I don’t know how long I spent in that hospital. The doctors told me that my lungs had received significant damage from the smoke and had required extensive surgery. I don’t remember much of that, but all too vividly, I remember the times I was alone. Alone, if it hadn’t been for Mo. He’d been sitting in a corner, seemingly unnoticed by the doctors, or he simply walked in after they left. Once, he even crawled out of the vents. We talked, sometimes all the night. About his father, or the family he had left behind; his wife and sons, some of which had joined the resistance. Together, we wondered whether they were still alive, but it mattered not how many times I asked for any news on them. Mo always had questions, but never answers.
Jens also came to visit frequently, sometimes accompanied by Wil, Emmi and Olav, often bringing Alex’s regards, as well. Other patients had heard me talk to myself, he said. Long conversations with nobody, sometimes all through the night.
“It’s Mo, my friend from when I was with the ‘Blacks’,” I said, not masking my disgust for that term.
Jens made no judgement. He knew as well as I did that Mo was dead; it had been the front page of every local newspaper. “You were lucky enough to survive. There might have been others,” Jens offered comfortingly.
But I knew what that meant: ‘burned beyond recognition’ would be in the coroner’s report. Despite it all, Mo continued his nightly visits, unscarred and with his usual, carefree smile.
Soon after, I received another frequent visitor: Dr. Ana-Beatriz Silva, supposedly the best psychiatrist in Portonovo. She was probably the only one, shipped in by VOC exactly for cases like mine. She came to talk to me every other day, and asked me many questions about myself, but I did not trust the confidentiality of her reports and thus said as little as possible about my time with the resistance. It clearly frustrated her. After a few of her talks, she began to reveal more about herself: How her great-grandfather had settled in Portonovo and made a small fortune, how she had studied at RAUU. We talked of Skytown and the daily commute from the cheaper student apartments. At some point, I asked her, a little too cynical, whether it would be therapeutic for me to finish my studies. To my surprise, she completely agreed. To my even greater surprised, she actually did get me re-enrolled in classes.
When I was discharged from the hospital, Jens came to pick me up. He was in dress uniform, and had me wear one as well. He drove me and Ana to the VOC army base, where we were greeted with a lot of fanfare. Only then did Jens give me the letter he was supposed to deliver to me. It described how my immediate superior, Jens himself, of course, had petitioned to high command to award me for my outstanding service. My case had been reviewed, and the petition accepted: I was to receive the VOC’s highest military honours: the Silver Lion, along with a promotion to 1st Lieutenant and an honourable discharge from active duty.
As was customary, I was to provide a brief speech in which I commended my peers. It was, of course, an improvised mess. I gave a heartfelt thanks to Smith and Jens for their father-like mentorship. Major Grimson received a commendation for his direct and decisive style of command., in which I managed to keep any snide out of my voice. Not so for Captain Vanderwal. He received the most cynical thanks I could muster for providing the opportunity to distinguish myself so and his ‘death-defying faith in my abilities’. I left the stage and the crowd’s awkward silence for Jens, who, with tears in his eyes, had taken both hands in front of his mouth to stop himself from bursting out in laughter. Once he got his breath under control, he said: “I can’t believe they let you get away with that. Perks of being a war hero, I suppose.”
He drove me back to Portonovo and dropped me off at the airport with a flight ticket back home. “Don’t worry, we will get back at those mud-skins for you,” he said, grinning, hurting me more than he could ever realize.
Dr. Silva continued to surprise me. She joined me on the flight back home, determined not to abandon her patient. In the aircraft, she sat on my left. On my right, in the empty seat, sat Mo. For once, we didn’t talk, but I finally confided in Dr. Silva and told her that I could see him, even though nobody else could.
“You should leave him here, with his wife and sons,” she told me, and I agreed, but Mo wouldn’t go.
During the flight, things only got worse. Mo left, at some point, and a man dressed much like the grim reaper came to sit next to me: ragged, long black robes and a hood that masked his face. All he was missing was a scythe and hourglass. He offered me a cup of steaming hot tea. “It soothes the mind, as my nurse likes to say.”
