I walked into the room 30 minutes early. Everyone involved in the trial was already there making final checks. Jake was there too. Beneath the front of professionalism, I could sense a mix of sympathy, ambivalence, and mostly frustration from my colleagues. Jake was right. People were unhappy. People wanted to move on to other patients. I could not blame them. We were like the nurse bees in the hive; only potential queen bees came to our team of neuroscientists, psychologists, doctors, and interpreters. We selected and nursed the best cases to be high-performing queen bees. With my mother’s case taking up 8 months of our time, we had lost many potential queen bees.
My mother was seated on one of the two chairs with a blanket over her. Her face was wrinkled and lifeless. I kneeled by her side, and for the first time in 13 years, I held both her hands.
“Ma, I know you are in there. Listen, you have to tell me everything you know about the red orb. You know, the time you used the V-Skin GX and created a red orb in the metaverse. I was 22 then. You told me how amazing the experience was and that the people loved it. But I was so angry with you, so angry at your betrayal of not keeping your promise. Why did you fixate on the red orb, the ‘flaming pearl’ as you called it…”
“Ma. Please tell me everything about the flaming pearl when we put on the V-Skin later. I want to hear it this time. Tell me all those stories like you always did when I was growing up, about all those adventures you had when you were traveling the world. I want to hear it! I really do. If you don’t, you are going to…”
At that moment, I could feel Jake’s eyes on me. I did not disclose everything I knew about the red orb to him after all.
I had nothing more to say. I walked to my seat and downed a glass of water. I grabbed the lightweight headwear with the words “V-Skin GX” printed on its side. I switched it on and placed it on my head. Instantly, emptiness enshrouded my senses while gradually, white light grew with a soft hum and a brewed coffee smell.
An angelic voice spoke, “Hi Professor Chang, welcome back to Blackbox 61 of Sosi Labs. Shall we pick off from where we left?”
I replied, “Log in a new case file, please. Name it ‘Oki Times.'”
“New case file, ‘Oki Times,’ created.”
And then, I imagined my childhood home, the olive green walls, the white wooden stairs, and the warm orange furniture. The colorful carpets and rugs and the smell of fresh tropical spices hanging in the kitchen. The background jazz music, and my tall and lean father who was always contented and easy-going. He was making tea, as always. On this day, a sudden and ceaseless storm appeared. These thoughts, my imagination, came to life in the metaverse. I took my seat on the well-worn orange sofa. With a thought, I transformed my avatar-self into a nine-year-old me and waited patiently for my mother to come home.
Jake, the department head, was in my office. We had both been silent for a while now, waiting for the other party to make the first move. He looked at me with the hint that at any moment then, a storm could break the clear sky. But I had applied a protective glaze over my eyes, one that masked everything within me from the outside world. No one could peer into my soul or my thoughts now.
He looked at the engraved nameplate on my desk:
CHANG MIN CHU, AMY
Without raising his eyes it, he said, “Professor Chang, it is about the comatose case that I wish to speak to you about.”
Jake was no more qualified than I was. But he was better with people, and he had the right pedigree in the organization. And so, from colleagues to superior and subordinate, we became.
“What about it, Professor Lim?”
“I am sure you understand; you have been in our star department as long as I have. We can’t allow a singular case to use up such an extensive amount of our resources and time.”
I nodded my head as understandingly and deliberately as I could. Jake was no longer a scientist or a friend; he had become a bureaucrat. Perhaps he was always a bureaucrat.
He continued, “Management is pressing.”
I replied, “If I may, I would like to put up a case for one more trial.”
“You do know we have done twenty-five trials. A first, for our department.”
“Yes, I am fully aware of that, and I would like to put up a case for one more.”
“You know, Professor Chang, given your relationship with the patient, there is a conflict of interest. I made the appeal myself to Management to have you lead this case because you are the best in the field.”
“Thank you, I am deeply flattered.”
My mother was the first human in a coma to be plugged into the metaverse. We discovered that deep in the recesses of her unconscious mind, there was still a conscious mind or in my contemplations, a soul. It could be brought to the surface, spoken to, in the metaverse. However, we learned too that experiences in the metaverse of a comatose human did not form memories. In other words, each time my mother entered the metaverse, it was like a fresh new player entering the game. She had no memory of her previous plays. Nonetheless, it was an apparent Nobel-worthy breakthrough, but there were other things at play here.
“I know what you are thinking, Professor Chang. We need more breakthroughs and faster. Else, we have to force a breakthrough.”
Jake’s eyes softened. I was caught off guard. He said, “As you are aware, the patient was brought in here because of the stories she created in the metaverse. At the heart of her make-believe worlds and characters is the red orb, or as she termed it, ‘the flaming pearl.’ The red orb is the key to cellular regeneration, rebirth, ‘rising from the ashes’ or so is the hypothesis we need to prove. The patient needs to tell us exactly where the red orb is in the physical world or how it can be made, else-“
Jake stopped abruptly in his tracks and hesitated as though something foul was in his mouth, and he could not speak of it. After looking away from my nameplate, he finally continued, “we would have to administer Anticreatine on the patient.”
“You can’t. The drug is still in clinical trials.”
“This qualifies for exemption. I have received the order to do so.”
“From who? You can’t. The drug would kill her.”
“Order has been given.”
“On what grounds?”
“Medical improvement. Exceptional medical improvement.”
My lips quivered. On what grounds for medical improvement? I ran through everything I knew about the situation and the drug. I held onto all the science, observations, and knowledge that I knew. And I understood right before Jake proceeded to explain.
