That's all you could call it, an obsession, but the scary part was it wasn't even afraid of answering to its name. I was obsessed with the thought I could defy destiny. I swore to heaven and hell that no matter what the odds, through some intellectual alchemy I would transmute my paralyzed flesh into a human being again. A human being that lived and loved as it had once done in a tantalizing but now fleeting past.

Yes, I had deified obsession, and the name of that obsession was Laura Silvan.

It finally came time to leave the hospital.

You'd think that would be a cause for celebration, to leave a macabre warehouse of the damned that smelled of drugs and ether and the decay of the humans it sheltered.

But there is a human intimacy in a hospital that grows from the raw exposed strengths and weaknesses of the patients and workers that is hard to describe. I'd miss late night chats with nurse Alice, daily visits to Sally in physical therapy, and even the inevitable inspections by Dr. Freeman and his adulating interns. I'd miss it all in a mixed up way; perhaps it was a type of insanity born of the pain and loneliness.

The last week before I left, Liddy came by daily to take me around the hospital grounds, getting me ready for the real world. I'd been bought a souped up electric wheelchair and had become adept motoring around obstacles by voice command.

` "ElectroIndianapolis 500, here we come," Liddy teased one day as I raced the electric chair along in front of her. It was Spring outside and there were flowers and bees buzzing to lift my spirit after the dark dungeon gloom of the hospital corridors.

"Come on, Liddy, I'm not going to the ElectroIndianapolis 500 in this! Someday I'll sit and drive in a real car and dump this stupid wheelchair."

"You think so??" Liddy asked, obviously not thinking it possible.

"I know so," I replied confidently. "I'm even taking bets. It's all in the software, Liddy, and I'm the best programmer this side of the MicroByte droids."

"Steve, I've never thought betting against you was a good idea and I won't start now," Liddy retorted.

But I could tell, she still wasn't convinced I'd ever function normally again. How could I explain that I could visualize the mathematical equations floating balloon-like in my dreams that solved the problem of my paralysis? A piece of cake! Yet how could I explain this mental digital vapor of thought to anyone?

I was merging thinking holographic fractals into the dynamic software that controlled the muscles of my body. Combined with the bio-mechanical hardware Kevin Armstrong, Eric and Andy had designed, the neurophotonic-net we were creating was progressing faster than any of the others suspected. I had a vision of where these techniques would lead that I couldn't explain to my friends. They were creating the pieces of the technological puzzle, but I was integrating those pieces into a picture much grander than they dreamed.

On a Monday afternoon, 23 weeks after I'd entered California Medical Hospital, I was released. After saying goodbye to my friends on the ward and to my current roommate (hypochondriac Harry), my parents wheeled me down to the entrance where Burt had a rented van with a wheelchair lift waiting. This was all so humiliating, having to be carted around like a side of beef in a meat truck, but it wouldn't be forever!

We had been decided that for the time being I could live in my condo up in the Los Altos hills (we, as though I was no longer capable of charting my own destiny). I'd need the aid of a live-in nurse, so dad had hired a retired German helper named Emma, who'd stay in an unused bedroom. I'd left my house a bachelor slum when I was hurt and cousin Matt had no doubt turned it into a nuclear disaster area in the interim while he was housesitting, so I was curious to see the place. Most of my computers, compilers, reference books and electronics gear were there and they'd be the tools I'd need to make myself whole again.

We pulled up the drive that wound behind a complex of hillside homes, stopped near the front entrance to my house and my father Burt unloaded me from the van like a delivery of a rack of ribs on a cart. I was encased in my electric wheelchair, stacked high with clothes and paraphernalia as I motored down the path to the door. Mom trailed behind carrying a suitcase of personal belongings.

Burt knocked for me and Matt answered.

"Welcome home, buddy!" he greeted me cheerfully. "Welcome to your castle!"

"It's pretty damn dark in there, Matt." I complained as he helped me get the chair over the entry bump. "Why don't you turn on some lights."

"SURPRISE ! ! !" came the yell as twenty people burst out of hiding.

"Not a surprise party," I protested, but have you ever known a surprise party you could back out of?

