66 Deal with the Devil
|| Present Day, Vir-Tech Seattle Satellite Campus ||
Long story short, after dropping that bomb, the Vir-Tech woman, who introduces herself as Alice Hou, won't tell me another damn thing about my sister, or even explain why she even knew I had a sister in the first place, unless I agree to leave the hospital with her.
So now I'm in a helicopter with the sketchy Vir-Tech rep.
I'm like 73% positive I'm not being kidnapped? Probably nothing else equally nefarious, either?
I can't help but remember my -1000 Reputation among Vir-Tech employees, but that was almost definitely for sure a joke.
At any rate, for reasons I can't begin to imagine, we're flying across the Puget Sound to Vir-Tech's satellite campus.
Ms. Hou remains silent, so lacking distraction, I'm left staring, unseeing, out the window, inundated by an onslaught of memories I usually try to repress.
I spend most of the flight clutching my right arm, choking on the charred taste of smoke and the metallic tang of blood, and hearing the same crunch of bone on metal reverberate through my skull, over and over.
So, you know, awesome first helicopter ride. 10/10 would absolutely recommend to anyone in need of a mental breakdown hundreds of meters above the ground.
I ride the waves of memory and focus on my breathing, until eventually, I'm calm enough to redirect my thoughts. I latch onto memories from my first official day in Viren's Refuge, and it helps.
Erebus, being of darkness, doesn't succumb to panic.
He defeats dragons and flirts with goddesses and saves the people he cares about.
Erebus isn't broken.
I can pretend I'm not, either.
By the time we make it to Vir-Tech, and Ms. Hou deigns to speak again, I'm at least capable of seeing what's in front of me, and I can push the shadows of my past back to the dusty corners of my mind where they usually lurk.
This is the company's only campus in the US, but still, it's larger than I'd imagined, nearly the size of Microsoft.
It's not technically in Seattle proper, since Vir-Tech's campus is on Bainbridge Island, off the coast of downtown. The unique Seattle skyline, complete with the towering Space Needle, is visible from the southeast side of the island.
As we fly over the 300 acres (125 hectares) of Vir-Tech property, the rep lady explains that much of the area used to be a military fort. When the One World Federation ordered the closure and re-purposing of all national military bases and forts, Zhao Jianyu managed to buy this primo land off the US government for super cheap.
You'd never know it used to be a 19th century military base from the looks of it now.
All the current buildings are sleek, ultra-modern, and creatively designed to be eco-friendly. Many also display sprawling, colorful murals: I recognize quotes from fantasy and sci-fi novels, scenes from mythology, and landscapes from some of my favorite video games.
The helicopter touches down on a landing pad on the roof of one of the tallest buildings, and when I disembark, I'm pleased to note I'm not shaking anymore. I mentally steel myself to get some answers, and soon.
My pocket vibrates, and I pull out Theo's phone.
He'd been standing guard outside my hospital door, probably to keep me from doing something exactly like this. Luckily, Deion had been out with Robbie getting food; Theo's more levelheaded, so I managed to convince him it was important for me to go with with the Vir-Tech woman.
Theo did force me to take his phone, since mine was still back in my apartment. As I step away from the helicopter, I open a series of outraged texts from Deion, followed by a message from Theo, sent after he confiscated his husband's phone:
Baby Dad-Dei ♥: Ignore him. Just tell me you've arrived okay
Me: Safe and sound @ Vir-Tech, no worries
Baby Dad-Dei ♥: Good. I'll drag Mr. Overprotective home. Stay safe, and check in every 30 minutes or I'm sending Dei after you
Me: As a thank you for your valiant efforts, I will pretend I never saw the contact name you have Deion saved under
Baby Dad-Dei ♥: Now it's a check-in text every 10 minutes, or I'll be sending Dei AND Pix to haul your cheeky ass back to the hospital
Me: Let's say 20 min
Me: *sends image from Picture Roll of Deion and Theo, sitting in their jacuzzi tub with beerhats on and foam bubble beards, watching Sailor Moon*
Baby Dad-Dei ♥: . . . 20 seems reasonable
With a satisfied smirk, I slide the phone back into my pocket and follow the Vir-Tech rep through a rooftop door.
It turns out to be a large elevator. I recognize the music streaming through the speakers; it's a composition from Viren's Refuge, I think maybe a map in Realm 3.
For some reason, this detail really hits home that I'm standing inside a Vir-Tech building.
What a weird fucking day.
Exhaustion hits me again, and I no longer have patience to wait out Alice Hou. Scowling, I gruffly remind her of her promise, "All right. I'm here. Start talking. What do you know about Xiuying?"
Instead of answering, she asks me a question in turn: "What do you know about the World Tech Massacre?"
