I was starting to get really tired of these people.
Consciousness returned like someone had flipped a switch inside my brain. I sat up with a gasp, only realizing after it was done that I could sit up; nothing was holding me down anymore. I looked down at myself, checking for restraints or IV lines. There was nothing. All the medical equipment had been mercifully removed, although a familiar burn in my crotch told me that the equipment had included a catheter for some reason, which meant they’d kept me under for more than eight hours. That wasn’t a good sign.
My stolen clothes were also gone, replaced by mint green medical scrubs and soft booties with plastic treads on the bottoms. There was a plastic ID bracelet clamped around one wrist. I raised my arm and squinted at the type on the bracelet, forcing my eyes to focus. The words swam in and out, finally settling down to something I could read:
PATIENT 227: MITCHELL, SALLY R. STATUS: DS PROTEIN NEGATIVE.
I didn’t know what that meant, but I could guess. According to Nathan, when I had migrated to Sally’s brain, the protein markers that would normally have indicated my presence in her body had vanished from her bloodstream. Any normal test that didn’t involve a full brain MRI would show that there was no SymboGen implant in me. It was deceitful, but looking at the little plastic band on my wrist, I couldn’t feel bad about it. My freedom might very well depend on that deception.
Lowering my arm, I looked around the room where I had been put, only to realize that “room” was a generous description, even more generous than it had been for the little semiprivate space back at the bowling alley. I was on a medical cot, with a blanket, sheet, and thin pillow. That was all that shared the room with me. There was no other furniture, no medical equipment, no lavatory facilities… and depending on how I wanted to look at things, there were no walls. Instead, a thin plastic membrane separated me from the hall outside my room, curving gently as it rose to an exposed ventilation panel that was pumping air into the bubble. Yes: bubble. That was the best word for where I was. This was a bubble, and when I turned to either the left or right, I saw more bubbles, each with their own bed, their own occupant. A sick feeling started to coil in my stomach. I twisted around to look behind me.
Row upon row of bubbles stretched off into the distance, creating separate, sterile environments for the people inside them. None of them seemed to have doors.
I slid off the bed, keeping my hands on the mattress as I tested my balance. My legs seemed willing to hold me, although there was a bone-deep weariness in all my muscles, making me feel like I’d been running marathons in my sleep. I wasn’t hungry. I closed my eyes and cleared my throat, trying to focus on the subtleties of that sensation. It was a little sore, like I’d been shouting. Since I hadn’t been shouting—that I was aware of; if they’d put me under twilight sedation at some point, I could have done all sorts of things I didn’t remember—that probably meant they’d used a feeding tube on me, in addition to feeding me intravenously.
All those things were medically necessary, under the right circumstances, but since I hadn’t agreed to any of them, I was starting to feel more and more violated. I let go of the bed and walked to the bubble wall, pressing my palms flat against it. It didn’t flex. It might look like a thin sheet of plastic, but whatever it was, it was strong enough to resist my exploratory efforts at getting it to yield. Hands still pressed against the plastic, I peered as far to the left and to the right as I could. Everything was very well lit, so it wasn’t hard to confirm that I was, for the moment, apparently unsupervised. Great. I drew back my left hand, made a fist, and punched the plastic wall as hard as I could.
The pain was immediate and intense. Whatever that stuff was, it was like punching brick. I squealed with pain, shaking my bruised hand and dancing back from the barrier like it had done something wrong, even though I was the one who had launched an unprovoked attack against it. The plastic wasn’t even dented. I wasn’t going to get out that way.
The drums were back, beating softly in my ears as my heart rate rose. I stopped shaking my hand and began to pace instead, looking for a seam or some other evidence of how they had managed to get me in here—whoever “they” were, wherever “here” was. There were at least five rows of bubbles, with me in the front. I couldn’t tell how many bubbles were in each row. I could see the curve of the row behind me well enough to count off eleven separate enclosures, but that didn’t get me all the way to the wall. That meant that a conservative estimate put fifty-five bubbles in this room, each of them representing a circle about twelve feet across. I wasn’t good enough at math to figure out what that meant in terms of actual space inside the bubble, beyond “a lot.” Wherever we were being held, it was massive.
I paced three times around the edge of the room, trying to work the weakness out of my legs. More and more of the people around me were waking up and getting out of their beds. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to why they were here; I saw men and women, children and senior citizens, and all of them were in exactly the same sort of setup I was: total isolation without any hint of privacy. That was a little weird, and that worried me. Psychologically, wasn’t it stressful for people to be able to see each other and not reach each other? Little private rooms would have served the same purpose in terms of keeping us apart, but it might have done a lot to keep the people in those isolated bubbles sane.
Maybe that just meant we weren’t going to be kept here for long. But that didn’t make sense either, since a place like this, well… it couldn’t have been cheap to construct, and it couldn’t have gone up overnight. So they’d taken us, drugged us until we passed out, and then kept us drugged long enough to get this room ready for our arrival. Why? It didn’t make any sense, unless there was some plan that I wasn’t seeing.