“There’s your list,” Penelope said that afternoon, running a bunch of names up on the screen, each with little biographical summaries under them. “The six suicides. And the rest of the patients.”
“You’re amazing,” Louise said, settling down in a chair and staring at the screen.
“They’re 99% rich guys,” Penelope said, more than a little anger under her voice. “Company CEOs. Bigwig scientists. Inventors. Politicians. Some guys who were only good at being rich. You know the type.”
“Only 99%?” Louise said, reading and not really teasing.
“I exaggerate a little,” Penelope said. “There’s a couple of charity cases. There may be some other folks in there.”
“So those six with stars are our suicides?” Louise said, pointing.
“Yep.” Penelope did something and another window moved forward listing just those six with photos and slightly more biographical information.
“I recognize that one,” Louise said, a little outraged. “Wasn’t he the wetware entrepreneur whose company killed a bunch of people?”
“Oh, but he’s a genius,” Penelope said sarcastically. “And there’s this one, who made his bundle running a company that contracted services to the military.”
“A genius, I’m sure,” Louise said, continuing to scrutinize the list. “And, wait, this one’s familiar too.”
“Chemist,” Penelope said. “I looked him up. He was the father of the Better Thinking CEO.”
“Who’re the other two?” Louise said.
“This one, Monroe, was Wachelski’s buddy and chief rival,” Penelope said, circling the name with the cursor. “He wasn’t as big an ass as Wachelski, so he wasn’t as successful. But you’ve seen elements of his work in desktop computers everywhere.”
“And the other?” Louise said.
“Think tank boy,” Penelope said. “He got into one of the big-picture government think tanks right out of college and stayed there until his brain started to go.”
“Okay, here’s our sixty-four thousand dollar question,” Louise said, leaning back in her chair. “Why would six geniuses kill themselves upon getting even some of their marbles back?”
Penelope sucked her front teeth in annoyance. “Who knows about these boy wonders? Maybe the drug didn’t work that well for them.” She eyed the list again, turned her wheelchair toward Louise, and said, “Tell me about this virtual reality you find yourself in at night.”
So Louise did, every scrap of detail that she could summon, starting with a description of the view from the roof of the castle, to the interior of the building, to the folly. Penelope kept interrupting to ask her questions like, “Can you smell anything there? What kind of smells? What time of year would you say it was? Does your voice sound like your own? What did the snake look like? What did the package that came out of its mouth look like?”
Louise answered them all, though she found the questions about tactile sensations a little embarrassing. She’d thought she was too old to be embarrassed. But she mentioned Deniece’s comment about sensation being more intense on higher doses of Cog.
When the description was done, Penelope sank into deep consideration, and finally said, “Do you want my expert opinion?”
“That’s why I keep coming back here,” Louise said. She suddenly realized that she was hungry and took a molasses cookie from the nearby plate.
“In my expert opinion, then,” Penelope said, “I think you actually are in a virtual reality, and one that has the hallmarks of being designed by Wachelski. The atmosphere, the theme, the little details, the stupid magical girls, they all fit him. It’s everything he ever could do with the tech he had and everything he wanted to do but couldn’t because of tech limits, according to his sizeable body of theoretical work.”
“What the hell is it for though?” Louise said. “You cannot persuade me that it’s just a playground hospice thing. For one thing, if that’s all it was, it should be for the boys. And there’s too much of a sense of purpose with those stupid fights.”
Penelope rubbed the bridge of her nose. “See if you can get to another of those fights. What do you see now you’ve got your sea-legs in there? Find out what some of the other women see.”
“You suspect something,” Louise said. “Something to do with those hackers collectives.”
“You bet your bunions, old lady,” Penelope said. “I’m starving. Let’s have some supper. Quiche good for you?”