I'm not sure where she's going with this, and I don't have the mental energy to try to figure it out. So I just answer: "Anti-tech terrorists flew advanced drones to blanket bomb the World Tech Expo. Said using tech to do it was proof that technology was dangerous."
As if they actually gave a shit about that. Fucking hypocrites. They were nothing more than cowards who didn't want to see the faces of the lives they were destroying.
"Multiple countries who still remain out of the Federation's grasp claimed responsibility," I continue, regurgitating facts everyone in the world knows. "No one knows if it was really a Separatist Coalition coordinated attack, or if it was perpetrated by one country, and the rest of the countries jumped on the bandwagon to make themselves look more dangerous or what the fuck ever."
Ms. Hou nods once. "Correct."
My light gray eyes narrow, but I don't let anything else show on my face.
I don't know how or why; everything I just said was supposed to be common knowledge.
For some reason, Alice Hou believes the official report is wrong. Or perhaps missing key information.
There's so much about that horrible evening I've never understood, so many questions left unanswered.
For example, I never learned what start-up Xiuying was working for. There were too many start-ups on the presentation schedule, and the full list of companies who were slated to present at the Expo has never been disclosed.
Ostensibly, this was to keep reprisals to a minimum; authorities worried companies on the list may be further targeted by terrorists.
But even with so much uncertainty surrounding that night, never have I doubted the idea that anti-tech terrorists were responsible.
Have I been wrong all along?
There's a light *ding!* and the elevator doors silently open.
Mind racing, I barely pay attention as I follow Ms. Hou into a brightly-lit hallway. The walls are painted a calm, pale blue, and the white doors have large letters and numbers painted on them in a cheery yellow.
Moving on autopilot, I happen to glance through the window of one of the doors. It's the only window not tinted opaque. 'Huh, looks like a hospital room,' I think absently before my eyes continue on down the hall.
Then my brain catches up, and I freeze.
I do a double-take through the window of Room IC-8, the most high-tech medical space I've ever seen.
Ms. Hou realizes I've stopped moving, and when she sees my open-mouthed wonder, smiles that same confident smile she'd had earlier.
"What is this?" I ask, dumbfounded.
Since when has Vir-Tech expanded into the medical field?
"Care to see?" she offers, reaching out with a perfectly-manicured hand to swipe an ID card. With a whoosh, the door automatically slides open.
She leads me inside and explains the purpose of a few shiny medical instruments. The technology is years ahead of anything I'd known to be possible.
One device she demonstrates on herself displays an automatic 3-D holographic view of her internal organs, bones, and veins/arteries. It has multiple settings, so it can show bones only, musculature only, veins/arteries or nerves only, or zoom in on certain areas or organs at a time. Or any combination thereof.
It's not just the next step past x-ray technology. It's more like twenty giant leaps ahead.
"And this, of course," she says, gesturing to the largest contraption in the room, and the one my eyes keep being drawn to, "you probably recognize."
"It's a V-Haven," I reply, intrigued. "Or, at least, it has several of the component parts."
It's not exactly like the silver pod; there's no lid, for one. It's more a bed, but the "mattress" is made of the same blue glowing gel as the V-Havens.
Her smile deepens. "Mr. Lieu, allow me to present the latest in cutting-edge medical technology: the Med-Haven. This Intensive Care bed boasts the auto-cleansing stasis gel of the V-Havens, but with added pain-relieving capabilities, as well as the nanocytes capable of activating and massaging muscle tissue to keep patients from atrophying or acquiring bed sores.
Plus, the technology that keeps track of the vitals of players inside Viren's Refuge works here to track vitals of patients more accurately than any other medical equipment on the market."
The implications are astronomical.
I listen, rapt, as she further explains how the Med-Havens are equipped to handle a multitude of medical needs and how they can increase recovery speed, as well as increase likelihood of survival during complicated surgeries.
My mind is officially blown.
"Zhao Jianyu has greater plans for this world than creating a virtual utopia," Alice Hou tells me.
And I'd always known that, he admitted as much in every interview and even in the Coliseum the final day of the beta, but I'd never truly understood what he meant.
I realize now I still have no true idea the scope of Zhao Jianyu's ambition.
"What is this building, exactly?" I ask.
"The upper floors are dedicated to medical research, but the lowest five floors are a fully-functioning medical facility. This wing is ultra special, however. This Intensive Care Unit only has twelve fully set-up rooms, for now. Only these rooms are equipped with every piece of cutting-edge medical equipment Vir-Tech has developed."
Ms. Hou walks me the rest of the way down the hall. She briefly explains how this facility is largely funded by Federation grants, but they've used most of the funds developing and building the tech. They're waiting for revenue generated by Viren's Refuge to complete the next phase of medical research.
Apparently, the medical facility at the main Vir-Tech campus in China is three times the size of this one, and most of the proprietary equipment is housed there.
