The clock (analog, with huge numbers and little pointing fingers on the ends of the hands) said it was just past noon, and Louise’s stomach concurred. She sat down with some sweet tea, a ham and cheese sandwich from the pile of lunchboxes the cafeteria sent up twice a week, and a volume of Maya Angelou’s poetry from her bookshelf.
After lunch, she still had time for a bit of a stroll before turning up promptly at 2 in front of Penelope’s door.
“Come on in,” Penelope said, wheeling back with the door in one hand. “You’re still looking pretty chipper.”
“I feel amazing,” Louise said, stepping into the other woman’s flat. Unlike Louise’s simplified living space, Penelope had a living room, a proper-sized kitchen (with low counters for the wheelchair-bound tenant), and a separate bedroom. There were paintings on the walls, several bookshelves, a sprawling technology setup in the living room, and several digital photoscreens on various surfaces around the room. “What a nice space,” she added. Her physician’s eye noticed the two canes leaning against the wall next to the bathroom door, a glucose testing strip that had missed the trashcan, and the huge array of medication and supplement bottles on one counter in the kitchen.
“Thanks,” Penelope said, letting the door swing shut and rolling over to her ancient and admirable square oak pedestal table, where a metal pitcher sweated coolly amidst plates holding molasses cookies and two kinds of fruit pie.
Louise sat in the chair opposite Penelope, who poured lemonade into a pair of slightly crazed red “crystal” plastic tumblers and pushed one over to her guest. Louise sipped and glanced around again, and said, “You’ve got a great apartment.”
“Costs enough, it ought to be,” Penelope said gruffly. “My kids are great, though,” she added, a little softened, “and when I moved in they got it all set up just the way I told them to.”
Louise gestured at some of the photoscreens. “Is that them?” The nearest featured a striking, dark-skinned woman with iron gray hair in a braided updo who looked like a much younger Penelope, except Louise wasn’t sure she could ever envision Penelope smiling that easily.
“That’s my girl,” Penelope said almost fondly. “Followed in her old lady’s footsteps and all. The boy—” she pointed at another screen, showing a grim-faced middle-aged man with lighter brown skin in an Army officer’s uniform, golden oak leaves on the collar “—went for bossing people around the easy way. You’ve got a niece, I think?”
“Yes,” Louise said, feeling a pang, wondering if her letter had been too much, would raise too much hope, if everything would come crashing down about her ears and go back to the way it had been. “She’s in finance. She’s managed my money for years, the only way an old government employee like me could afford to be in some place like this.”
Penelope nodded, picking up a cookie and breaking it in half. “All right, Louise, we’ve done the little old lady thing. Now tell me how the hell you recognized that logo.”
“This… is going to take some explaining,” Louise said, cutting herself a slice of what turned out to be cherry pie and serving it onto a little china plate. “And I hope you plan to tell me what you’ve remembered about Cognizoid.”
“Of course,” Penelope said. “Interesting stuff, that.”
“Yeah, well, even more interesting than you could probably find online,” Louise said. She took a bite of the sweetness in a perfect crust, chewed, and swallowed, then set her fork down and said, “Do you know how it works?”
Penelope shook her head. “Tell me about it, Doctor.”
“As far as the information I’ve found claims,” Louise said, “it somehow—don’t know how yet—tells the nanobots in Neures-Q how to fill in the blanks where there used to be neurons, or where there are still neurons but the cells are damaged. Filling in missing circuitry.”
Penelope pursed her lips and nodded, reducing half her cookie to a pile of crumbs. “That fits. The developer, a guy who used to go by the online name Sodium Bicurionate, was working on wet nano for hacking live jacks, but his nano wouldn’t behave. As far as I can tell from the old posts, he got hold of some of the rats that Better Thinking was using for their nano work, managed to lay hands on some black market Neures-Q, and started playing around chemically. By the time Better Thinking’s security found him, he’d accidentally stumbled on a cocktail that made the nano do something. Not quite what he wanted it to do, but enough to make him a rich man living far away, instead of a prisoner in some corporate brig in Montana.”
“That’s pretty much how most drugs are found,” Louise said. “Totally by accident.”
“I don’t think I wanted to know that about my medications,” Penelope said, glancing at the careful stack of medicine bottles in her kitchen. “So go on.”
“Well,” Louise said thoughtfully, chewing another bite of pie, “his chemicals and their nano had another effect. I appear to have nighttime access to a… shared virtual reality.” She watched her companion’s face out of the corner of her eye.
Penelope’s eyes widened. She stared off into space for several moments. “I saw one other… bit of speculation when I was looking around for information on your medication.”
She fell silent for long enough that Louise made an interrogative noise around another mouthful of pie.
Penelope shook herself. “All right, it was this: that a high-profile VR engineer I went to school with—smart asshole named Wachelski—was in the first study of Cognizoid, and he died a couple months into the study.”
Louise met Penelope’s gaze over the table and they stared at each other for a few moments, frowning. “I wonder who else was in that study,” Louise finally said.
“And if any of the rest of them died,” Penelope said, noticing at last the pile of cookie crumbs in front of her. She swept them into her hand, wheeled over to the trash, and dumped them in.