The world seemed to buzz around me, disintegrating before my eyes. The pavement blurred into the road and the screech of brakes crackled towards me. I looked up and blinked. The walls of a room I didn’t recognise came into focus.
Something started beeping next to me; a high pitched chirp joined it in a disharmony my brain couldn’t process. People ran into the room, I counted three, cloaked in lab coats and lanyards and plastic gloves. I knew none of them.
They talked amongst themselves, barking words at each other that I couldn’t derive any meaning from. I tried to sit up, but my brain didn’t reach my body, and I remained stationary.
The beeping stopped. The people took a breath. They smiled. One of them stepped closer to me, the other two left the room.
‘Hi, Elspeth. How are you feeling?’
I frowned. She checked her notes.
‘Who are you?’
It was their turn to frown. ‘Elspeth, it’s me, May.’
‘Who? Where am I?’
‘You’re in your dorm, Elspeth,’ she said, her voice rising in confusion, ‘do you not remember anything?’
‘I remember a car.’ I grimaced. ‘I remember a lot of pain.’
‘What about before that?’
‘Could you be more specific?’
‘Before your life in the sim, Elspeth, what do you remember?’
‘Life in the what?’
She clutched at a walkie talkie strapped to her waist and spoke into it. ‘Doctor Fisher, I need assistance.’
‘Who’s Doctor Fisher? What is going on?’
Her voice shook slightly as she continued. ‘You don’t remember anything?’
‘I have no idea what you’re talking about! Where am I?!’
‘You’ve just woken up.’
‘What do you mean?’
Another person shrouded in a white entered the room. ‘What appears to be the problem May?’
‘Will someone please tell me where I am?’ The panic swirled in my gut as the two people remained silent, exchanging glances.
The man, who I presumed to be Doctor Fisher, turned to May. ‘Does she not remember anything?’
‘It doesn’t appear so, sir.’
He turned to me. ‘Elspeth, what year are we in?’
‘What are the names of your parents?’
‘Maggie and Steven.’
‘And your siblings?’
‘I only have one brother. George.’
He turned back to May. ‘This is an unexpected hiccup.’
‘Will someone please tell me what’s going on?’ I yelled, my fear transforming into pure rage. May flinched at my outburst, speechless.
‘You’ve just woken up from a simulation,’ Doctor Fisher explained.
‘You’ve been in a coma for just under six months, during which you have experienced twenty years in a simulation we’ve been running in your brain – like a dream that we can control. It’s been very interesting. But we expected you to wake up and remember your current situation, as you would after waking up from a dream, but as you now know, that is clearly… not the case.’ Fisher’s voice was a monotone, his face remaining emotionless.
My breath quickened. The nausea clawed its way up my throat; a cold feeling spread from my scalp through my body.
‘What do you mean, my life is made up?’
‘The life you think you have is. Your real life is here in 2546. You are twenty-five years old.’ He consulted a clipboard, before snapping it shut, pushing his glasses up his nose and frowning at me. ‘If you wait here, we will decide the best course of action, hopefully reinstate your memory somehow.’
With that, he and May left the room. I tried to get up to follow them, but I found myself unable to move. I removed the blanket covering my legs and I felt the blood drain from my skin as I saw what little was left of my legs. They were reduced to skin and bone, none of the muscle that I had come to know and be so proud of as a triathlete remaining. It dawned on me that I hadn’t actually done that training; the years of hard work and dedication were no more than a dream.
Tears spilled over my cheeks. I tried to move, but my muscles barely twitched.
As I waited, I resolved to attempt to remember my life in this reality. Nothing revealed itself. Whilst I could remember a few times in which the world I knew suggested to me that it was not quite real, I could not remember anything of this one that I had been given as a replacement.
I focused on May – from her reaction, I clearly knew her well. I pictured her face in my head and searched for her somewhere within my memory. I found a glimpse of something, but as I pulled at it I lost the source. I was sure that I had met her before, but where, I did not know.
