Author : Adam Zabell

It started seven years ago when I was diagnosed with sudden onset electrophoretic meningitis. They had to dope me unconscious, take me off-line, electronically isolate me from the rest of the hospital, force doctors and nurses to use archaic diagnostic monitors from the pre-implant era. The specialists warned my wife how my illness was nearly always fatal, how the recovery was notoriously difficult because I had to remain off-line for at least six months. My optic nerve would atrophy from understimulation and the prognosis was grim. Partial to permanent disability as my reduced reaction time within virtuWorld would translate to a drop in my vIQ of 30 to 125 points.

After the coma, they usually talked about me like I wasn’t in the room. It wasn’t their fault, not really. When everybody was connected, off-line was inconceivable. They gave me one of those terminal-keyboard devices, forced me to learn how to read and type. I went cross-eyed trying to hold any decent conversation. My fingers tied in knots if my mind raced ahead of those infernal buttons. My wife filed for permanent /uninvite and /ignore status. If I wasn’t using that keyboard, I became invisible. I’d gone from being part of the network of humanity to an aphasic imbecile.

During one of my mandatory exercise periods on the ward, I saw a man in plaid pants and an orange shirt holding jovially one-sided conversations with everybody who walked past. He caught my stare, smiled and said “Oh hai! Welcome to the outside. Gotta run.” By the time I got the attention of the duty nurse, he was long gone. She politely reminded me how extended disconnectivity sometimes caused hallucinations. A copy of the security cameras sent to my pathetically flat monitor revealed no jolly man, of course. I couldn’t even see where I was until directed to a green polyhedron. “You’re not online, so we triangulate based on transmission antennae and your laptop. Don’t worry, once your convalescence is complete we’ll have you back in the community.”

Two days later the jolly man walked into my room and stood next to the nurse who recorded my vitals. Talking over her banal patter, he said “You can opt out. Be Ready.” It was surprisingly easy, but probably because I had already learned to live in my own head. Walking through the city today, men and women part like water. They aren’t even conscious of swerving, their glazed eyes in a REM sleep saccade while navigating the parallel universe of vWorld. Children aren’t fully integrated into the siliconized network and occasionally catch sight of me out of the corner of their eyes. But my people are a logical impossibility, so those nascent computers filter me from direct visual experience. Bogey men, specters, dopplegangers. Eventually vWorld has to account for our mark on the world, somehow. They call us ghosts, and maybe we are. But for all that I’ve lost, I’ve never felt more alive.

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