The hospital was in a state of complete pandemonium. Sitting in the waiting room for three hours in agonizing pain allowed me the opportunity to listen in on the nurses and doctors as they hurried about, trying to make sense of the madness.
"We've got more Authority officers." One nurse said as she jogged from one room to another.
"They said the infirmary is full and they've got more coming." A doctor told a receptionist.
"I've got strong vitals on all of them, but they're completely unresponsive. Kansas City is reporting the same."
If it hadn't been for the blinding pain that came from breathing, I might have been able to soak in the gravity of the situation.
Every single Authority soldier had suffered the same fate as Senator Hernandez.
I finally had a nurse show me to my room. She went through the usual routine, and after doing my blood work found that I failed a drug test for boost. She asked me if I needed a few minor doses to fight the withdraws that I was feeling.
That was when I realized that I wasn't feeling any withdraws. In fact, I hadn't craved any boost since the Hacienda. I couldn't understand how I had gone that long without even the slightest bit of withdraw symptoms.
Thinker had given me the same choice that he'd given to Monica. While he file shared with me, he tweaked a couple things in my head. I was no longer an addict.
What else has he done to me? I asked Paige.
It is impossible to tell, Erik.
Once I was given a healthy dose of painkillers and my head started working properly again, I called Herman. Thinker had told the truth when he said that he let his grip over him go. He woke up in his apartment and wondered why it was so messy, why he was hooked to a nearly empty I.V., and why his pistols were missing. He didn't even know that he'd missed a beat.
I gave him the quick version of the story and told him to come and see me in the hospital when he got a chance. He told me that he was on his way.
While I waited for him, I pondered on the events of the week prior. I thought about Thinker and Evelyn, James and Monica, and Paige.
I started to slowly piece together my theory on what had happened to the senator and the Authority. Edward had known all along that the senator would choose me to look for him, and built a plan around it. I wondered if he had known early enough that he chose to befriend Evelyn, knowing that I would be as attracted to her as I was.
I figured that he'd developed a virus that would put people in the same coma that Herman had been in. He must have put it in my head when he shared the files with me, knowing that Juan would try to steal information from me.
I'd been nothing more than a carrier for the virus that would take down the government.
I thought about how I couldn't understand why I willingly roused the senator into a confrontation that I knew I could not win. I wondered if Edward had done something to me that led me there and urged me to push Juan.
These were surely questions that would never be answered, but I couldn't help wonder them anyways.
Herman knocked on my door, two cups of noodles in his hands.
"You look like shit." He said with a grin on his face.
"You look well rested." I smiled back at him, wishing that I had more painkillers in my bloodstream.
He moved over and sat down in the chair next to my bed.
"You brought noodles?"
"Yeah. Ain't that some shit?" He laughed.
"You know, you're going to have to feed them to me. I can't move my arms so well." I said.
"You can go ahead and throw that idea right out your damned head, crazy bitch."
It was good to see him moving around and acting like himself. I'd been worried that he might have suffered some long term effects, but my fears were quickly diminished by his rough humor.
"So I logged onto the public domain today. Wanted to see what all I missed." He said. I was surprised that he could be so quick to sync again, but he was the fearless type.
"So what's going on out there?" I asked, not really caring what the answer was. Trying to make small talk while I watched Herman eat his delicious smelling noodles was no easy task. Knowing that I'd been set on a steady diet of I.V. for the next three weeks was not going to be a fun venture.
"Well, shit hit the fan. Seems that every senator in the Republic is experiencing the same shit as them fuzz bitches. The docs can't figure out a way to wake them up. Sound familiar?" He jested.
I told him a little more about the week and the case. He sat silently, taking in every word. His jokes ended when I told him about Evelyn's death, and I appreciated it.
A little while later, the nurse made him leave for the night. Before he left, he pulled my modem out of his pocket.
"I figured you might want to get some sleep. I know you must be missing your girl by now."
He had no idea.
It wasn't five minutes after he left the room that I plugged myself in and was launched into the room that I'd missed so much.
In the distance, I could see Paige walking along the shoreline. There was something different about her, but I couldn't put my finger on it at first. Longing to hold her, I ran as fast as my virtual feet would allow me until I could truly take in the differences.
