68 Poked and Prodded and Royally Pissed
Only after I have exhausted every possible topic of conversation with Xiuying and checked in with Theo another three times, do I finally let Ms. Hou and Dr. Giles drag me downstairs to the in-house lab.
They run a battery of tests, but other than a tiny prick for blood work, everything is thankfully non-invasive. At one point, they actually have me get into a Med-Haven of my own, and project my insides onto the transparent lid above me.
I try to look everywhere except my right arm.
My gray eyes flicker around my guts and musculature for about a tenth of a second, and then inevitably, as if pulled by a gravitational force, they stop, laser-focused on the tiny highlighted portion of my right upper arm.
The muscle scarring is a thin, twisted white line, but the nerve damage is hardly more than a speck of shadow.
My throat tightens, and the light beeps of the Med-Haven's heart monitor pick up speed. I don't know if it's because I'm staring at the physical embodiment of my failure to protect anything that mattered to me—my sister, my career—or if it's because I can't help but think back to the shadows permeating Xiuying's brain scan.
Before I can spiral too far down the angsty rabbit hole, however, Dr. Giles switches my scans to zoom in on my own brain.
I close my eyes and take deep, calming breaths while I let the neurosurgeon do his thing.
And keep doing his thing, long after I've gotten myself under control.
Dr. Giles spends so long staring at my scans, in fact, I start to feel a little violated. Also sleepy.
At one point, he ditches his holo-tablet and puts on a pair of interactive gloves, that he uses to "handle" my 3-D brain and zoom in on various regions.
When he starts making sounds, a cacophony of "Mmm"s and "Aha"s and "Ohhh"s, I can't take it any more.
"All right, doc. Either you tell me what the hell you're looking for, or I'm out of here. I'm literally watching you fondle my brains, and it's freaky as fuck."
Dr. Giles starts, as if he'd forgotten I was actually there under all that gray matter.
"Excuse me, sorry, Eric." He sounds a bit sheepish, but I notice he doesn't relinquish his hold on my holo-brain. "I'm looking for evidence of SIINO. Somnolent Immersion-Induced—"
"—Neural Overload. Yeah, I know," I confidently tell him.
Honestly, I had totally forgotten that first part.
I'm just sick of being the only person around who doesn't know what the fuck's going on.
And 'Neural Overload' is the kind of phrase that sticks with a person.
"Correct," he says, impressed, and I smirk, way too pleased with myself, considering. "It's nearly impossible to be certain if that's what you experienced this afternoon, since enough time has passed your neurotransmitter levels have returned to normal.
But there is evidence to suggest your neural pathways are distinct from average brains, which may account for your increased compatibility with V-Haven technology."
I nod. "Sure, makes sense."
I have no idea what that means.
And when I let Dr. Giles nerd out for the next fifteen minutes, I have no idea what most of his points mean.
It's endearing how excited he gets, though.
One thing I do understand is the doctor's explanation of "One-Time Learning."
Usually, to learn something new, our brains require repeated exposure to the activity. Some things, however, we only need to experience once.
The best example of this is hot things = ow it burns.
When you're a kid, your parents may warn you, "Don't touch that; it's hot!" a thousand times, and you never learn. But the one time you touch something too hot, and you burn yourself, your brain is immediately seared with that information, and you never forget again.
Apparently, the state of heightened awareness I've been calling "The Zone" is another example.
(Side note: Dr. Giles had never heard of the Zone, so I showed him a clip from a classic sports anime, and he lost his shit, and I'm pretty sure I've officially converted yet another soul into Sports Anime Trash. *Bows*)
Dr. Giles tells me the reason I went through all four bottles of A-grade solution was because once I'd accidentally discovered the Zone the first time, my brain learned the feeling without any conscious effort on my part.
After that, it only became easier and easier for my brain to slip into that heightened state when I needed it, until eventually, it became second nature for me to use the Zone any time I encountered a new challenge.
He also explained that he looked through my Nutri-Peak solution records from the beta, and he's pretty sure I was on the cusp of entering the Zone multiple times, especially near the end, which is why I started going through solution faster. But since I was using shittier-grade solution, there weren't enough neurostimulants to actually allow me to enter the Zone.
Ms. Hou speaks up at this point. She'd been quiet for so long I'd forgotten she was here.
"Learned behaviors are difficult to control. It's likely that if we switched you back to A-grade solution, you'd continue to fly through the bottles and overload yourself so much the V-Haven would put you to sleep, like it did during your time in Foundation Village."
"So the S-grade solution is what kept me from passing out the rest of the day?" I ask.
"Exactly. Which is likely why the Nova Protocol was initiated," the doctor replies absently, then immediately freezes, like he hadn't meant to say that.
I ask a series of questions I don't expect them to answer, like "What's a Nova Protocol?" and "Who actually authorized my upgrade to S-grade solution?" and "How many guinea pigs do you have testing this secret formula?"
Then when I see the same look in Alice Hou's eyes I'd seen the last time she lied about he terrorist attacks at the World Expo, I cut her off.
"If you're about to spout some Royal S-Grade Bullshit, I'd really rather you just didn't, and I'll pretend you did and it was very convincing."
Blinking rapidly, she opens and closes her mouth a few times, then purses her lips and bites the inside of her cheek.
Finally, she nods. "Fine."
"Fine," I agree.
"Ahem," Dr. Giles clears his throat awkwardly. "The main question, as I see it, is do you wish to continue with the S-grade solution while we work to fix it so you can experience the game without symptoms of SIINO? Or would you prefer returning to the A-grade?"
Seems like a dumb question to me.
First, if A-grade is going to knock me unconscious every time I push too hard, it's not like that's better than the neural overload from S-grade.
Second, fuck if I want to limit myself now that I know what's possible. Not how Lunatic Lieu rolls. A man's gotta stay on brand, you know?
And third, something in their silence makes me think I might be the only person using the S-grade stuff. Or at least, one of very few. If they're ever going to figure out what's causing SIINO and have a hope at fixing it, they probably need me to keep using it for data points.
I give them my answer, and neither of them can hide the relief from their expressions.
Guess I was right about Point #3.
"If it ever starts to look like you're in real danger, we'll immediately change our plans," Alice Hou says firmly. "But I want to thank you on behalf of Vir-Tech and Zhao Jianyu's dream of a more perfect world."
I frown, a little freaked out by that overblown gratitude.
Ms. Hou sighs. "You aren't stupid, Mr. Lieu," she says, and normally I'd agree, but honestly right now I'm so out of my depth I feel about as intelligent as a rock.
And not even a pet rock, either.
"You understand, I believe," she continues, "what's really at stake with Zhao Jianyu's incredible—and insane—gamble."
She mutters that last bit, and I feel better knowing that even Zhao Jianyu's own employees think the man's fucking crazy.
"Agents from several corporations and a number of Separatist countries have entered the game, against our best efforts to screen them out," she explains.
My frown deepens as that sinks in. "You want me to use the S-grade solution because I play at my best with it, and you want to make sure someone not on an evil corporation or government's payroll wins."
It's not a question.
She makes it clear she wouldn't answer anyway.
No liability if they don't come out and say it.
It pisses me off, that Vir-Tech so clearly thinks they're manipulating me.
Ms. Hou even goes so far as to remind me that Vir-Tech technicians will be visiting this evening to set up the new features on my V-Haven so I can keep my end of the bargain—
—you know, the one where they're holding my sister's health and well-being fucking hostage in return for my cooperation—
—and relay more data while I'm immersed in Viren's Refuge.
The real bullshit here is that I would have agreed to the research, even if they couldn't help Xiuying.
Just like I had agreed to continue using the S-grade solution before they ever said a damn thing about corporate espionage and nefarious players.
"I want you to understand something," I tell her right before I board the helicopter ready to take me home. "I WILL make it to the top of Viren's Refuge. I WILL win your boss's mad gamble. And I WILL beat every wannabe player who comes at me, whether it be a dude gaming in his mama's basement or a real-life fucking assassin hired by the Separatist Coalition."
I stare her in the eyes, dead fucking serious and angrier than I've ever been.
"And when I do," I continue in a low voice barely more than a savage growl, "when I stand on top of the virtual world and I'm crowned the Hero of Fucking Ages, I want you to know my success has absolutely NOTHING to do with you."