Leaning in with my eyes closed, I breathe him in. I open my eyes, relax, and sigh his scent back out. He doesn’t quite smell the same out here. It could be the hospital, his diet combined with a glandular condition, or maybe just my own basic perception. Most likely, it’s the small confines of the drawer that makes him smell this way. The smell is sterile, but stale. He looks the same as he always does, basically. Sure, he’s a bit thinner, but not much. There’s also the light pink scar above his ear that runs about 6 inches, but besides these basic aesthetic variations what else could be expected? He’s been in a coma for 12 years.
My hands glide to the front of the smooth brushed steel drawer and I gently slide it back into the form-fitting grid. Some unseen mechanism grips the drawer before it can slam against the inside wall and seals it shut softly with a subtle latch. In this particular room, the bodies are stacked in drawers 3 high by 5 wide. My belief is that it was the architects’ intention to try and keep some privacy on the physical bodies or perhaps to minimize the realization about the number of patients here. Most relatives and friends don’t come to view the physical remnants however; they come to interact with their loved ones on the dreamNet.
I’ve been working in this Allentown facility since my mother arrived back in 2101 from Charlotte. It was a pretty typical car crash. The linking system in her car had failed and, due to her age, she could not regain manual control at that speed. It happens more often than people think since the news doesn’t report it. The local news cycle has gotten so tight, a story like that would blip out of the feed almost immediately. In her condition, she was immediately rushed up here for insertion. In the new economy of health care, it’s just easier to plug in the physically injured to the dreamNet rather than spend years taking care of their fragile bodies. Forget about waiting for recovery; just let them be anything they can dream of. There’s a guy on the second floor who’s a dragon and a woman on the third floor that’s a dolphin.
The rural countryside of eastern Pennsylvania has been transformed into a gigantic metropolis over the past 30 years, as have the other few locations around the country which now play host to these special hospitals. As a natural evolution of capitalism, an entire economy has been built around these patients. Their minds are still very active and they are engaging participants in society. Surprisingly, many hold the same repetitive jobs as they did in the real world. Since the dreamNet is hooked into the Internet, why not? Data is data, whether from your brain or a computer.
George has found a more lucrative existence; creating media content and aggressive advertising campaigns using the horsepower in his brain. He was a marketing executive by trade and would travel the world selling ideas. One summer night, his private plane crashed shortly after take-off. This left him in a comatose state. Since Allentown is the closest dreamNet facility to New York, he was brought here. George improved his craft immensely without the constraints of reality, creating advertising content that companies would eat up. He pioneered marketing strategies within dreamNet as well. After all, the economy is just as vibrant in there as in the real world, albeit for virtual goods and intellectual property.
I met George through my mother. Her projection of herself on the dreamNet always disturbed me slightly. I could never get used to her being so young. It was like looking in a slightly off reflection of myself. She was dating George, but I’m not sure he knew her real age. You can’t ultimately escape time in dreamNet though, eventually, your body shuts down and you depart for the next plane of existence. My mother was already old when she got here and only could make it to last year.
I could see what my mother saw in George right away. He is a young and creative mental creature. Not to mention extremely well off. George has an understanding about people, too. It’s his most appealing attribute. He always says or does just the right thing, which I suppose stems from his knowledge of marketing. Despite the inherent nature of advertising to be deceptive, he’s very honest and open. After my mother passed, I found comfort in his arms. Even though it’s against policy, I’ve been spending all of my time online with him. I’ve even found an out-of-service visitor room up on the fifth floor that I repaired myself. I can go in whenever I want and be undisturbed.
As I walk down towards the nurses’ station, I hear someone playing a news feed. For the third month in a row, there’s a filibuster to block shutting down the dreamNet facilities. The closed door sessions of Congress don’t reveal much, but the bloggers can fill in the gaps. This particular news feed shows a map of various facilities around the country with a time lapse overlay of suicide rates for the past several years. It’s clear in the radiating circles that there are a growing number of suicides nearby. The reporters downcast looks are now insinuating people are committing suicide to get in. How would one even go about doing that? I’d suppose a short fall from a window would do the trick, but there’s no scientific analysis or even precedent for survival rates. There are quite a bit of self-inflicted cases coming through here lately and many do seem to have relatives or friends already in-house. We never really get all the details though.
I peer closer over the nurse’s shoulder to watch, as a small group has now gathered at the station. Most of them here out of concern for their loved ones, but also their jobs. The feed shows rioting around the Colorado Springs facility. I haven’t been following the politics too closely because I can’t imagine any centers would be shut down. Thousands of patients would be unplugged and left to linger in archaic hospital rooms. dreamNet has spent a fortune in counseling programs, hardware, and upgrading broadband infrastructures across North America. How could anyone dispute the benefits?
I decide that I’d like to keep living in a somewhat blissful state of ignorance regarding this issue. As I turn away, one of the nurses scowls at my look of disinterest, but there seems to be more there. Could she know what I’m up to? I’m very careful to cover my tracks. I head quickly up to the fifth floor and my private visitor’s room, locking the door behind me. I lie down on the thin plastic bed and place the interface over my head, carefully aligning the nodes.
George and I have this one spot where we like to meet. It’s a construct of an Italian village where my mother used to live as a child. George is already waiting here, which is unusual for him. He’s so busy, I typically have to search him out. I’m relaxed again at the sight of him sitting on the concrete edging of the fountain. I turn away and face the warm sun. I find it just setting just over a nearby hill, when suddenly George hugs me from behind and showers me with kisses on my neck.
I turn around and kiss him back. George breaks away, smiles and, pointing his finger skyward looks as though a thought has suddenly occurred to him. In my peripheral vision, I see an early 19th century photographer appear, holding up an old style flash. George drops to one knee and proposes to me without haste. I pick him back up and let my kiss be the answer. I can hear the flash burst. Of course, it’s just for show. We part lips and I breathe in deep and smell the scent of the strawberry milkshakes like they used to sell at the corner deli near my house in Charlotte.
The photographer walks over and hands George the picture. Before his hand can let go, he simply fades away back into George’s memories. George smiles proudly at the picture and hands it to me. This memory will last as long as we’re both alive. I know this is me in the picture, but all I see is what George sees – the projection that I put forth. The picture is of my mother, young and as beautiful as ever, kissing him on this Italian cobblestone street in the waning daylight. It saddens me a little, but then I look into George’s eyes and know this is right. We embrace once more and head off into the creeping darkness together.