I accepted the tea, which according to Ana, was actually provided by a friendly stewardess. I drank the tea in silence and then politely informed him that Mo would probably like his seat back when he returned.
The Reaper chuckled and assured me that Mo could have his seat back whenever he wished. I then blurted out the question: “Why am I still alive?”
“Luck. Pure, dumb luck,” he answered. Not long after, he was gone, even though I never saw him leave. Mo did not return though, and the rest of the flight was remarkably quiet.
It wasn’t long after we landed that I came to realize that the home I hoped to return to wasn’t quite there anymore. Airport security had been largely automated, but that was only the start. As I stepped into the scanner and held my ID in front of a digital eye, the machine spoke with a woman’s voice: “Welcome home, 1st Lieutenant Oban. Congratulations on your recent promotion and award.”
At first, I believed there was someone observing me through a monitor, but the machine continued: “Scan complete. As per your status, a taxi service has been made available. Vehicle RO-834-D will await you at the airport entrance. For your convenience, it will display your name and flash it’s light upon your approach.”
As I stood there, befuddled at how a taxi would recognize me, the machine only added to my confusion: “You have been abroad for three years and eighty-six days. Rehabilitation software is being loaded onto your Home System.”
“Error. Your RAUU student apartment has been relinquished after a year of absence from the university. As per VOC contract, a new home has been made available to you. A standard Home System is being loaded into your new apartment. You may personalize this upon arrival, within provided VOC parameters. Vehicle RO-834-D’s destination has been updated accordingly. Loading luggage into Vehicle RO-834-D’s trunk shall commence in 53 seconds. Have a pleasant day, 1st Lieutenant Oban.”
With that, the doors opened and I found myself walking outside. The taxi was about as easy to find as the customs machine had promised, even without the excitedly flashing lights. Without a word on my side, its door opened for me and I sank into the leather seat. The door closed itself and the taxi asked me: “I have been instructed you drive you to your home at 176th Avenue. Do you accept this destination, or would you like to input another?”
“No, that’s quite alright,” I said and the taxi set off, its speakers playing some electric jazz. It was at least ten minutes before the engineer in me asked how the taxi knew to which prompt exactly I had answered ‘no’.
I decided to try something: “Can I ask you something?”
“How may I serve you?” the taxi responded.
A standard response, I noted, and asked: “Which sensors did you employ to recognize me?”
“I am not equipped with external sensors.“
I decided to lay aside the question of how the taxi was able to drive without crashing aside and pursued my inquiry into its recognition software: “How did you recognize me amongst the other airport visitors?”
“Link ID 000674638742, registered name: Cornelis Oban, connected from customs at 15:32 and established a proximity alert at 15:34.”
“A proximity alert?” I queried.
“CivLink log: proximity alert 0463c: 15:34:09. Link ID 000674638742 confirmed. Speed: 4.3 km/h. Bearing: 262. CPA: 0.00 m, in: 18s”
A sense of familiarity crept into me. One I knew I had to verify as soon as I had my laptop. “print proximity alert 0463c, please,” I asked.
The taxi did so without further commentary.
It stopped in front of an apartment building and opened its door for me. I went for the trunk to unload my luggage, but it remained firmly shut. “Your luggage is being loaded into your apartment’s Home System,” the taxi informed me.
“How?” I inquired.
“Connection established. Solid data transfer in progress. Estimated time remaining: 02:16.”
“Wait here,” I told the taxi and went inside. There was no reception, but a screen blinked on with a building plan as a voice announced: “Welcome home, Mr. Oban. For your apartment, please take the elevator on your left.”
I did so. The elevator had no buttons at all, but its doors closed behind me and it set in motion nonetheless. The doors opened again to reveal a hallway. To the left, the door to one of the apartments opened and I walked in that direction. From inside the apartment, a voice spoke: “Come in, Mr. Oban.”
As I did, the voice continued: “I am your Home System, Spyder 3.2. You may call me Sara. Since you are a first time user of a Home System, would you like to go through the tutorial?”
