She was running again, her feet pounding the pavement, the wind cooling the perspiration on her brow. Mile after mile after mile, lost in the private mental world of the marathon runner; there was the strange effect of running on the spot as though the scenery itself was streaming past and she was centred as the universe whirled around her. Not for her the brief exhilaration of the sprinter, once committed to the Marathon, the runner is subsumed, swallowed up, the race is running the runner.
The doctor toyed with his stethoscope, the familiar tool of his trade reassuring in the presence of these newcomers, computer people and technicians, as they fiddled with their leads and connections to the gleaming machinery which engulfed his patient in a maze of tubes and wires. The torso in the cylinder played host to these excrescences. Most of them were familiar as standard life support systems, but these new gadgets—VR application hardware they called it—were quite beyond him. He hoped they knew what they were doing. He looked at the IC monitor, well at least her vital signs looked good.
The runner pounded on, only vaguely conscious of the passing scene and the cheering spectators. She was sure she was making good time, but she felt a growing sense of unease. Don’t look back. Don’t ever look back. That had always been her motto, yet an almost irresistible urge to do so grew. She increased her pace, but the feeling of being closely followed persisted; for a second the flawless pace faltered. With an effort she regained her faultless rhythm, she was going to win this race.
The doctor’s frown eased as the meter readings stabilised, for a brief second there had been a chaotic variation. He rationalised his feelings of alarm. Everything looks okay now, it was probably some slight effect caused by the new gadgets. Still, he had better check. He pulled the sleeve of the consultant psychiatrist who was closely watching the technicians. He nodded towards the corridor in a silent invitation to consult in private. The psychiatrist inclined his head in agreement and they left the ward. The computer men were oblivious of their departure.
The city streets had disappeared together with the spectators and she was running along a country road. Green fields extended on either side. In its paddock, a horse paced her as she passed, stopping in frustration as it reached a boundary fence. She ran on.
“What do you know of her background?” The psychiatrist asked the hospital resident as they stood outside the private ward.
“Only that it is a very interesting case medically: Multiple amputations due to muscle melt-down. A marathon runner who literally burned herself up. She is lucky to be alive. She must have been a lovely girl. But what is all the new gadgetry?”
“She is still running that race.” said the psychiatrist. “We are feeding her through tubes as though she were in a coma. Well I suppose she is, in a way, but an active coma, a living dream. What we are trying to do here is to break into that dream and lead her back to reality. Lucky her father is a Greek shipping millionaire who is paying for all this state of the art equipment. We have fitted her with Virtual Reality sensors and are running a computer enhanced tape of the marathon run. Soon, my graduate student, he’s the blond one, will put on the other set. He will be able to run with her, to talk to her. But first she must accept him into her ‘reality’. Let us get back in. It is nearly time.”
The road ran through a dark wood and unconsciously she lengthened her stride. Again she felt a presence behind her- ‘Don’t look back! — ‘Don’t look back! ’ It was as though the shadows had coalesced into a relentless pursuer. She fixed her eyes on the patch of sunlight that marked the end of the trees. She could see a figure standing there, waving her on. ‘A spectator? Out here? Maybe he is an official’ As she drew closer she saw that he was blond, tall and athletic. She ignored the menace behind her and fixed her eyes on his face.
The doctor watched the young man standing near the hospital bed. He looked grotesque in his weird helmet, wires everywhere connecting to the apparatus. He was nearly motionless but the doctor observed that he was twitching like a sleeping dog — little spasmodic movements of the arms and legs. The psychiatrist put on a pair of headphones and gestured towards a spare headset inviting the doctor to do the same. They heard the young man speak.
“Hi Christina, mind if I join you for a while?” the spectator called as she drew level. She felt a sudden lightening of the spirit as she emerged into the sunshine again, as though the dark presence was being left behind in the shadowy wood. She smiled happily as he fell in beside her, “Be my Guest” she said.
“Be my guest.” The small voice, rusty with disuse, sounded thinly in the headphones. The doctor looked across to the psychiatrist in awe. “Those are the first words she has spoken in this hospital,” he whispered. The psychiatrist beamed back at him, “We’ve made contact. At least it’s a start.”
Christina chatted with her companion as they ran down the long road stretching into the distance. The spectre was left behind.
“It will be a long road,” said the psychiatrist to the doctor “and at first we will have to fit in with her delusion. But soon,” he smiled with satisfaction, “we will be able to lead her back to reality.”
“But at what price?” asked the doctor. “Isn’t her dream of running preferable to the realisation that she has no legs?”
“She needs the contact with other people Complete isolation would turn her life into a hell. There are already signs. When she fully regains contact, she will still have this.” He gestured towards the equipment, “The ultimate prosthesis — an artificial world!”