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Glancing at the IV tube snaking across the sheets and into the crook of Ken's arm, Chie trimmed his beard short and neat, exactly how she liked it. "No complaining now, honey." With a damp towel, she brushed the trimmings off of his neck. Caressing the soft bristles on his cheeks, she wiped tears from her eyes and then pushed Ken's hair out of his closed eyes. "You'll be due for a haircut soon too. Now stop being your old lazy self, you've got to look decent when you go to church—not like a shaggy dog—I know, I know, it's only once a month, but Mom and Dad always go and you know how they are." She tucked her mother's pink silk quilt with a floral border under his chin.
If only she'd been faster; if only she'd been the real Rose Crow.
She pulled a chair up closer to the bed, and rested her head on her crossed arms next to his head. "I also found out about Jake Robertson, you know, the founder and now the VP of the combined Three Kingdoms and Quantum Katana Online division. Did you know, he's also on the board of Nano Crisper. They—"
There was a knock at the door and Dr. Kiyo Ng walked in. After shaking Chie's hand, Dr. Ng looked at Ken's chart and then sat down in a chair next to Chie.
Dr. Ng smiled. "He can go home tomorrow," she said. "You'll need the help of a nurse for his bodily functions. And even though the cranial MRI was negative, you'll have to watch for signs of seizures or numbing of his limbs."
"How's Hayden doing now that he's back at school?" Dr. Ng said.
"I guess he's getting back into the swing of things. At least, he doesn't have time to be depressed around the house and he has his friends."
"Is he still somnambulating?"
"Less." Chie looked down at her phone to see if she had any new notifications.
"Don't worry, children are reslient."
Chie stared out of the window. Bare spindly branches of the tree outside shook in the cold wind like the claws of a kappa.
Dr. Ng walked in between Chie and the window and Chie broke out of her reverie.
"Adults, less so," Dr. Ng said. "Get some rest."
"I'm fine." She glanced down at her phone.
"Although, occasionally, I can pass"—Dr. Ng pulled something red out of the pocket of her white lab coat—"for a clown!" She stuck a red ball on her nose.
Chie laughed, stood up, and clapped.
Dr. Ng bowed with a florid flourish of her hands. "I can assure you that I am a doctor, and I can certainly tell when someone is exhausted."
"Really, I'm fine." Chie tugged at the long-sleeved cuffs of her cropped denim jacket and straightened her back, lifting the hem of her t-shirt just above the top of her jeans.
With both of her hands, Dr. Ng grasped Chie's shoulders.
Dr. Ng let go. "I'm sorry, did I touch a tender spot?
"Just minor scratches on my back."
"And they're still hurting after three days? I mean you should really have them looked at. I don't want to pry, but did the gang members attack you?" Dr. Ng said.
"Gang members?" Chie said. "Oh right, I mean, no." Chie laughed under her breath.
"Here, let me take a look." Dr. Ng reached out to turn Chie around.
"No, really, it's just sore muscles from a little stress," Chie took a quick step back.
Dr. Ng put her hands on her hips. "A little stress? You have bags under your eyes. And when you haven't been here, you've been taking care of your son or God knows what else—crime scene investigation, if I know your type—and you have the temerity to tell me you're okay?"
Chie shrugged her shoulders.
"Mr. Hashimoto comes around every day after work," Dr. Ng said. "So, he can call you right away if Ken regains consciousness. Sometimes, his wife comes during the day. And the sangha too. You are truly blessed to have such good friends and a caring community."
Chie smiled and thanked Dr. Ng. Chie massaged her phone in one hand. "Did a detective from the Berkeley police department call you?"
"Oh, yes, but how did you know?"
"I talked to the detective and he said he was going to call you. They were having a hard time getting a warrant."
"I did send him a statement about the injection points on Ken's neck," Dr. Ng said.
"Thank you!" Chie grabbed Dr. Ng's hands and squeezed them. "I know they're going to get a warrant for Websuit International now."
"But—I know how you feel and I trust you when you say Ken didn't do drugs and there were no traces—but, you know, it's really anyone's guess how the wounds got there."
"But it has to be them!" Chie smacked her fist into her hand and started pacing the room.
"I'm no detective, but I'm sure it's one of their lines of investigation," Dr. Ng said and guided Chie back to her chair.
"It's so obvious." Chie sat down and stared across the room. "If only we knew where the helmet went."
"Didn't the police collect it as evidence?" Dr. Kiyo Ng said.
"The detective said they did. I mean, it couldn't have disappeared into thin air, right?" Chie bent over and hid her head in her hands. She'd even called the FBI agent who'd been assigned to the Berkeley police department, but he hadn't returned her call. "If only, if only, they had the helmet, then those negligent, irresponsible Websuit execs—those assholes—would be in jail by now."
