When Louise opened her eyes, she was drenched in sweat and her heart was pounding.
“Okay,” she said aloud, sitting up and swinging her aching bones out of bed, “I could do that shit all night. But the real question is should I? No, definitely not.”
She peeled herself out of her sodden pajamas, reflecting wryly on the familiarity of the sensation, despite the fact that menopause was thirty years behind her. Then she dragged into the shower and basked in hot water that did little to alleviate the body pain.
A careful rubdown with a towel and all her morning pills later, and she felt nearly human again. She sat at her screen and checked Penelope’s schedule. It was Saturday, so she didn’t have PT that morning. Still, it was awfully early to go over. Louise examined the contents of her kitchenette and was disappointed in that she really didn’t have ingredients so much as prepared food. No making cinnamon rolls and bringing them over. Instead, she sat down to a dull breakfast of cereal and juice and tea, and tried not to fret about Deniece too much.
She made herself wait until 10 am before she went out for a morning constitutional that ended at Penelope’s door.
“You look like warmed-over shit,” Penelope said as she let her in. “Do you think these active nights are actually giving you any real rest?”
“Well, last night certainly didn’t,” Louise said. “I need you to check on someone for me.”
Penelope shrugged, took the recording box from Louise, and wheeled herself deftly over to her media center. “Who?”
“Deniece,” Louise said. “She was the first person I got with the vaccine last night, and that damned Sheila managed to stab her in the back.”
Penelope nodded, connected the box to the media center, and flipped up some panes onto her screen. “Speaking of Sheila,” she said casually, pointing Louise into the kitchen, “I heard something interesting.”
Louise poured herself some tea and slid into a chair with a sigh. “What?”
“A mutual friend said that Sheila had serious depression after Vic died,” Penelope said, skimming through lines of text. “Damn, woman, you were busy last night, weren’t you? That’s a nice chunk of women freed up. Anyway, friends and family were concerned that she was slipping mentally, so they were really pleased when, out of the blue, her doctor put her on Neures-Q and Cognizoid.”
“That must’ve been after Cog was approved with the registry and warnings and all,” Louise said. “A couple years later?”
“Probably, she didn’t say,” Penelope said. “Deniece was the first, you said? Then I’ve got her in my logs. You want her medical chart?”
“Sure,” Louise said tiredly.
The chart flew up onto the screen, and Louise skimmed it. The important part was that Deniece was still alive, despite having a disturbed night and refusing to go back to sleep. Louise sighed her relief and waved her thanks.
“Have you had breakfast at all?” Penelope said, scowling menacingly.
“Yes, yes, I had some cereal,” Louise said. “But I was thinking about what you said, and I’m wondering if I really have been getting any rest. I wonder if that’s why so many women sort of linger in the VR. They’re napping all day long, trying to make up for the nights.”
“I’m going to make you some proper breakfast,” Penelope said, moving her chair into the kitchen.
“Okay,” Louise said. “But go on with what you were telling me.”
“Right, well, she got on Cog and ‘became like a different person’, my friend said. Full of drive and ideas, being incredibly pushy toward the board of directors, forcing alliances with different companies, acting independently to get the company a military contract.” Penelope started up her rice cooker and cracked eggs into a frying pan. “I had to extract most of this from my friend after she said that thing about Sheila being different. But I thought you’d be interested.”
“Well, that matches up nicely with what happened last night,” Louise said, and then she related her bizarre conversation with Sheila-Vic.
Penelope whistled. “That is some seriously weird shit.”
“Right?” Louise said, rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Now it sounds like he wasn’t just… I don’t know, riding her in the VR, but maybe he’s possessing her outright in the real world?
“Well, I’d wondered how all those arrangements got made.” Penelope slid some slices of bacon into the pan with the eggs. “The people who make those contracts aren’t likely to take kindly to mysterious emails, or worse, words just appearing on their computer screens. I mean, Sheila was the president of the company and all, and she wasn’t a slouch in administration, but she wasn’t the kind of ‘idea person’ who does sales pitches. Vic always did those.”
“No, you’re right, it makes sense,” Louise said.
“So he says they can kill you even when you’re not consciously in the VR, huh?” Penelope said.
“He claims.” Louise scowled at her hands, noticing that the palsy was worse than usual. “Can he? Through your vaccine?”
Penelope pursed her lips thoughtfully and flipped the eggs. “I can’t figure out how to shut down the wireless connectivity. I don’t see anything in the code, but there must be something I’m missing.” She gave Louise an angry, helpless glance over the kitchen island. “I’m sorry, I’m a daft old woman these days. Far from my prime.”
“You’re damned smart and you’ll figure it out,” Louise said. “The problem is whether you can figure it out before the deadline.” Louise slapped the table mockingly. “Oh, I’m just such a card when I’m tired.”
Penelope snorted and served some rice onto a plate with the eggs and bacon. She wheeled over and put it in front of Louise. “Eat. And I’ll think.” She went back to her screen and stared at the logs she’d left up.