Her red hair had turned black and had been shortened to shoulder length. She still had one strawberry red streak to the right side of her part, but that was all that remained of her original color. Her long, white dress had been replaced by a short, black dress with a red belt. What she still had was that she was still barefoot, still had her stunning blue eyes, and still possessed a few of her freckles.
The biggest difference was the way she moved. She walked with a sensuality that I'd never seen in her before. I suppose that she truly was a reflection of my subconscious now.
I ran up and put my lips on hers, so happy to see her in any form. No matter what she looked like in my dream sync, she would always be my Paige. I had always felt strongly about her, but things were intensified now. I knew that I loved her, and I would make sure that she knew it.
We were engaged in the kiss for a few minutes, getting more and more passionate as the seconds passed, until she stopped me. The look in her eyes I had seen before.
"Someone's here." She said.
I turned around and Thinker's lion avatar was standing only a few feet away. I wasn't fearful of him now, but glad to see him. It was like seeing a long lost friend, even though I'd only truly known him for an hour.
"Edward?" I asked the avatar, confused by his presence.
"Hello, Erik. I am a recording, but I assume you that." His voice was not his own, but the deep and powerful voice that he'd chosen for himself while in the virtual world. "If you are seeing me here, that means that we succeeded, but it also means that I've died at the hands of the Republic. I wanted to come to you and clear a few things up for you, as I know that they will undoubtedly eat at you for the rest of your life if I don't.
"I knew a long time ago that I was going to die this way, and I had accepted it. My death had to happen in order for the virus to be effectively passed on. Evelyn, according to my calculations, has probably died as well. From my figures, she had less than a tenth of a chance at survival through all of this. Although we never discussed her chances, I know that she was at peace with it as well. It is regrettable, none the less. For both of us, I'm sure."
I didn't believe him when he said that she was at peace with it. I saw the look on her face as her vibrant life left her, and it was not the face of acceptance.
"As for your role in this saga, I am truly sorry that you ever had to become involved. It was not my choice, but I would still like to offer my apologies. You stood a ninety-seven percent chance at surviving the situation, but I'm sure that you got roughed up pretty bad. For that, I am sorry.
"I'm sure that by now you've noticed that I've taken away your addiction to boost. Like Monica, it is your choice now. If you decide to go back, there will be nothing that anyone can do for you. But it is like I told James: 'free will is the most important part of being human'.
"So from here, I can only tell you that the world is open for change. The changes that will be made are up to you and rest of the people on this continent. I have no doubt that you will make the best of the situation moving forward."
The lion turned to walk away, but stopped and turned his head to speak over his shoulder.
"Oh, and one last thing." He said. "Thank you, Erik"
At that, he walked off into my valley, slowly disappearing a little more with each step.
I sometimes worry about what the future will hold for us now. The Republic was officially dismantled one week after every senator fell into what became known as 'the great coma', and our first democratic election is to be held in three weeks. It will be the first time that the Americas have voted for their government officials since I was a child.
Truthfully, I try not to think about the future too much, knowing that Edward had done his homework before bringing down the world as we knew it. I put my faith in Thinker, just as the Enlightened had.
But at this moment, I sit on my new hilltop, not worrying about the outside world.
The funny thing about androids is that they do exactly what they are told to do, and will not deviate from their orders until they are give new ones. The senator's secretary wired the four million dollars to my account, just as she'd been directed.
I went back to the dream sync house and talked to Steven one more time. I gave him back his I.V. unit and paid him a good chunk of change to point me in the direction of his programmer. From there, I hired the top shelf designer to build me a new dream sync room.
Sitting here with Paige, I can't regret anything about the case. It brought me to this point, where I can feel her touch again, every night. I kept most of the room the same, of course. I made it a little bigger and more complex, just for the hell of it. Paige and I needed some a new forest to explore and a new mountain range to fly to, after all.
For right now, however, we are lying in the tall grass next to the river that is full of catfish, and we are watching the hundreds of shooting stars that streak across the sky every minute.
I catch Paige looking at me from the corner of my eye, and I return her gaze. We bring our lips together, and in this moment, I am happy.
I want to thank everyone that has read this story from beginning to end. It truly means a lot to me that so many people have enjoyed my story. Now I have to ask a favor. If you have made it this far, please comment and let me know what you enjoyed, disliked, loved, and hated about the story. Once again, thank you so much for you support.