Kiyo had seen people react in every kind of way, rage, despondency, but only a few were as driven as Chie. Kiyo sat down next to Chie again. "Mrs. Shibuyama, they have a process. I'm sure they'll find it."
Kiyo hugged Chie's shoulders.
"I'm sorry," Kiyo said, letting go. "I did it again."
Chie kneaded one of her shoulders.
"More troubling," Kiyo said, "is that the gang members are still at large. And, I'm sure, that is the police department's main concern now."
Chie pulled at her hair. "They just don't get it!"
"I know, I know. Why people do such terrible things is incomprehensible." Kiyo was merely mouthing the therapist in her. She had seen so many injuries in the emergency room, it was more the horror of it than incomprehensible. And how three members of a SWAT team could be killed by gang members with swords—and one was even decapitated—was the unbelievable part.
"No, no, The gang is a dead end. Websuit, they should be investigating all those slimy, greedy bastards."
"But by your own and Mr. Hashimoto's corroborating statements—"
"I know what I said, but... I know differently now. There's new evidence."
"Then you should tell the detective—"
Chie chuckled. "No one would believe me."
"Let the detective be the judge." With her fingertips, Kiyo touched the back of Chie's hand. "But I could tell you if it sounds reasonable. I could support you. It's strictly confidential, even though I'm not your doctor. Why not try me?"
Chie let her head fall forward, resting her chin on her chest. "Ken... he talks to me."
Kiyo's jaw almost dropped. Chie seemed to be the rational, composed, scientific type. She was a mathemetician after all. Kiyo mentally noted to check if Chie was really going to therapy. "Oh, uh, yes, how does he contact you?"
"Not in my dreams. Not in my head." She held out her phone. "From here."
Is she delusional? Definitely need to talk to her therapist today.
"Mrs. Shibuyama, you need rest." She patted Chie's arm.
"See?" Chie laughed. Then she straightened her back and her lips settled into a straight line. "But of course, you're right. What a silly outburst that was, wasn't it?" she said in a monotone.
Sudden changes in mood. "My shift doesn't end until eight PM. I'll be sure to call you right away if Ken wakes up."
"I know you will. The staff here has been so excellent." Chie squeezed one of Dr. Ng's hands in both of hers.
Kiyo started to the door. "You're going to need rest and get some help around the house too. Remember, even though your physical injuries were very minor, just a few cuts and bruises, the mind and spirit also need time to recover. Don't exhaust yourself."
"Absolutely!" Chie said. "In fact, I'll leave with you, right now."
At least, it's a sudden change in a positive direction. Kiyo smiled.
Chie streteched her arms up and yawned and then leaned over to kiss Ken's lips. Her cropped denim jacket and t-shirt hiked halfway up her back.
Kiyo made a sharp intake of breath.
On either side of Chie's spine, twin ridges of dry cracked scabs snaked up her back.
Hiking along the side trails shaded on all sided by tall redwood trees, Hayden held onto Chie's hand in a tight grip.
"Mom, aren't we going to the carousel?"
"Remember, it doesn't open until ten? It'll be open right when we circle back on this trail." She sucked in the brisk early morning air and swung his hand back and forth. "Do you smell the pine trees?"
"Mmm, smells like Dad's aftershave," he said.
"Right you are!" she said and reminded herself to bring the aftershave next time she visited Ken. She'd need to shave his neck near his Adam's apple to keep it even.
"Okay, get ready, I'm going to spin you!" she said as she grabbed both his hands. He ran around her and she pulled him and she spun faster, around and around. As his feet lifted off of the ground, his laughter rose higher and echoed throughout the forest. Her back spasmed in pain and she almost dropped him. Oh shit, are the scabs ripping apart? She slowly lowered him to the ground. His tennis shoes scraped the dry dirt and kicked up puffs of dust. She stuck a hand under her t-shirt and her fingertips came out red.
After returning back to the picnic area near the carousel, they sat down at a table to eat their snack. They both scooped handfuls of her father-in-law's pomegranate seeds out of the plastic bag and shoveled them into their greedy mouths. The seeds were so tender you didn't have to spit them out like the store-bought ones.
"When are we going to see Grandpa?" he mumbled in between chews.
"What? We just saw him yesterday." Ken's father had come to the hospital and stayed overnight at Chie and Ken's.
"I want to go next week when Dad wakes up, then we'll all go together."
"Of course," Chie said and hugged him tight and he hugged her back, even tighter.
"Dad's only sleeping, right?"