"Welcome home," Liddy appeared smiling, holding a bottle of champagne.

Most of my faculty friends from the computer science department had shown up, as well as Kevin, Eric and Andy from bioengineering. Liddy brought Sheba and Angel from the secretarial pool to keep things lively and it looked like we might have the beginnings of a great party.

"Chug--a--lug! Chug--a--lug!" Came the chant from the crowd as a large glass of champagne was placed in front of me with a straw. As the main attraction, I was obliged to down it all to cheers from the crowd and the disappointment of my teetotaling mom.

Everything was looking up, the crowd was raising a din of friendly party conversation, when I recognized the one voice that could spoil it all coming from behind me. "Looks like you're on the road back, Heller!"

"I voice toggled the wheelchair to spin about its axis to confront the voice.

"Qin Huang, you old son of a bitch," I greeted my nemesis, only the bitterness shined through a little too brightly. "Imagine seeing you here!"

"Get well soon, Steve," Huang smiled cynically, taking another sip of champagne at my expense.

"I'll be back at work sooner than you know!" I replied cheerfully. I was tempted to let the bastard who'd stolen my chairmanship of the SuperGrid project have a piece of my gray matter when Liddy helpfully stepped in.

"It's time to party!" she yelled in my ear, making sure I paid attention with tinnitus. "Steve Heller, you've been away from women too long!"

Thank God my parents left, or perhaps they suspected what was going to take place, because an exotic belly dancer named Jezebel emerged from the upstairs bedroom and began undulating down the stairs to a Moroccan rhythm in a manner designed to cure the lame and raise the dead. Hearing the sound of finger cymbals I knew both that this was going to be a killer party and that I really had great friends, despite the Huang's of the world who were out to do me in.

That sounds paranoid, but I'm not paranoid. Really.

Daiquiris kept being set before me to be slurped with my favorite Bozo-The-Clown-Head straw and as the party progressed to the pounding beat of my massive sub-woofers, more friends trickled in. Gerry, the nextdoor neighbor came over to have a look carrying a baseball bat, but instead of making a scene went back for his sexpot girlfriend Lorraine, the one who applies red lipstick like fingerpaint.

An hour later, though, the main surprise occurred. Laura Silvan appeared at the door, shimmering in Hot Pink lycra, escorted by some long hair coke-freak who was speaking in tongues. I was immediately jealous of Laura's escort, but Arnie was just the burned-out drummer in Laura's band, not a romantic interest. I hoped.

"You look great, Steve," Laura yelled over the noise of the crowd and classic Led Zeppelin. The way she said it sounded straight from Hollywood, but it still rang sweet in my ears.

I was drunk as a skunk and spun around crazily in the wheelchair in the middle of a room littered with bodies, balloons, confetti, streamers and plastic wine glasses. Laura was enough to sober me up quickly.

"I didn't think I'd see you again," I gushed. "It's great to have you here!" I felt like a penguin asking Marilyn Monroe to make love.

Laura smiled, but I didn't get to talk to her for the next thirty minutes as she suffered the obligatory adulation from the rest of the crowd. She was hit on by every hopeless computer nerd who composed the spectrum of my friends. Hey, that would include me! Fortunately, Liddy stopped by to distract me by feeding me a bowl of party nuts and rearranging my party hat which now hung on my ear.

"Thanks for asking Laura to the party," I bubbled to Liddy slightly sloshed.

"Don't thank me, she came on her own."

It wasn't until cleanup time that I got to talk to Laura. Actually she came to talk to me.

"Can't we get away from this somewhere," she asked coyly in a tone so absurdly sexual it made my head spin. "I'm sure your friends can manage the cleanup without you."

"There's the balcony," I suggested. "But you'll have to help to get me out there."

"It's a deal."

It had turned dark and pleasantly cool outside. My house was pyloned on the side of a steep slope of the Santa Cruz mountains. We were at a high enough elevation that we could see the expanse of diamond lights that studded the Bay from San Jose to San Francisco.

"So how did you find out about the surprise party," I asked for lack of something better to say.

"You didn't want me to come?" Laura pouted, raising an eyebrow with a womanly air that was decidedly sexy.