“As you know, Anticreatine was invented to bring everyone back into the metaverse. It quietens the neurochemical change of brain cells to not go into ‘creation mode.’ When the brain is not in ‘creation mode,’ it cannot go into hyperdrive, metaverse-induced delirium, and all the negative stuff that comes with the metaverse. The brain retains all its other functions- memory, processing, decision-making, etc. It is less apt to create new thoughts, feelings, and actions. And so, Management would like to see if Anticreatine can ‘quieten the active mind of the patient, and by doing so, induce it to simply regurgitate everything it knows about the red orb.’ “
“How do you know what she created was even true? She’s a Genesis 0! Aren’t they known to be highly deceptive and great performers!”
I did not even believe in my words. Those were words of emotional Amy, not words of Professor Chang.
Jake smiled and said, “You know as well as I do that everything in the metaverse is almost fictional and that every creation in there stems from something accurate and factual. This organization was built out of stories from the metaverse. Stories that were distilled, crystallized to their truths, tested, and built out. That’s how we have the empathy drug, the sonic hearing aids, the superfruits, and now, we are on our way to having the rebirth drug. “
How could I argue against this? Dreams that turn into reality. Imaginations that propel the advancement of our kind.
“Amy, listen to me. I know this is hard, but the patient only has a 1% chance of waking up. You know what that means. With or without administering Anticreatine, her legacy to this world-”
“Give me one more trial. I will get the patient to share about the red orb.”
“Else, we proceed with Anticreatine.”
“Thank you, Amy.”
“You did not need even to come here today. So thank you.”
July 2019 On a quaint island off the southern coast of China
Hidden on a narrow alley of red brick buildings, away from the main streets and crowds, was a cafe with three carefully placed seats. A young woman of not more than 30 was quietly sitting in the center seat, planning her next adventure. She looked at a regional map on her iPad as she took another mouthful of her chai latte. Korea? Japan? How about Mongolia? Hmm, or maybe westwards?
She couldn’t decide, and she was happy with that. Her eyes sparkled, wandered, and roamed. She rested her eyes on the owner, Lili, who concentrated on her latte art. A wing appeared, and then another, and then a tiny head with a handsome body and long tail. She smiled. She has created something worthy, something tasteful.
Lynn exclaimed in Chinese, “Piao Liang!”
“You really think it’s beautiful?”
“Yes, very tastefully done! Now tell me, where do you think I should go next!”
“Hmm, let me see, you want to stay in China or somewhere else?”
Lynn chuckled, “I’ve been in China for quite some time now. Speaking of which, I’ve been on this island, in your cafe for the last 3 weeks. I am so ready for somewhere else.”
“Been there too.”
“What for? Only honeymooners go there. I know you love Korea but how about somewhere out of Korea? “
“Oh! How about Mongolia then! I remember you wanted to go see the Naadam Festival.”
“Good idea! No, wait, if I am going to Mongolia, I want to do a two-week kind of thing. It’s too expensive right now. No budget.”
Just then, a pair of Japanese tourists entered the cafe and ordered takeaways.
When they left, Lynn exclaimed with joy, “It’s a sign! Japan it is!”
Lili rolled her eyes, and as she went back to practicing her latte art, she suggested, “How about Okinawa? It’s the nearest to where we are and probably the cheapest to get there. Many of my friends have been there for holidays, and they found the place…interesting? They say it’s Japanese yet very Southeast Asian at the same time. Also, a bit like Fujian and Taiwan too.”
Lynn liked interesting places. She searched for Okinawa on her Google map, did a quick read-up on the location, checked for air tickets and accommodations, and smiled.
Amy stared stone-cold into the water, her body lightly touching the surfaces of the bathtub. She was barely floating. She looked up at the digital clock on her wall:
7 more minutes left. She was not one to waste a second or two. And so, she closed her eyes and slipped entirely into the water, anxious to feel some sort of weightlessness. Yet, like an amniotic sac of fluid that carried a child to her mother, all that came to her mind were the day’s flashbacks of her mother’s avatar in Sosi Blackbox of the metaverse. In her age 30 form, her alluring presence evoked every floral note and beautiful blooms. Scents. Not something Amy liked in the metaverse. They were disarming to her. She remembered the anxious-inducing hug; the change of mood when her mother realized she was working for Sosi Pharma; the theatrical burst of flames.
It was the 25th trial. The 25th time Amy was with her mother in the metaverse. And yet, no progress on understanding the red orb. She had no clue what she should do. She thought of her mother’s cold, frail comatose body in Sosi Lab, and she felt time behaving like the merciless night tides washing away a ship from shore to the disappearing horizon.
She had to steel herself. How could she convince her mother to speak of the reb orb? Or as her mother called it, the flaming pearl. And then, Amy remembered her mother jumping onto a fire-spitting dragon’s neck and staring down at her with angry tears.
“Send my body back to the hospital! I will not have anything to do with Sosi!”
With that, the dragon and her mother disappeared into nothingness.
Short of air, Amy pushed herself out of the tub and struggled like a fish out of water.
She did not feel so strong, and she did not know what to do.
The silly thing about contemporary living is that one can be at home all day yet be mentally edgy and even stressed out.
Welcome to the virtual world, or specifically, the social media world.
You are a little bored and restless. You pick up your phone and scroll through Facebook, Instagram, and even LinkedIn. Yes, you go to LinkedIn even during your free time. And then the stress, anxiety, and envy grow within you as you scroll your feeds littered with milestones and achievements.
And here you are, still figuring out how to be a writer.
Thumbs up for chasing your dream.
And then you stumble upon a live show shared by your artist friend just as a little girl no more than seven with her violin walks up to the microphone and gets ready to play. You click on it and watch that little girl playing her best, albeit out of tune and a little too squeaky for the ears. She makes a mistake or two, not too glaring ones, but surely she notices. She continues, finishes her piece and, proceeds to play her next song.