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CORDYCEPS: Too clever for their own good

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Honestly, who hasn't woken up in a hospital bed with no memory of how they got there? Like, that's a universal human experience, right? It's not weird? I'm asking because I actually don't know.

I wake up in this room, right? And like, it's pretty clearly a hospital room. There's like, instruments on the walls, and a little sink thing, hand sanitizer, a curtain dealie that cuts the room in half. I think I know what a hospital room looks like. It looks a lot like, but not quite exactly like, this room I woke up in.

I didn't panic when I woke up. It didn't feel like, oh, crap, how did I get there, this isn't my room! That's how I eventually realized I should have reacted when I woke up, but I didn't. It felt... totally normal, like yeah this was just another day. I got out of bed and stumbled groggily over to the sink. Turned on the water, started washing my face, got a little shocked by how cold it was.

You know how when you use a sink for a while, you get used to its... personality? Like, you turn on the hot and cold to get warm water, but it takes a while for the hot to get hot, so it's cold at first? Or sometimes it's the other way around, and it's really sensitive to how much you turn the hot handle, so you need to learn the right angle to get water that's warm but not scalding. A lot of it becomes muscle memory, but you can come back to the same sink years later and be like “oh, yeah, it's THIS guy, the handle's loose so you need to push it until you can FEEL the bit inside move”.

So I got shocked by how cold the water was. It was one of those sinks where the heat takes a second to warm up.

You get why that's weird, right?

You don't expect anything, when you meet a new sink. You've got to be ready for anything, experiment a little to get a feel for it. You run your hand in the water and adjust the knobs until it's just right. That's standard procedure.

But I'd turned the sink on without thinking about it, and then gotten surprised when it was cold. That's weird. You only turn the sink on without thinking when you know the sink, when you've been using it every day. Muscle memory. My muscles remembered how to turn on the sink, but my brain didn't remember to wait for the heat to come on.

I'd never been in that hospital room before, as far as I could remember.

(Maybe you already see where this is going. Maybe you've at least started to think about it, started questioning my assumptions, been like “hey, this is obvious, why didn't you pick up on it?” and stuff. Me, though... I was sleepy and I'd just gotten a faceful of ice water. Cut me some slack. The other shoe dropped later.)

Anyway, I didn't pick up on the muscle memory thing at the time. The jolt made me acutely aware of how I was not in a place I remembered being. That got me panicked, got me looking around. Had to figure out where I was.

The first thing I noticed was the counter next to the sink. There were a bunch of papers I wanted to read, but my hands were wet. Can't pick up paper with wet hands, I'd wreck it. So I looked around for something to dry them on.

There was the curtain, but this was a hospital room. Who knew what gross bodily fluids that thing was covered in? My gray hospital gown- which I didn't remember putting on- looked kinda grody, like I'd been lying in it for a while. There were the blankets and sheets on the bed, but, again, hospital. Box of tissues, no. You ever try to dry your hands with tissues? They fall apart and stick to your hands. It's a bad time. Curtains on the window, same problem as the divider curtain. Potentially gross.

I was eying a little thing of sanitary wipes on the wall when I realized my hands had pretty much dripped dry while I was looking for stuff. I shrugged. Went back to the papers. Grabbed a plastic folder, first, since my hands were still a little wet.

“Emergency Meditation Guide”, the first page read.

Yeah. Weird title. You'd think in an emergency, you'd want to, like... not meditate. Maybe it was about meditating on the concept of emergencies? Whatever. I flipped open to the first page, my interest piqued.

 

ELEPHANT WARNING: PERSONNEL SUPERVISION REQUIRED

This copy of the Shelhart EMG belongs to Dr. F Orchard . The EMG is to be administered only by the EMG's owner. If you are not the EMG's owner, do not read any portion of this document except that which is shown to you by the owner as part of the Shelhart Procedure v1. THIS DOCUMENT IS HAZARDOUS. Unsupervised reading of this document is typically followed by severe legal action, amnestic relapse, and death.

Unsupervised patients are urged in the strongest possible terms to restrain their curiosity. This warning does not constitute a test, trick, or joke.

 

So I immediately turned the page and kept reading, right? Obviously that's what you do when you encounter something weird and you're looking for information. Everyone knows you ignore stuff like that. You read The Monster At The End Of This Book, right? Did anyone ever just listen to Grover when he begged and begged you not to keep turning pages? Did anyone even consider that their lovable, furry blue pal had some key insight they were missing? No way.

Except I did listen. Something about it spooked me. There was a part of me screaming that I was being stupid, that sticks and stones could break my bones but words could never hurt me... but for some reason, it felt important to ignore that voice.

If I couldn't find out anything else, after looking around, maybe I'd go back to it.

