63 Somnolent Immersion-Induced Neural Overload
"Nutri-Peak?" I repeat, brows knit in confusion.
"Yes, their nutrient solutions, specifically," Dr. Singh clarifies. "Have you consumed any of their products recently?"
"He just got a huge shipment today!" Robbie answers before I can. "Did the bottles hurt him?"
'Don't jump to conclusions,' I want to say, but a sinking suspicion in the pit of my stomach makes me think the kid may be onto something.
Dr. Singh somehow looks even more serious. "Bottles, plural? How many bottles of nutrient solution have you consumed in the last 24 hours, Mr. Lieu?"
I don't answer immediately.
When she asks it straight out like that, I kinda want to smack myself for being the world's greatest moron.
Luckily, Robbie's always ready to tell it like it is, and he fills the vacuum my silence leaves in the hospital room.
"At least four bottles of A-grade!" he exclaims. "Maybe more! And that shouldn't be possible. I bet they were tainted or something. Did they poison him? Did he do too good so they tried to assinasate him?!"
"You mean, 'ass-ass-i-nate,' honey," Theo corrects him gently, patting his head.
I can only shake my head. Is that really the important point here, dude?
Teachers, man. Physically can't help themselves.
"No, kiddo, no one's trying to hurt me," I reassure Robbie, throwing a pointed look at his Pops.
"Except perhaps yourself," Dr. Singh says severely. "What possessed you to consume so much solution in so short a timespan?"
"Um," I reply, shrinking back into my pillows.
The doctor's as short as Arachne, but when she stares down at me like that, and uses that particular "I can't believe how dumb that was; I am severely disappointed right now, young man" voice, I revert to an idiotic kid terrified of a super strict teacher.
"What's Robbie talking about, Lieu?" Deion asks me. "Why'd you already get a new shipment?"
I focus on him, since he looks confused instead of angry. I explain how I went through the first four bottles of A-grade solution in a few short hours, and then explain how a second shipment of solution arrived.
I pause my story there, though.
S-grade solution isn't supposed to exist yet. I'm not sure why, exactly, but something keeps me from explaining the special Nova upgrade I'd accepted. At least, not until I know more about what's going on.
I turn back to the scary Dr. Singh. "What makes you ask about the solution? What exactly happened to me?"
Her dark eyes look sharply at me, like she knows I'm not saying everything. But she answers me anyway, "Are you familiar with BSN, Broad-Spectrum Neurostimulants?"
I nod, then wince as the motion wracks my head, and my stomach heaves.
Deion's right there with a waste basket for me to heave into. Nothing more than clear bile comes out, since I haven't physically eaten in over twelve hours, but I appreciate the save anyway.
I break out into a cold sweat and lean back into the scratchy hospital pillows.
Dr. Singh pauses our discussion to recheck my vitals. Once she's sure I'm fine, or fine-ish, she picks back up where she left off: "The Nutri-Peak nutrients are legitimate and promote a healthy mind and body. However, the highest-grade solutions, A and B, contain trace elements of Broad-Spectrum Neurostimulants. BSNs increase neurotransmitter activity in the brain, and they activate the adrenal gland to release increased levels of adrenaline."
I absently pet Alopix and nerd out a little, "Yeah, I know. The genius of the design is that BSNs only trigger when a person is immersed in full-dive technology. That way, the neural pathways below the brain are intercepted by the game avatar, so the BSNs don't affect any nerves below the brain stem."
Dr. Singh nods stiffly, but she doesn't seem as impressed as I am.
"Then have you heard of SIINO?"
It sounds like "see-no," and I admit I've never heard the term before.
She frowns. "Somnolent Immersion-Induced Neural Overload."
I don't know what most of that means, but it sounds bad the way she says it.
My friends must agree, because all three of them react differently.
Robbie's face scrunches up like he's going to cry. Deion looks angry again, but also frustrated because he's not sure who he's supposed to be angry at. And Theo grips his husband and son a little tighter, face solemn.
I can't keep looking at them, so I just focus on my dog.
Alopix does not seem bothered by whatever SIINO is. He is just happy to be getting cuddles and pets and to have me awake and not convulsing on the floor in a puddle of my own blood.
Dogs are easy to please that way.
"Good boy," I murmur for what must be the thousandth time this afternoon.
"Researchers have yet to officially verify SIINO as a diagnosis, but many of us in the field are already convinced it not only exists, but that it presents a very real danger," Dr. Singh explains.
"What is it, exactly?" Deion asks, because he knows I'm not going to.
"A side effect of high levels of BSNs. Essentially, a person experiencing SIINO can suffer from a variety of negative effects: elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, migraines, nausea, tremors, sensory overload, as well as more severe side effects like hallucinations and mania."
"See, told you it was no biggie," I tell Deion, plastering my trademark smirk on my face.
He tenses like he wants to punch me.
Dr. Singh simply ignores my false bravado. "These effects present themselves immediately after emerging from a full-immersive dive. Under the high-grade solution, your brain was firing on all cylinders, and you were astutely aware of the sensory information the virtual reality was providing you. Now that you're back in earth reality, the sensory information is not only very different, but also your brain is no longer under the effects of BSNs. Hence, the disorientation and overload."
"If it's so bad, why haven't we heard any warnings about this?" Theo asks.
The doctor sighs. "Honestly, because there have only been two confirmed cases of anyone experiencing any of these side effects. Three, now, with Mr. Lieu."
"How come?" Robbie asks.
"There are so few BSNs in even the highest-grade A solution, it takes an inordinate amount of solution, consumed in a short period of time, for the brain activity to progress to the levels needed to be dangerous. Most people would never be able to consume enough BSNs to reach these elevated levels. Plus, even if a normal person drank an entire case of solution, their brains wouldn't be able to absorb and use that many BSNs. The unused neurostimulants would remain dormant and do nothing. Only very extraordinary brains, working in extraordinary ways, can actually use the BSNs well enough and quickly enough to incite SIINO."
"Mama always said I was special," I say.
"No she didn't," Deion replies.
"Oof. True, but rude. You should be nicer to me. I'm an invalid, you know."
"No, you're an idiot," he snaps back. "And if you don't sue the bastards at Nutri-Peak and Vir-Tech and Zhao mother-effing Jianyu himself, I'm going to put you back in this hospital with my bare hands."
I decide I'm definitely not going to mention the S-grade solutions now. If he realized I was using non-approved top-secret solutions I'm pretty sure the AI system hooked me up with all on its own, he would probably storm Vir-Tech Labs all by himself.
After he kicked my ass from here to Canada.
I force myself to sit up and look him square in the eye.
"I get you're upset, but chill for a second, all right? The doc's saying this was a super rare fluke. And maybe that SIINO thingy isn't even real; no one knows for sure. I'll reach out to Vir-Tech and Nutri-Peak and sort this all out. I need you to trust me. I know what I'm doing."
I have no idea what I'm doing.
But that's hardly the point.
I do know the S-grade solutions made me sharper and better than I've ever felt, and before I ruin years of research and development, I think perhaps I should go to the source and see what they have to say about all this.
But then the door opens, and instead, the source comes to me.
"Good afternoon, everyone. Could I please speak to Mr. Eric Lieu alone for a moment?"
A Chinese woman in a crisp blazer and expensive leather briefcase emblazoned with the Vir-Tech logo smiles brightly at everyone, but her eyes are locked onto mine from the moment she enters.
"Ass-ass-i-nate," Robbie whispers, wide-eyed. He moves in front of my bed to block her view. Theo and Deion unconsciously follow his lead, blocking both their son and me from the woman.
"How did you get in here?" Dr. Singh asks, voice tinged with anger.
The Vir-Tech woman looks pointedly at Pix's tail poking out from behind my neighbors. "A miniature polar bear managed to make it past your hospital security. Is it any wonder I could also make it to this unsecure room?"
The confident smile never leaves her face for a second.
Something in her demeanor, in her eyes, tells me I want to speak with her.
Whether she's friend or foe is yet to be determined. But she has something she thinks I want, and I want to know what that is. And I want to know why she showed up within half an hour of me. How did she know I was here? And why?
"It's okay guys, Dr. Singh. Let me talk to her, please," I say calmly.
"Are you fucking crazy, Lieu?" Deion spits, whirling to glare at me.
I know Deion's really pissed and worried because he forgot to check his language in front of Robbie.
I know Theo's even more upset because he didn't get pissed at Deion for cussing in front of Robbie.
I look them both in the eye. "Seriously, it's fine. It's what you said, right D? I'm gonna get to the bottom of all this. Maybe make myself a mint while I'm at it. Take Robbie and get some lunch, and when you get back, I'll still be here, ready to take any bad names you wanna throw at me, cool?"
I can tell on their faces that no, it is NOT COOL, but Theo still nods and ushers his family out.
Dr. Singh takes a little more convincing, but eventually, she, too leaves.
"All right, mysterious Vir-Tech lady, we're alone, as requested," I say, gesturing to the empty room. "Now what can I help you with today?"
Her smile widens even further, and she steps closer. Her perfume smells light and floral and stupidly expensive.
"You misunderstand, Mr. Lieu. It is I who wishes to help you."
I raise an eyebrow. "Oh really? And what do I need help with?"
Her dark eyes gleam, and my cold sweat comes back with a vengeance.
I start imagining all the craziest scenarios, all the most insane things she could possibly say next.
And then she speaks, and even my most insane thought is nowhere near close to the truth.
"Your sister, of course. I'm here about Xiuying Lieu."