I can't help but ask, "And Zhao Jianyu's still determined not to use corporate sponsorships to expand sooner? The world could really use this technology now."
Ms. Hou's brow furrows, and her smile becomes forced. "No one ever understands," she says quietly, and I think she's really talking to herself.
It's the first time she's seemed human all afternoon.
She takes a deep breath and turns to me. The professional mask is back, perfectly in place. "These medical facilities are entirely free for all patients. And Zhao Jianyu wants all our medical tech and research to be available in every hospital on the globe, also entirely for free.
Forget making a profit; Zhao Jianyu isn't even trying to break even on this venture.
The only corporations who would be interested in investing in Vir-Tech's medical research are the same organizations that monetized the medical field in the first place. We can't let them get anywhere near us."
As much as I hate to say it, I see her point. And once again, I'm awed by the immensity of Zhao Jianyu's creative scope, as well as the fucking insanity that is his idealistic worldview.
Ms. Hou continues, "Currently, no one takes Vir-Tech seriously in any field but virtual reality. Once we are capable of producing more medical hardware and can further our research, however, our data will speak for itself more clearly than any doubters' claims.
At that point, we're hoping the Federation will classify Vir-Tech's medical research department as a Class 1 Organization: Vital to Humanity. We would then have more than enough funding and access to truly make Zhao Jianyu's medical dreams a reality."
The Vir-Tech rep then reminds me, thoroughly, of the latest Vir-Tech-related NDA I signed in the helicopter on the way here. She impresses upon me the severity of the devastating consequences should any hint of Vir-Tech's medical research reach the wrong ears.
"Think of the other reason we don't want to let any other corporation know of our medical exploits: all the tech in this building makes most major medical equipment obsolete. And not by a small margin. Add to that we want to offer our superior models for free; no hospital would have further need of most of their equipment contracts.
Sabotage is a very real possibility."
The severity of her tone sends a jolt of fear through me, and in the back of my mind, I hear explosions filling the night air, and screams. So many screams.
Something in her eyes tells me she knows the connection I've just made.
Slowly, she nods.
My heart stops.
"Vir-Tech was on the presentation schedule for the World Expo," she says.
My head feels light, and I have to lean against the reception desk where we're currently standing.
"We weren't listed publicly as presenters," she continues, "so it's unlikely we were specifically targeted. But still, 23 of our employees were casualties, including two of our head researchers. Our progress slowed to a crawl in the aftermath of that terrorist attack. We can't afford another blow like that one, especially if we're truly targeted next time.
Vir-Tech would be finished."
I feel sick even thinking about the possibility, and I clutch my stomach, as if that will keep the nausea at bay.
But one question is even more pressing in my mind. "What does any of this have to do with my sister? Did she work--"
"It's you, actually, who matters to us right now, Mr. Lieu," she interrupts, shaking her head. "You're an integral part of our research process. We want to study the effects of the S-grade nutrient solution, as well as the possibility of SIINO. Moreover, you alone, out of thousands of V-Haven users, have a 100% compatibility rating with the V-Haven.
We obviously researched you more thoroughly after the Nova program chose you to test the S-grade solution. When we learned of your sister's situation, we asked her current doctors to run a simple diagnostic for us.
It appears Xiuying also has the markers that mean she might have a 100% compatibility rating. Plus, her condition is exactly the sort of medical circumstance this Intensive Care Unit was designed for."
Breath is no longer getting into my lungs, and it feels like a clawed hand is squeezing my heart inside my chest. "You can't mean what I think you're saying," I choke out.
Ms. Hou pulls out a consent form her briefcase. "You are Lieu Xiuying's next of kin. You are in charge of her care. If you consent to us taking over her treatment, we will have her transferred to this facility immediately. She will reside in the only remaining ICU room, and be one of only 50 total patients worldwide to have full access to every major advance Vir-Tech has made in the medical field. Under our careful watch, who knows how well she might recover?"
Hand trembling, I reach for the form.
She moves it slightly back. "But."
The word is a slap to my senses. Shocked, I freeze.
"You must also consent to let us study you as well, Mr. Lieu. Let us help you deal with the negative effects of the nutrient solutions and let us try to understand what makes your brain so easily able to access all that virtual reality and the V-Havens have to offer."
"Are you saying you'll only help my sister if I agree to be your guinea pig?" My voice is hoarse with incredulous rage.
Ms. Hou's grip on the paper tightens, and though she remains silent, her expression tells me everything.
The fuckers are holding the possibility of Xiuying's miracle recovery over me, hoping I'll play along.
And they're right to hope.
Of course they are.
Hand steady now, I reach out and yank the paper from Ms. Hou's slender hands.
"Fuck you," I say, clearly and with as much disgust as I can muster. "Now give me a fucking pen."