“Yes, please,” I said, hoping that things would start to make a bit more sense. Sara went off to list her numerous features. She controlled everything from the windows to the cushions on the sofa and the contents of the refrigerator. Any change to my home at all, I was supposed to make through Sara, since, as she pointed out, she’d rather move the couch for me than risk me injuring my back. If I wanted it in a different colour, she could do that too. Upon my wish, Sara would even take another name, voice or personality.
She finished the tutorial with informing me that my luggage had been loaded into the drawers. Incredulously, I opened one to find my clothes, clean, neatly folded and sorted.
As I stared at this miracle of robotics in awe, Sara informed me I had received one urgent message. “Would you like me to read it to you, or to view it on your Personal Connector?”
“Read it to me”, I said, still staring at my clothes.
The message came from something called ARGOS, which had reviewed my resumé, determined that I was currently unemployed and provided me with a job offer at the local police station. I declined. VOC’s post-service grant, stacked with my scholarship, provided me with more than enough income to fully dedicate myself to my studies at RAUU.
I looked around my apartment. It was a simple and clean design, which suited me just fine. The kitchen had a fridge and a basic stove, which Sara informed me was empty. She immediately prompted me with a shopping list, reminding me that she would happily cook for me. Since I’m no chef, I gratefully accepted that offer and listed off a few dishes that mom used to make for a menu.
“I am currently loading ingredients. This operation will take an estimated 01:41:37.”
I was tempted to just sit there with the fridge door open, and watch it happen, but based on the estimated time, a shop’s van would still have to be loaded with my order, and thus I still had plenty of time to see the magic at work. I decided to take that time for a brief exploration of my neighbourhood.
To my surprise, the taxi was still waiting outside. I got it and asked for the nearest place where one could get a decent cup of tea. As the taxi drove me past more and more apartment buildings, I noticed how little traffic there was on the wide, open road. I reasoned to myself that if it had become commonplace to order food directly to your fridge, and presumable other things as well, there would be a lot fewer people going out shopping. That line of reasoning was of course swiftly counteracted by the need to send out a van from the distribution centre every time another person made some whimsical purchase. That did seem to be about right: personal cars had almost vanished from the streets. There were still a few other taxis, but the majority of traffic was trucks of various sizes.
It must have been at least half an hour before the taxi stopped before a building of dull, grey concrete, contrasting the polished glass high-rise of the apartment buildings. A sign said: “Annie’s Plug-Café.”
I entered and was greeted by a casually dressed girl with long, dark hair and a tattooed face. She showed me to a lounging chair and gave me a strange headset. There was no table or any space to conveniently put a cup of tea. When I looked upon the headset in confusion, the girl chuckled and asked whether it was my first time here. I told her I had only returned to the Agglomerate today, she looked at me in awe and softly uttered: “I am sorry, Sir. You look so young, I hadn’t thought…”
“I am not so old,” I protested. “I’ve just been in Libya for the past five years.”
Her eyes widened even more. “You’re a soldier?”
“ex-soldier,” I told her.
She recomposed herself and said: “Just put on the ARG and I will come take your order.”
I did so and a blue screen with white letters appeared in front of me, reading ‘ARG-OS 0.9 loading. Please wait’ a few moments later, the blue screen faded, revealing a classy café, such as they had in Seawind. I found myself sitting at a table of dark wood, underneath a brass chandelier, lit with actual candles. The girl still stood in front of me, smiling. She had more tattoos now, and a purple sheen to her hair. Her casual clothes were replaced by a short, yet elegant dress, and she had numerous other little touches to make her appear more attractive.
“Is this room to your liking, Sir? If not, we have many others available in our menu. For a small fee, we can also customize or, if you contact us in advance, design a new one as per your specifications. If you are interested, you can find a brochure with photos of some of the incredible themes our clients have come up with,” she rapidly went through her sales pitch and then asked me for my order. When I asked for tea, she asked which one, and immediately, a menu appeared beside her.
“If I may, I would recommend the Highland Black,” a man behind me said.