"No, I'm very glad you're here. For some reason you're on my mind a lot." I added sheepishly.

"Well, I have my woman's ways of obtaining information," Laura smiled mysteriously. "It sure is beautiful up here. You can see beyond Stanford as far as the other edge of the bay. The fog's coming in over Fremont and its making the lights turn misty."

"I love it here," I replied. "The younger faculty don't have a chance to get housing closer to the university and that's why I moved up the mountain. The faculty ghetto is too expensive any way."

"Is that where you'd rather live, in the ant heap of academia?"

"Not really," I replied, stealing a glance at her sparkling eyes. "I have my computer hardware up here and my bike and exercise equipment, though they'll be damn poor company for me now. I moved up here to work on my programming and ride around the hills and not get caught up in campus politics."

"A recluse," Laura smiled. "I think I'm a bit of one too. With me, its my music that sometimes consumes me, because its the one way I can make a difference in the world. I just worry its easy to lose perspective if you become so lost in your work that you become a hermit."

"I've asked myself that too, whether you can live inside your head with the things you dream about, without going a little nuts. I live inside my fractal algorithms; Laura, you live inside your music. Sometimes I get the feeling our dreams and ambitions may be more real than the screwey world around us."

"So would you live inside your dreams if you couldn't live in the real world?" Laura queried. "Just retreat inside yourself?"

"Hell no, I'm a human being, not a monk. If I recover from this mess - when I recover - I want to apply the things I've learned from the alternate reality in my head to the real world. You can't do that if you're a hermit. Besides, Sapphire James is out in the real world and I'll never be able to catch her from here if I just hide."

"You sound obsessed with finding Sapphire." Laura commented somewhat darkly.

"Of course I am, but she's not the only thing on my mind," I hinted at my hopeless crush. "I'm a complex creature, Laura."

"We think a lot alike," Laura returned philosophically. "We've both built our own alternate realities. I just hope they don't consume us."

I must admit I wasn't listening as closely to what she was saying as I should have. The way the wind was blowing her hair and the way the lights from the valley below sparkled around her, this was the prettiest moment in my life. Also the most frustrating.

We chatted for quite a while, almost an hour as the others cleaned up inside and broke into their own little end-of-party discussion groups. Being with Laura was nice, too nice. I was struck with despair. I had to cure myself, or destroy myself completely in the process of trying. There simply is no greater insanity than unfulfilled love.

"So, can I see you in the future?" I finally asked Laura as the last of the partyers said goodbye. Even Liddy had left with boyfriend Bruce tagging dutifully behind.

"I'd like it a lot if we made it somewhat regular," Laura said blushing. "Besides, we have to keep in touch if I'm going to help you find Sapphire and bring her to justice." And she planted a red wet kiss on my forehead.

Laura had shaken my world to its foundation, but there was no way to continue our discussion. Emma, the nurse who would be caring for me came out on the balcony.

"Mr. Heller, it's getting late for me and we have work to do to get you ready for bed. You have to be changed, you know!"

Again I was humiliated like a little child, it was only ten o'clock in the evening. But in my heart I knew I wouldn't always be humiliated this way and I said a reluctant goodbye to Laura.

"Time to go, Arnie," Laura woke the drunken drummer who was sprawled on the couch. They left, with the roar of a classic gas guzzling Corvette to punctuate their exit.

"Let's get you cleaned up," Emma said. "You've had a long and messy day," as though I were an infant, as though the confetti in my hair and the champagne on my breath were an indictment to eternal perdition.

* * * *

The next day, Matt, Andy and Eric came to my house to set up my computer system to mimic the layout I'd had at the hospital. I'd be visiting the biomechanics lab on campus twice weekly to do physical therapy, work out and test new neuro-net equipment, but most of the work I had to do could be done in my home at my computer monitor.

"We're back in business again," Eric exulted as the voice recognition box kicked in and linked me with the operating system of my own homebuilt computer grid. "You've sure got a hot network, not exactly a home computer since you have a stuffed rack of processors."

"You forget, computer toad," I returned in exalted tone. "I'm attached to the Grid, it's my life! