My eyelids fluttered open and the world faded into view. Commotion echoed through my ears and around me. The lights above shone far too bright.
"Officer Young," a familiar voice called.
My brain was so foggy I couldn't place who it was. I tried to form actual words, but they didn't vocalize so instead I groaned. It felt like I hadn't spoken in weeks.
"Don't try to speak, Talon." Lucere stepped into view. "We just had to make sure you woke up in the real before you go back into virtual." Her face was so close to mine her brown curls ticked my cheek.
"Get them back into virtual Lucy," said another voice, "They will need their rest for the coming days. And would you help them setup a home 'scape?"
"Yes Commander," Lucere didn't bother looking at what had to be Tamaki, instead brushing her fingers against my cheek. They felt amazing against my smooth-
Smooth? I didn't remember having smooth cheeks. Ah well: I figured I wouldn't get a say in what I looked like coming out anyway.
"Now, Lucy," Tamaki shouted, departure pitching her voice down.
Lucere whispered something into my ear. My brain melting again robbed my ability to understand what she said, but she probably knew that.
It was hard to describe moving to virtual with the implant and not the crown. It was a feeling between movement and stillness and yet it was neither; my senses were utterly confounded.
I still had consciousness, if only for a second, before I was fully in virtual. The idea of having two bodies wasn't completely foreign to me: I often felt it would be fun to have two separate bodies, completely different in looks and configuration, to experiment with.
I shook the errant thoughts out of my head and gathered my bearings. I was nowhere I recognized, standing on a boundary between forest and clearing. A house of sorts stood before me, with walls of solid wood and a roof of branches, woven densely and covered in leaves. Supposedly it didn't rain here, otherwise she would've done something about that.
"The implant manages your sleep for you." Lucere startled me from out of nowhere. "And you can be conscious in the real while managing things here in virtual. It's a bit of a weird feeling, but you get used to it."
I turned by head toward her. "Then how come I can't feel my body now?"
She was looking at me now and wow. Her eyes gleamed beautifully and locked to mine, as if gazing into my thoughts. "I've disabled it. Your implant is under remote management until you're ready to be completely awake in the real."
"Fantastic." Each syllable played a note of sarcasm. I figured that meant she could just scramble my brain if I offended her. She probably wouldn't, but the option being there is mildly scary.
"No, not really," she admitted, "It's actually super dangerous. We disable remote controls once you're capable of operating it on your own."
Worry and anxiety taintied my voice and face. "I assume you can kill me if things are set wrong?" My safety and privacy were things I worried about: after all, I needed to be alone with my thoughts so I could figure myself out.
"In theory," she said, "but I doubt reality would prove it; human brains are far more capable of dealing with new circumstances than we ever give them credit for. The real issue is privacy: I'd have total access to you without your consent if I wanted it."
A blush crawled up my cheeks. The idea of being completely transparent to anyone was, a bit hot. "Oh."
She giggled. "Of course as the medical officer, I will always get full body reports from your implant. Those are kept confidental, and I don't look at them unless my screening programs determined a problem."
"Like if I'm taking abnormal amounts of pain?" I noticed my entire body was tingling. In hindsight, maybe getting the implant was a bit bad of an idea.
"Yeah, among a host of other symptoms of disease that can be fixed," Lucere replied, "and those that can't."
Sudden vulnerability overtook me and my tone dried in short order. "That feels invasive. Couldn't I have been given a rundown of all this before I decided to get it?"
She sighed. "Honestly, I'm the one who wants to wait on those things. Unfortunately it's written into our provisional contract that we have monitoring in place for all field and administration staff."
"And y'all chose implants?"
"No," she replied, "it was part of the contract. The company chose an implant they had designed the year magic was discovered. At first they could only record what the user saw, but as the years progressed we've added all sorts of features we deemed necessary, like inducing virtual reality and sending us medical information."
"And connecting to this optical implant." I laughed when I finally noticed visual data in my peripheral vision. I focused my attention on it. The display exploded into full view: I saw my heart rate, a damage report on my body, a navigation map, and a handful of other readings about me.
Oddly enough there was also a messaging system and web browser. I popped open the messenger and saw a bunch of contacts already logged: tactical operatives, mostly, but also all the other officers.
I thought about one contact that stuck out: Medical Officer Manafed, Lucere. A chat window opened immediately. I thought about a message to send, eventually settling on something simple.
I saw her laugh beside me, and she gave me a face.
"Thanks Lucy." It was just thought that drove it. "That's way easier than I thought it'd be."
"It's really nice," she replied, "far easier than talking a lot of times."
I laughed. "Hey Doc, why's that massive headache gone?"
She returned a giggle. "Oh. Your implant is helping you manage your pain, don't worry."
"My headache is still here, but I can't feel it?"
Her giggle grew into laughter. "Yeah, so you're gonna have to realize that lack of pain no longer means all good. You've got that heads-up display for a reason. If you start feeling pain that's when you're really in trouble."
It made sense, so I nodded.
"We just gonna stand here talking, or are you going to come into my home?" she asked me with a smile.
"I suppose, sorry," I mummbled, "I just have a lot of questions and get distracted easily."
