Walking in darkness, despite the birdsong that spoke of day, she made her way into Aokigahara, the Sea of Trees. Her footsteps were small and measured, almost as if the feet moved independently of her. From the way she put out a hand to verify her position occasionally, an observer might have thought she was navigating by her sense of touch.
The observer would have been partly correct. Kemushi knew the number of steps to the first turning, and the second. But trees sometimes fall. She always checked certain ones to know they were still standing. If she tripped over a fallen trunk and fell, she might lose her orientation and never find the hermit's aek in this woods, let alone find her way back to the village. She knew the shack was out here, but she could only find it by following the precise route she had followed the first time she had found him. If she deviated by a single step the hut would not be there.
Fortunately Kemushi had an excellent memory. It was good at remembering whatever she wished. It was equally adept at not recalling things she preferred not to face, according to Dr. Wu.
At the thought of Wu she had to smile inside. He was a kind man, but his serenity was so easily ruptured whenever she tried to speak to him about Tsuneo, whom he considered imaginary. (The Hermit, on the other hand, never tried to tell her that Wu was a delusion.)
“Woolly bear, you must learn to cast these illusions aside, or you will never make progress,” Wu had told her, many times. “You must deal with reality, eventually, or you will sleep forever.”
“And what if I do?” she had retorted. “You say this world is an illusion. What of it? All worlds are illusions. Didn't you tell me that once? All illusions, from particles to people to planets.”
“It's not the same thing at all,” he had said, exasperated. “This sanctuary I built for all of us is an illusion. If you want to argue philosophy, then maybe the medical link bed that is sustaining your body and keeping your brain active is an illusion. But you and your situation are not – or else I am talking to myself.”
Five more steps. Turn left. Fifteen steps forward. If he was with her, Wu would have said she was following an obsessive compulsion, a private ritual to summon an imaginary friend. She suppressed a laugh. It didn't matter what Wu thought. She knew how to reach her friend, and that was enough for her.
Turn right. Seventeen steps. She reached out a hand and felt the doorway. “Are you home, old man?” she called.
“Are you?” his voice answered.
“No...” she said uncertainly.
“Then neither am I,” he replied. “Go away.”
Kemushi sighed and knocked again. “Are you home, old man?”
“Then so am I. What are you standing out there for? Come in!”
She shook her head and remembered to duck going into the doorway: Tsuneo was short.
There it was again, that little tingle she always felt as she passed across the threshold. The first time, she had thought she was getting sick. But it happened each time she visited, so her fears faded.
Duck and step across threshold. Three steps forward. Turn right. Two more steps, turn around and sit. The chair was where she remembered it. “What was that all about?” she asked the sage. “Are you trying to teach me that wherever I am is home?”
“Maybe I was,” he said. In her mind's eye he was shaking his head. “But it's not a concept to learn. You have to feel it. Never mind. Would you like some tea?”
“Hai, Tsuneo-san,” she said, holding out her hands. In a moment, she felt the warm weight of a porcelain cup in them. She brought the cup to her face and felt the steam rising from it, waiting for it to cool a little.
“Has poor Dr. Wu been telling you again that I am imaginary?” Tsuneo asked her.
Kemushi sighed. “As always. He is so worried that my cherished illusions and imaginary friend are keeping me comatose. But I think you help me more than he ever did.”
“Don't be so hasty,” he advised. “The good doctor has your best interests at heart. You were one of his first VT cases. In fact, it was your case that inspired him to ask permission to create the Enclave. Many patients have benefited from his virtual therapy...but so far you are not one of them.”
She sipped the tea. The flavor was foreign, but oddly familiar. “This isn't your usual,” she remarked. “Where did you get it?”
“Oh, I have my ways,” he said. Her imagination supplied an enigmatic smile. “Does it remind you of anything?”
“Yes,” she admitted. She sipped again. There it was again, that strange citrus component, not lemon or orange, but similar.
“Do you like it?” he queried.
“Very much. What is it, orange pekoe?”
He snorted. “Hardly. That's a variety of black tea, from Sri Lanka and India, with the green leaves darkened by oxidation, sometimes with the 'pekoes' or unopened buds left orange for color.”
“Then what is this, really? It tastes like there is citrus in it.”
“Oh, there is,” he said. “I was hoping you'd recognize it. It's called 'Earl Grey', and the extra flavor comes from oil of bergamot, a citrus tree grown in Italy. According to Wu, it used to be your favorite.”
“How could you even know that?” she asked, feeling herself frown. “I'd forgotten I told him, and he insists that our sessions are private.”
“I have very sensitive ears,” Tsuneo told her. “You be surprised what I know. I can even hear your thoughts, when you think loudly enough.”
She drank more of the tea. “Everyone keeps trying to jog my memory,” she complained. “Why can't they just let me be, let me just stay as I am? Why stir up old worries?”
“I'm a big believer in contentment, little one,” he said gently, “but there are larger issues involved. Your body is lying in a very old model of the neural transceiver you call a 'link bed'. The device will not last much longer. In fact, it's amazing that it's lasted this long. The connections to it are so delicate that Wu never figured out how to transfer you over to another one without the risk of hurting you.”
“So what?” she challenged. “No one lives forever. I like my life in here. It's peaceful. I'd rather die happy than live in turmoil.”
“It's not that simple,” he told her. “Your husband needs you. Your daughter needs you. They need a wife and a mother, not a body on a bed dreaming her life away in peaceful fantasy. Sometimes the pain of the truth is preferable to the pleasure of fantasy.”
“My family is dead,” she snapped. “If they weren't, Wu would have located them long ago. Don't you think he tried? He knows that if he could find them, I'd want to be with them.”
“Oh, he tried. But the trail was erased before he even started. You see, a lot of records were wiped or corrupted by the EMP over Chelmsford. If you'd only been a criminal, he'd have had a much better chance, what with all the forensic DNA backups.”
“Can't we talk about something else?” she asked him, sipping her tea and striving to regain her calm. “It's all water under the bridge. So much time has passed, they'd never remember me anyway.”
“You'd be surprised.”
“I doubt it. Surprise me another way. I don't know how you know the things you know, but you seem to, so...have there been any new developments in neuro-cybernetics?”
Now it was his turn to sigh. “Yes, but not the kind of developments you mean. Your blindness is psychological, not the result of injury or macular degeneration. Advances in microsurgery are moot in your case, I'm afraid.”
She was on her feet so fast that tea slopped over the side of her cup. She could feel it on her fingers. “Don't you dare say hysterical blindness!” she hissed. “Don't you think I want to see?”
“You don't want to see or remember, if it means leaving Wu's little community,” he said. “You've become too comfortable here. All that will soon change, however.”
She tensed. If she'd been using eyes they would have narrowed to slits. “What do you mean by that?” she demanded.
“I wish I could tell you everything,” he said, “but half the fun is in the discovery process. The game has begun, the ball's in play. And by ball, I mean the Earth, or at least its inhabitants.”
“More riddles?” she snapped. “I thought you were my friend. Are you trying to help at all, or is everything a game to you?”
“Actually, it is a game, in more ways than one. But a very serious game. You see, the destiny of your species is literally up for grabs.”
“What do you mean, my species?”
“That's a story for another time. For now, if I were you, I'd concentrate on the present. I wish I could say more, but I've used up my leeway. May the gods be with you.”
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