Louise ate without really tasting the food, glad to have something warm to eat that she didn’t have to make (or heat up) herself.
“You know,” Penelope said without looking her way, “you could just stop taking the pills. For now. Until I can figure it out.”
Louise was suddenly alert and her brain was singing with adrenaline. It was howling a single word: NO. The idea of going back to the way she’d been, that plodding, abject half-life, filled her with horror so visceral she thought she’d have to run for the bathroom to lose her breakfast. As her panic slowly ebbed and she regained reasoned thought, it also occurred to her that she had no idea what would happen to the established neuronal substitutions Cognizoid had already built if she stopped taking the drug.
Penelope, apparently concerned by her silence, turned to look. Louise blinked at her, was startled by the tears that had risen at the thought of returning to her life of two weeks ago, and wiped her face. “I… don’t think that would help,” she said at last. “I could stop taking them, but I don’t know how long the effects linger. And… well… I don’t want to stop taking them.” She looked at Penelope with as much wordless appeal for understanding as she could manage.
Penelope just grunted, nodded, and turned back to her screen.
Louise finished her breakfast, feeling guilty and greedy. If they did manage to kill her, Penelope would feel guilty for not managing to figure out the hack before it happened. She could try it. She could see if everything in her brain would just come apart and keep her out of the VR and safe. She could trust Penelope to come to her when she succeeded and remind her to start taking them again…
“Well, I have another idea,” Penelope said.
“Yes?” Louise said.
“I could see if I could figure out how to upload you.”
Louise stared at her, mind racing. “Upload me?”
“Like them,” Penelope said, waving vaguely at the screen. “Like Vic and his buddies. Like Sheila claimed they’d do for her. Though I’m betting she isn’t going to be anything but dead when her body goes.”
“Do you think you could arrange to upload me like that?” Louise said.
“Their framework has to be out there,” Penelope said. “Wachelski was always a sloppy sonuvabitch, and he’d be too proud of it to take it apart. I’m betting it’s stored where the rest of their persistent code is stored. And I have some things in place that would let me trace that.”
“Oh, my dear, I was one of the top deep-frackers in the business,” Penelope said. “What do you think all that water in the tortoise was about? It’s soaked into the codescape and been feeding pings back to me to let me know it was in place. All I have to do is push it a little and I’ll have most of the location information associated with the VR.”
Louise smiled. “Well, why don’t you look into that then,” she said, not really thinking about the possibility. She was so very tired, bone-tired. Her skin ached where her clothing touched it.
Penelope had heard the tone of her voice, though, and was looking at her with a penetrating sort of gaze. After a moment, she turned her wheelchair and moved into her bedroom, from which came a commotion that Louise, after a few moments of listening, interpreted as a search for something.
She longed to put her head on her arms and sleep, and that was pretty much the only thing she could think about. I want to sleep. I mustn’t sleep. I’d give my right arm for a nap. I mustn’t sleep.
Penelope eventually emerged from the bedroom pushing a heavy, wheeled, steel cabinet before her chair. Louise stared at her for several moment, stupid with exhaustion, before she got up to go help her with the thing.
“Put it at this end of the sofa,” Penelope said, and she went back into her bedroom.
Louise wrangled the thing into place just as Penelope reemerged with some wires, a couple of steel plates, and two pillows.
“If I had time and materials,” Penelope said, plugging the plates into a panel on the cabinet, “I could do this right. But this will have to do.”
“What is it?” Louise said, blinking.
“It’s a clumsy piece of crap I built from scrap twenty years ago,” Penelope said, “but it creates localized interference in wireless. Lie down with your head at this end.”
Louise managed to grasp that this would allow her to sleep safely, and very nearly fell onto the sofa. Penelope framed her head with pillows and positioned the panels behind them. Then she reached over to the control panel.
“I’m going to turn it on now, Louise,” she said to her sleepy guest. “You tell me if it gives you feedback or anything.”
Louise nodded, and was terribly relieved that when she heard the switch go, nothing seemed to happen. Penelope snorted, then wheeled over to her table, where the box she’d used the day before still lay. She picked it up and looked at the tiny screen.
“You’re good: not transmitting at all,” Penelope announced. “You go to sleep, and you stay asleep until you’ve had some rest, woman. I’ll keep an eye on you.”
Exhausted, childishly comforted by the idea of Penelope watching over her, Louise obeyed almost instantly.