I turned around and saw Mo smiling at me. I followed his advice and he proceeded to inquire after my time in Libya, which concerned me. Nobody knew as much about that as Mo. I worried that he might suffer from memory loss. I deemed that not unlikely, going by what Ana had told me about the after-effects of traumatizing experiences. With that in mind, I went into as much detail as I could, hoping it might help him remember. He simply listened to me talk and raised questions, as had grown to be his habit since the fire.
I must have spent the whole afternoon in that café, because I was growing rather hungry and invited Mo for dinner at my place. He declined, thanked me for the long tank, calling it ‘most enlightening’, and bid me a good night. I watched him walk across the street as a van came around the corner. It struck Mo straight on and then came to a screeching halt as it veered off the road and almost crashed into the café.
I watched on in horror as the van’s engine caught fire. Firefighters and police arrived at the scene impossibly swift, until I realized that the van must have sent a signal at the instant it crashed. A police officer questioned me on the crash, and I made a valiant effort of explaining how the van had struck my imaginary friend. It did not go well, until I buried my head in my hands and begged him to call my therapist. When Ana came, the first thing she did was embrace me. Second, she sent a chain of unpleasant-sounding words from her native language towards the officer and third, put me in a taxi home.
The police wasn’t done with me yet, though. I was summoned to the station the next day. Ana came with me, for which I was immensely grateful. Upon arriving, the same officer that questioned me before greeted us, introduced himself as Samuel Horowitz and went into the most sincere apology I have ever witnessed. “Your name sounded familiar, but I didn’t know who you were until I looked up your personal files,”
It turned out that VOC had made sure everyone knew of their great war-hero. I soon had a flock of police officers admiring me. I hated it; they admired me for all the things I had not done, and the things I wish I never had. Eventually, Samuel managed to get his colleagues to back off and get some actual work done with me. Along with my personal files, he had reviewed my resume, which apparently described me as a Link System expert, once again crediting me with the ‘masterful victory’ I had unwittingly and unintentionally set in motion. There was one bright spot in all of this; the officer now looked for my cooperation in solving his case, rather than questioning me on my imaginary friend again.
He showed me something he called a ‘CivLink recording’, which showed the café by means of a blue dot for all its visitors and staff, myself included. It showed me walking out the café, alone. Ana worried over me there, but it did not surprise me. I had always known Mo’s spectre to be a hallucination, even when I talked to him.
Next on the recording was the most curious thing: the van’s blue dot briefly flashed as it passed through the spot where it had ‘crashed’ into Mo, and provided the following text on the screen: “CivLink log: collision report 000a: 18:46:59. Link ID not available. Speed: 49.2 km/h. Bearing: 197.”
“I have never seen a report like this. There is no proximity alert, and I’ve never seen a collision report with such a strange code,” Samuel admitted
“You’re using the Overhead Command Link to regulate traffic,” I said. It was not a question any longer, and as I spoke the words, I thought of Sara and the taxi, and realized that the OCL had penetrated into civilian life at a much deeper level. Setting the dizzying implications of all that aside for the moment, I could clarify one thing for the police officer: “000a means that the Link has encountered an anomaly.”
I thought of Mo. I had been registered into this civilian Link when I went through customs, but he never had, and thus wouldn’t show up as long as there were no sensors to detect his presence in one way or another. But he was a hallucination, wasn’t he? There was no way he could have caused a collision. I started to think out loud, as I had grown used to doing when working out a problem with Smith or Mo: “The collision report means the van must have hit something, but that something isn’t registered in the Link, which is why there is no proximity alert.”
“You were the only witness on scene, Sir,” Samuel reminded me.
I cursed my broken mind and once again set out to explain my hallucinations.
At this point, Ana interjected, arguing that my vision of Mo might have overlapped with a real person, someone who is not registered. As I pondered having told some of my deepest secrets to a total stranger, she observed that I was unusually clear of mind when focused on this riddle and decided that it could prove therapeutic to solve the case. Thus, I ended up taking the police job I had previously rejected.