I looked around, beginning to doubt everything. If I hadn’t noticed that I’d been living in a simulation before, who’s to say I would realise now? The thought began to overwhelm me as the minutes ticked by.
May walked in just as I the walls started shrinking closer.
She looked up, startled. There was an almost imperceptible glimmer of hope in her eyes. ‘Yes?’
‘If I’ve been living in a simulation for years and had no idea, how do we know that we’re not living in a simulation right now?’
‘We don’t think we are, but who knows?’ Her eyes snapped back to the clipboard she held in her hands as she leafed through the papers attached to it. ‘If we are, then one day we’ll wake up, and that’ll be that.’ She looked at me, her face paling as the words lingered in the air between us.
‘Well. Yeah. Kind of insignificant, I guess.’
When May next spoke, her voice was barely audible. ‘You did choose this.’
‘You volunteered. I can show you the records if you like – Fisher thinks it may be too overwhelming, but…’
‘That should make me feel a bit better, I guess,’ I sighed, ‘but I don’t even know the person I was before this whole situation.’
May let her clipboard drop down to rest against her thighs.
‘She was great.’ May smiled, looking at me, but clearly seeing the me that she knew. She cleared her throat. ‘Anyway, we need to get you into rehab as soon as possible, redevelop your muscles. That’s the only thing the old you was afraid of – you had spent so much time getting as fit as you were. We had no idea how long the experiment was going to last.’
A flash of memory suddenly came to me as May sat there, of a girl, of a blurred night, and a morning spent feeling quite sorry for myself. I felt my cheeks flush.
‘May, how did we – do we – know each other?’
‘We were really good friends.’
It was her turn to blush. ‘Yeah, just friends, why do you ask?’
‘Just something that must have happened in the simulation.’ My mouth fumbled around the word like it was cotton wool, objecting to calling every memory I had fake.
May wouldn’t meet my eyes. ‘I think I know what you mean. Anyway, if you want we can unhook you from this equipment and take you down to rehab now?’
‘So, you saw everything that happened in the simulation?’ My face felt like it was on fire as memories flashed through my mind that I had presumed no-one would ever know about.
‘We had the ability to, but obviously we gave you some privacy.’
I really didn’t want to find out exactly what it was that they had and hadn’t seen, so I dropped the matter. ‘You were saying about rehab?’
‘Yes, shall we go?’
May slipped the various needles and sensors out of and off me whilst I lay there. I let out a shaky breath as she turned from me, pulling the walkie talkie from her belt and requesting assistance moving me. Two people walked into the room, beaming smiles on their faces.
‘Hi, Elspeth, how’s it going?’ The greeting came from the taller one of the two, his bulky frame nearly too big for the doorway. I had never seen him before in my life.
The two people looked at each other, frowning. ‘Don’t you recognise me, Elspeth?’
‘Sorry, I don’t.’
‘You recognise me though, right, Elspeth?’ The other person had long hair the colour of daffodils, swept up and out of the way in a ponytail that reached their waist.
‘You look just like my friend Lizzie.’
The woman’s expression transformed, the ends of her smile flopping to her chin, the lines on her forehead deepening.
May sighed. ‘I did warn you she doesn’t remember anything. Elspeth, this is Amanda, and this is Peter.’
The two of them seemed quite lost for words.
‘Hi, nice to meet you. Can we please get to rehab? I’d really like to be able to move again.’
‘Sorry, Elspeth, this is all just a bit strange, is all.’ Amanda was almost speaking through tears. She and the guy took positions at the head of the bed, whilst May grabbed the front.
The rest of the building that I could see as I was wheeled through it was pretty much the same as my room – plain white walls, white linoleum floors, everything spotless. There was an occasional window set into the wall, and I took every opportunity to glance out. All I could see was unreally turquoise blue skies. From this, all I could discern is that we were high up in the building. Not that I was likely to know where we were even if I did see it – Doctor Fisher had said that this world was 500 years farther in the future than anything I had memory of living in.
The building was labyrinthian, with twists, turns, ups, downs, all down corridors that looked no different from each other. The sound of laughter emanated from some of the rooms, cries from others.