Another laugh. "No problem." She started walking to her house.
The path was short, but each step felt like miles. I could understand what she meant by lack of pain. It wasn't a pain, but more a feeling of weariness: my brain functioned perfectly but my body was sluggish. I lost my balance and fell back.
"Hey hey!" Lucere swooped in and caught me. "Are you okay?"
"I'm not sure." I checked the body readout on my HUD. "It says I'm all orange. I assume that means good?"
"No." Shock and worry mixed on her face. She set me on my feet. "Orange is not good. Not as bad as red, but not green."
"Oh," I said, a bit dazed, "So definitely not good." At least it wasn't as bad as red. Don't freak out, I thought, trying to keep calm.
"No, not good, especially since my sensors are not reading anything wrong for your current situation."
I tapped on my head. "You getting a feed from my implant?"
"Not yet," she replied, "It does need about twelve hours to get a proper baseline, but even then it shouldn't be reading orange. Your body is in perfect health according to all my- no wait." A couple seconds passed. "Your body just entered the next phase of transformation."
I nodded, then a massive headache split my skull, radiating from two points not far up in my hairline. The pain exploded and I fell over. The reverberations excruciated.
"Hold on," Lucere's voice echoed through my brain, "I'm moving you back to the cryochamber."
"Horns!" I screamed, "I've got horns breaking through my skull!"
Lucere stared at me, her eyes wide. "You do."
"What?" I asked, my prior volume not quite gone. I reached up to feel, but nothing was there.
"Your real body," she said, "I'm looking at you right now. They're pretty, and blue."
"Pretty?" My voice wavered. The pain nearly incapacitated me.
"Yes, pretty. I'm gonna give you some pain management medication, but you'll probably get knocked out."
"No," I said. The pain started to level off instead to climbing to yet newer heights. "I need to remain conscious, as hard as that's going to be with all this pain."
Lucere grumbled. "Fine. Let me get you inside at least." She lifted me up off my feet and bridal-carried me to a comfy couch inside. It felt odd, but not in a bad way: between the pain and confusion it was hard to tell whether the pulses were excitement or embarrassment.
The inside was quaint, beautiful, and easy to live in. The walls were as plain as the outside. There was simple wooden furniture, but in the corner, around a table, I saw comfier furniture too.
Lucere laid me down on the small couch and set herself down on a nearby chair just as cozy. Mugs of unknown liquid and some small shortbreads appeared on the table.
I giggled, despite all the pain it caused to radiate through me.
"I can't believe you're remaining conscious through all that," she said eventually. There was a hollow look in her eyes; the purple glow I was starting to get used to was alarmingly absent.
"Holy shit Lucy," I exclaimed, "Your eyes are actually a soft purple, like um-"
"Lavender, most of the time, yes." She laughed, but the hollow look persisted. "You've just been seeing my magic through them."
I coughed, another wave of pain searing my back. "I feel like I'm going to die." I felt as sombre as my voice, the pain keeping me awake by a margin.
"You won't under my care." I could hear the flex in her voice, and she sounded genuine in her belief. "But I know it feels that way. Your body is literally reforming right now, in so many interesting ways."
"You ever lose anyone?" I asked hesitantly.
False horror haunted her voice. "No! And how dare you ask!"
I laughed in spite of myself, in spite of agony. How could I not? She was being far, far too cute in defending herself.
Too cute? I don't recall ever thinking of anyone as cute.
I felt a frown pull at my lips. I didn't actually know what this meant, what this new range of emotions really meant.
Did this mean I liked Lucere?
Why was this so complicated?
"You're growing wings," she said, a weird look on her face, "Wings, Talon."
I stalled for a few seconds, trying to come up with something to say.
Lucere broke the silence for me. "What is your ideal body?"
"I have no clue," I admitted, "I've never thought about it."
"The Pale Goddess always delivers," she whispered, mirroring Tamaki's earlier words.
"You sound like Tamaki." I gave those words some thought. "May I feel my real body, just a little?"
"Yeah, I'll make the adjustment; tell me if it's too much for you." A confused look appeared on her face. I could immediately tell when she made it: the pain filtered through much more consistently, the pulses nearly rhythmic.
But I could also feel my body, how it had changed, how it was changing. I tried moving my hand, my real hand. The movement was there, but it was very slow, likely from the cryofluid in my veins cooling me down.
Eventually my hand and arm cought up with my brain and I could feel the horns growing. They were so small they barely poked out from just above my hairline.
"Don't open your eyes," Lucere instructed, "If you do, there may be a very long period of blindness. Still haven't got the cryofluid completely perfected yet."
"My eyeballs will freeze, won't they?"
"Fuck," I said, feeling thoroughly worn out, "Alright, I don't wanna feel my body anymore." And then I didn't. I was alone with my digital self once more.
I could breathe again without the mortal tension. Breathing felt amazing.
"Anything else I can help you with before we go build your mindscape?" Lucere asked.
"A kiss," I muttered, nearly inaudibly.
She wore a sly smile. "What was that?"
A blush toned my face pink. "Nothing. Let's go build a 'scape."