the same pillow and bedsheet through a partially drawn privacy curtain.
Must be an error, I thought.
The low flowering ground cover under the path lights outside my darkened window drew my attention. The blossoms glowed an ethereal pale purple in nests of inky green. Without a clearly defined command, only a vague curiosity about what was planted outside, the words appeared.
Hedgifloras - Common Spreading Petunia
A tall, flickering shape on the edge of my sight caused the data to disappear. The source of the glitch was on the empty bed. I hadn’t been looking in that direction, yet the outline seemed real. It had an emotional presence. Now bolt upright, every hair on my forearms stood on end. My scalp tingled.
Slowly, I turned.
Occupied flashed on my display again.
A fast creeping sensation ran up my sides.
Occupied by whom? I thought.
Elevated blood pressure flashed in red and the vital signs monitor sounded a warning. The alarm grew louder and change in pitch. All hell broke loose. Within seconds nurses swarmed like bees. They checked screens and shone lights into my eyes.
“Are you all right?” One of the night staff asked.
“There’s someone in that bed! Right there!”
“No— there’s not. You’re alone in here. There’s no one else staying in this room,” said a confused nurse.
“It said occupied,” I said to no one in particular.
“Who said that? Do you mean your display told you someone was in that bed?” The nurse asked.
“Ya—Yes. But I saw something too. Like a human outline. Just for a second.”
“It must have been your imagination. This room has been unoccupied for over a month. It took a while to find you. Suitable Neurolink candidates are hard to come by,” the nurse said.
“What happened to the former patient in this room?”
“Let’s get you sedated. It’s 3 a.m. We need the doctor to run a system analysis on your XR implant in the morning. Your blood pressure and heart rate are far too high. With brain surgery, a spike in BP can cause a stroke or worse.”
When I opened my eyes again, it was morning. The memory of the petunias and their Latin name floated to the surface of my consciousness. Then I remembered. The privacy curtain was now open, and I could see with certainty that the bed was empty. In the daylight, it looked ordinary.
I must be going crazy, I thought.
Psychological status: Normal, read my display.
Display down, I thought.
The constant augmented reality feed was starting to annoy me. I wanted a moment alone without my new internal companion. I needed to calm down but gave up after a few minutes. My mind raced.
Display up, I thought. List the last occupant of this room.
Henry Reuter - Deceased
My breath tightened and my body closed in on itself. I had to stop the physical symptoms of my fear or a needle-wielding nurse would come in and put me to sleep again. I knew what to do. I dropped my shoulders and willed myself to breathe deeply. Mind slowing, the rising numbers on the screen next to me began to reverse. Heart rate. Respiration. Good, I caught it in the nick of time.
Show me Henry Reuter, I thought. I studied the bed. Nothing.
Show me Henry Reuter, I thought again.
Just as I turned away, the outline I had seen before tickled the edge of my perception, paler in the light. I took a deep breath.
“Henry,” I said aloud, not looking directly at the shape.
“Yes,” came back, barely audible. Maybe it was in my head, maybe not.
“Henry, are you dead?”
“Yes,” he said.
“The dead must stay dead,” Henry said.
I whipped my head around to look, but the shimmering outline vanished. Shy, I thought.
“Henry,” I said aloud, “Come back. What do you mean?”
Nothing. No outline. No voice. He wasn’t coming back. After a moment, I swung my feet back into bed and lay my head on my pillow. Deep in thought, I absentmindedly studied the acoustic ceiling tiles once again.
Go to the morgue, blinked across my display.
I sat up.
“Henry, is that you? What do you mean? Why?” I asked an empty room.
Door code: 4546
Door code? Am I locked in here? I hadn’t paid much attention to the keypad on the door of my room. Curious, I slid my feet to the floor, peeled off the adhesive on my hand, extracted the IV, and padded over. A jiggle of the handle confirmed that I was indeed a prisoner. I punched in the code that Henry had given me and the mechanical lock clicked open. Shit, I can’t walk around in a backless hospital gown, I thought.
The only furniture in here was an armoire and a small set of drawers. I opened the armoire, nothing, then the drawers, empty. I was going bare-butted and bare-footed, or not going at all. The door creaked softly. No one was in the hallway. My vision filled with a map. Its sudden appearance made me retreat back into my room.
Thanks, I thought. But honestly, all of these surprises were making me really jumpy. I wanted to be home; not communicating with ghosts in my head.
Once I caught my breath, I appreciated Henry’s handiwork. The map showed the entire facility, but more than that, it showed the movement of the staff. They were little orange dots traveling the corridors. I could move with confidence. The morgue was in the basement. A white dotted line showed a route down the stairs.
Despite the dots, I moved as silently as I could. The stairwell was dark and I didn’t want to turn on the lights.
Night vision mode: ON
Did you do that, Henry
I wasn’t so sure I wanted Henry taking up a permanent residence in my head. But for now, he was a welcome guest. I could navigate the dark steps that were outlined in red and find the entrance to the subfloor.
Close map, I thought. My visual space was getting too crowded. My head ached. It was dark and silent in the basement. Arrows appeared and lit the floor like a path pointing to a door-marked morgue.
Door code: 8810
Inside, it smelled of formaldehyde. Glitching shapes beyond my peripheral vision were multitudes now. It felt like Henry was among them, but there were so many. I wasn’t used to the virtual dead, but at least I knew who they were. In night mode, I could see that two of the refrigerated storage chambers were open and the autopsy tables were occupied. Vital sign monitors glowed blue, but still—heart rate, respiration—all flat-lined.
Map up, I thought.
No living person was remotely near me. All the little orange dots were busy on the above-ground floors. I could safely turn on the lights.
I gasped. A gruesome scene replaced the night vision. The autopsy tables were being used for unhurried surgery. The skulls of the bodies had been sawed open and the brain cavities lay open. Electrodes dotted the exposed grey-pink matter. One body was clearly female, the other, male. A partially installed cybernetic exoskeleton encaged the body of the woman. Bone screws penetrated the skin of her arms and legs.
I needed you to see for yourself, scrolled across my display.
Do not allow them to reanimate us. If they succeeded in reconnecting our separated consciousnesses with our corporal bodies through the Neurolink, the result will be an abomination. The earth is in danger. Please destroy us. They mean you harm. Set this place on fire, and get out.
The words whizzed by and the emotional force behind the message filled me with dread. Henry was begging me. He was desperate. I needed to destroy this place. Blinking outlines and instructions flashed everywhere, My head pounded and my legs were weak.
Oxygen, acetylene, ethane, propane
Disarm fire extinguisher sprinklers
Emergency exit stairwell
I raced around the room as if I were a puppet controlled by Henry. The other shapes added information to my feed too, but they were not as strong as him. I open the values on all of the tanks and lit the burners.
Was I having s stroke? The world started to go dark. No, it was the gases mixing together. I stagged for the exit stairs and flung open the doors. A waft of fresh air gave me a second wind. I burst into the garden trampling the petunias on my staggering run to the edge of the forest. The fireball was a searing ballon of air. The force of it lifted me off the ground and tossed me past the treeline. My head hit the trunk of a tree and the world went black. My eyes opened to vivid blue with whisps of thin clouds floating by. With the passing clouds, a final message unfurled.