Then it all came spewing out. Something that Hayden had been thinking about. "Then is he awake somewhere else? Like when you're sleeping sometimes you're dreaming. And in your dreams you're not sleeping, but you're not in the real world either, so you must be in another world like in a game. Sometimes, I dream I'm back in the game, in the Three Kingdoms... or in The White Imperium, but those are more like nightmares, but a nightmare is like a dream, right? But just not a pleasant dream."
"A dream isn't another world. It's your brain working and refreshing itself."
"But I see colors, people talking, so why couldn't it be another world like a kitsune world under the porch. Maybe someone made Dad's quantum energy go under the porch?"
She didn't want to burst his bubble but neither did she want to lie to him. "It takes a lot of energy to break apart a subatomic particle. One might say an otherworldly energy."
"Rose Crow is otherworldly. If anyone could bring Dad back, I know it's going to be you." He pressed his cheek to her chest. "I mean you have to find him and bring him back. We can't be a family without Dad."
After Hayden rode the carousel, they drove back home down Grizzly Peak Road. She constantly glanced at her phone in its holder. A few weeks ago before the swatting, she'd turned off notifications because the spam had been increasing. It was spooky how much ads knew about you. Dating ads too. They kept sending her pictures of men with beards. Imagine, married me getting barraged by pictures of bearded men? I'll have you know I already have my own lovely man with his own lovely beard, thank you. But yesterday, she'd turned notifications back on.
When is Ken going to call again? But was it really Ken? Am I going crazy? Is my need to believe so strong that I'm projecting my own desires onto reality? Of course, why else would I have broken down in front of Dr. Ng? Now what's she going to think? That woman is obviously losing it. Just what I need, a professional to tell every other professional that my judgment is suspect. Her grip tightened on the wheel. She had to think about the situation objectively, just like Ken would.
Yesterday, someone who had claimed he was Ken had left a message. It had sounded like he was yelling from the top of a mountain peak. The wind was blowing so hard it almost drowned out his voice, but she knew it was him. Rationally speaking, she should really be saying someone who was potentially Ken had tried to contact her. That is, a potential Ken. She liked that. What was the probability that whoever called her was really Ken? Not Ken in the physical sense, of course. She wasn't that far gone, yet. Ken, in a spiritual sense. Or perhaps in a digital sense? After all, the call had originated from in-game. Mas had helped her trace the call to a Websuit International network entry point.
What's the probability it was the digital Ken? It's the subset of the measure of all probabilities. So, she should be able to integrate it. Take some function Ken in the digitial world K(d) integrated over all possibilities and that should be equal to some function Ken in the real world K; that is:
K( r) = ∫ K(d)
Was the integral from negative infinity to infinity? Or zero to infinity? Or some delimited set of real numbers? For probability that would be zero to one hundred. What is K( r), then? It's a function that describes his behaviors in the real world; similarly, K(d) describes his behaviors in the digital world. Depending on the other parameters in the digital world, he would behave differently, so K(d) would have to have those parameters taken out of it in order to equal K( r). We could describe those parameters in a coefficient like Planck's constant, call it the reality difference Rd. Therefore the equation would become:
K( r) = ∫ Rd * K(d)
His behavior in the real world would include things involving the five senses and his thoughts as exemplified by what he says and does. Then the equation would be:
K( r) = Visual + Auditory + Tactile + Olfactory + Gustation + Language + Action
K( r) = V( r) + A( r) + T( r) + S( r) + O( r) + G( r) + L( r) + A( r)
K(d) = Visual + Auditory + Tactile + Language + Action
K(d) = V(d) + A(d) + T(d) + L( r) + A( r)
She was getting tired. Too many variables and functions. How much data do you need to hold a human's memory anyway? Terabytes from one study, but terabyte drives were dirt cheap these days. Only a hundred dollars per terabyte. It's really all about the processing power.
You would need a huge neural network and processing power far beyond even the 100-cubit quantum computer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) to be able to handle all of a person's behaviors—and they kept changing. And for that reason alone it was impossible for there to be a digital Ken. And yet she had heard him. Even over the howling of the wind and its vocaloid-synthesized voice. It was a terribly human-like fabrication. It was amazing how far voice technology had come in the past few years. She could even hear Ken's vocal undertones. And, of course, it was quintissentially Ken's manner of speaking. So, was it Ken? Was he somehow speaking to her from his comatose mind? Or, was it a ghost? A digital ghost?
She jumped. A message notification popped up. She didn't recognize the phone number. Reaching out with her finger, she was about to tap it, but then she jerked her finger back. Was it really him? She wouldn't be able to find out if she didn't read it. The tires went bump, bump. A honk. She pulled back into her lane and then tapped the message.
It wasn't from Ken.
Hi Mrs. Shibuyama, I'm a neurologist and I work for the company. I can tell you how to get your husband back.
Meet me in The White Imperium public chatroom.
My handle is 1c3f0x012.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)