The papers surrounding the EMG were my medical charts. My height, weight, blood pressure, a bunch of acronyms and jargon I didn't get. I'd never really paid attention to all those stats- if someone had asked my height, I probably would've been like “...five and a half-ish feet? Maybe?” and moved on. Numbers like that never seemed important to me.

Nothing seemed unusual about the medical records- the section on medications I was taking included an antibiotic and a multivitamin, brand names I recognized. Nothing that indicated that there was anything wrong with me.

Anyway, I looked around some more. Remember earlier I said that hospital rooms looked almost, but not quite, like this place? Because it had some key differences from your average hospital room. Most of them indicated that the place was... lived-in.

The bed was cozy. Like, really plush. It had decorated pillowcases, a memory-foam mattress, and several layers of blankets and comforters, like someone with disposable income would set up for their own bed. Not like a hospital would throw together so some sick rando would have a place to sleep for a few nights.

A bookcase, with some science fiction books. A series, actually- The Light Marathon. I'd read some of the early books, which were sci-fi thrillers about an interplanetary cyberpunk conspiracy. I'd been planning to read the rest.

There was a table. Wooden table, with wooden chairs, with a board game in progress. Risk, it looked like. It looked like it had been two players- only green and brown were on the board, and the map looked pretty evenly matched. This was a game that had been left in the middle. (Don't judge me, but I peeked at both players' facedown cards. Brown had three soldiers and a cannon, and Green just had one soldier and two horses. So Green wouldn't be able to turn in three of a kind for extra armies next turn, by the looks of it. Or it might have been the other way around, if I had the cards mixed up.)

There were cabinets next to the sink, mostly empty except for some bottles of medication I didn't recognize, and didn't want to mess with. There was a cabinet under the sink with plastic bags and cleaning supplies. There was a mirror above the sink, and on the mirror was a sticker. A big red sticker with a number, (404) 555-9733, purporting to be a Prevention Suicide Hotline. It was placed right in the middle, so I had to kind of bend down to see my reflection, which was annoying.

And there was a window.

Well, no, there wasn't a window. There was a big blue rectangular light, the color of the sky, behind some blinds and curtains. Some kind of natural light generator, but not a view of the outside world.

“Huh,” I said, to no one in particular.

There was also a phone. I didn't bother calling the hotline, because it was labeled with a few internal numbers, written in in pen. Figured those would be better to call before the emergency number. I tried the one labeled Reception. It rang for a few seconds, and then a woman's voice responded.

“Hello-”

“Hi! Listen, I don't think-”

“We're sorry, but no one is available to take your call,” the pre-recorded message continued. “The receptionist on duty is diverted for- TEN- minutes, and has recorded the following hold message:”

Well, crap. I'd try a different number, then. I reached to dial, but the receptionist's hold message played.

“-god, oh god. Listen, I've got to-” the voice said, and then became a little more distant, as if he were facing away from the receiver.

“-no, Lissie, I know! But if any of the patients call while I'm- no, they might try to- shush! It's recording! Give me five seconds, for the love of god! Uh-”

The voice came back to full volume. “-sorry, just- sorry, please, I'll be right back, don't leave your room, just- okay, fine! Yeah, I'm-”

-and back down again-

“-done! I'm coming! Jesus!”

And then silence. After a few seconds, a dial tone.

I tried a few of the other numbers. Cafeteria, Dr. Orchard, Nurse, Dr. Parik, Nurse... all of them had “We're sorry, but no one is available to take your call.” And then I could leave a message, after the beep. So I did, on the ones that offered the option. Orchard and the two Nurse options, but not Dr. Parik or the Cafeteria.

“Hi- I'm here in room-” I looked at the room number, on a plaque by the door- “-room 440-3, and I think I was probably asleep until now, and I don't know how I got here, and... if anyone's available to come explain what's going on, I could use some help.”

Variations on that message, for Orchard and the two nurses. Every time I got a little more confident, less shaky, repeating the message to anyone that would listen.

I sat there for a while. Didn't leave my room right away. Figured someone would come, call back, check on me... I read some of the fourth Light Marathon book, for a while. It was about fifteen minutes, before I remembered. The receptionist was supposed to be back in ten minutes, so... he'd be back now, right? I picked up the phone and dialed.

“-god, oh god. Listen, I've got-” the voice repeated when I reached it. The same spiel. He'd been gone for longer then ten minutes, for sure.

How'd the machine “known” how long he would be gone? He probably punched in an estimate himself, right? And everything always takes twice as long as you think it will, so really he'd be gone for 20 minutes. Maybe he'd recorded that message right before I called, maybe he'd be back in another three, four minutes...

Five minutes of Light Marathon later, I tried again. Same message.

The door had a little window in it. I could see a bit of an empty hallway, the lights dimmed, identical numbered doors stretching in both directions. Nobody I could see waiting to stop me from leaving.

So I left my room.