‘Where are we?’ I asked.
It was May who answered. ‘London General Hospital.’ With that, we pulled into a large, open room, not dissimilar in appearance to a gym.
I stored the knowledge away that London still existed and tried to focus.
‘See ya, Elspeth, and good luck!’
‘Good luck, Elspeth!’
I smiled at them through the mirror as they waved and left the room. My life must not be too bad here, I thought, if I was friends with them.
‘We have a lot to be going on with, so let me just grab Kim and we’ll be getting on to it.’
My question of ‘Who’s Kim?’ died in my throat as a man I recognised very well walked up to the side of the bed.
‘Hiya, Elspeth.’ He looked uncomfortable, leaning towards me slightly as if to hug me before stopping, halfway down, patting my hand with his and stepping back. ‘I’ve been told you probably don’t remember me?’
‘I have no idea who you are,’ the next words came out before I had a chance to consider them, ‘but I remember dating someone who looked very much like you. In the simulation.’ Sadness washed through me as I remembered that Logan and I hadn’t left things on the best note.
‘You and Kim dated for a couple of years when we were all in school,’ May explained, ‘He’s your physiotherapist.’ She looked over at Kim. ‘Are you all good here?’
‘I think so. Ready to start, Els?’
The nickname made me cringe. ‘Would you call me Elspeth, please?’ I murmured.
He cleared his throat. ‘Right. Sorry. Elspeth.’
‘I’ll leave you to it,’ May said, writing something on her clipboard before turning and leaving the room.
Kim and I struggled through the session. I didn’t know how much he knew about my life in the simulation, but he fed off my awkwardness, touching me as little as he possibly could, which, given that I couldn’t move at all, was still far more than I was comfortable with. We had barely managed to move me out of the bed before May popped her head into the room.
‘Time’s up. You don’t want to over-exert yourself.’ She walked over to us. ‘How did the session go?’ The question was directed at me, distracting me as she handed the clipboard over to Kim. He made some quick scribbles.
‘It was alright. Frustrating, mainly,’ I admitted. I glanced at Kim.
‘Well, it’s a long process. We hope to have you walking again in a few months, but we can’t promise anything. You ready to go back?’
May took the helm again as Kim helped her push me back to the room. She hooked me back up to some of the machines, ‘for monitoring purposes’ and pulled up a chair to sit next to the bed.
I noticed someone had placed a bouquet of ruby and yellow gerberas in a vase on the table at the side of the room.
‘Those flowers are beautiful.’
May blushed. ‘I thought they would brighten up your room a little bit.’
‘Aw, thank you!’
‘You’re welcome,’ she said, walking over to the chair against the wall. ‘Dinner will be here in a bit. I thought I could keep you company.’
We both knew that what she really meant was that she was staying to help me eat, but neither of us acknowledged it. ‘Yeah, that would be nice.’ I took a deep breath. ‘Can I ask you a few questions? Y’know, about my life here?’
The question seemed to take May slightly off guard as she placed the chair next to the bed. ‘Of course, what would you like to know?’
I tried to pick from the infinite questions that were whirring through my head.
‘Who are my family? And where are they?’
‘You were an only child. Your parents didn’t quite agree with your decision to pursue the research you were doing, so you haven’t talked to them in five years. I heard that they… they passed last year. Car accident. I’m sorry.’
I mulled this information over in my head. I couldn’t imagine life without my brother; we fought a lot, but he was one of the best people to go to when I needed cheering up. As for my parents, I couldn’t imagine a life without them as a part of it. My simulation self – and myself now – couldn’t contemplate not attempting to reconcile with them after an argument, no matter how big. But we had never had an argument that big.
‘What was the point of this experiment?’
‘That’s a pretty big question.’
I waited for May to continue.
‘Well, it started off as an experiment to see if we could put anyone in a simulation. How much we could control, how much control they had. We designed most of it for you, but anytime someone from this real world, for lack of a better word, appeared in the simulation, it was your subconscious taking over.’
‘So that means that my subconscious remembers everything in this world?’
‘That’s what we think.’
‘So, there’s a chance I’ll remember?’
‘Hopefully. We think it’s likely, but we can’t say for certain yet.’
‘How did we meet?’
‘We’ve been friends since school.’ May rested her head on her arms, folded on the bed. ‘Primary school. We met in the first week, us and Kim. We were inseparable.’
‘Why is Kim no longer our friend then?’
‘I never said-‘
‘You didn’t seem very familiar with him when we saw him earlier.’
There was a knock at the door. May got up and grabbed what looked like mush off the trolley at the door, thanked the person manning the trolley and returned to her seat next to me.
‘Sorry, it doesn’t look very appetising, but it’s the only option really, unless you want to be on a drip.’ She opened the bottle and sniffed. ‘To be honest, it actually smells quite good. Can we try with a straw?’
I opened my mouth and she placed the straw inside. I sucked at it and the mushy liquid hit my tongue – in fairness, it didn’t taste that bad.
‘In answer to your question, once you two broke up, we just kind of… drifted apart. It was hard to stay friends with both of you, you didn’t exactly break up on the most amicable of terms.’
I wanted her to expand, but the straw in my mouth prevented me from saying anything. I tried to prompt an explanation with a confused look, but May just laughed at me. ‘I think that’s enough information for one day.’ She looked at me hopefully. ‘I don’t suppose it’s triggering anything?’
I shook my head as I swallowed the last of the weird smoothie.
‘To be honest, I’m just getting more confused.’
She laughed. ‘Alright. I need to run some errands, but shall I come back after I’m done?’
‘Sure. I could use the company.’
‘See you later then.’ She smiled at me, taking the cup and straw with her as she walked out.
I hardly had a chance to pause for breath before Doctor Fisher walked in. ‘Hello, Elspeth. How are we feeling?’ He twiddled his thumbs and paced awkwardly around the room, checking things but not really looking at anything.
‘As well as I could be.’
‘What a positive outlook.’ He smiled at me. ‘I have a proposition for you.’
His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. As he looked at me, a feeling of unease slithered its way into my stomach. ‘What?’
‘How would you like to go back into the simulation?’
‘Back into the…’
‘You see, Elspeth, the experiment isn’t really finished.’
‘But I just woke up!’
‘Yes, but you realised you were in a simulation and woke yourself up.’ He spoke slowly, as if to a child, ’We still have more tests to run. Don’t you think some closure would be good for you?’
‘But it’s not real, is it?’
He shrugged. ‘This could all be fake. What’s the point of anything? You were happy in that simulation, Elspeth. Don’t you want to be happy?’
‘Can’t I be happy here?’
He shrugged again. ‘Eventually. We only want to run the sim for a couple more years, until you die naturally in it, that’s all.’
I considered it. I needed closure, at least, it wasn’t so bad to want that, surely?
‘A couple more years, you say?’
‘Yes, that’s all, and then you can live your life here.’
‘You’ll do it?’
‘Yes. I’ll do it.’
‘I knew you were more sensible than May! I have the injection ready, let’s get this done quickly now.’
‘Wait, May doesn’t want me to go back under? Why not?’
He came towards me, needle readied, frowning and dismissing my question with a wave of his hand. ‘I don’t know, Elspeth, just hold still now. Focus on the moment before you died in the sim.’
My eyes went to the flowers on the table at the side of the room, and a horrible sense of dread set in as I felt the needle prick my skin. His words brought the moment to my mind, the wind whipping at my face, the dampness of my ankles from cars splashing through the puddles next to the pavement, my phone clutched in my hand…
I looked up from my phone just in time to stop myself from stepping out into the road as a van screeched around the corner. I looked again and crossed the road. As I stepped up onto the pavement the other side, I noticed a bouquet of red and yellow flowers lying on the asphalt. I picked them up and placed them on the bench at the side of the road before continuing with my walk home.
© Alyx Hurst 2017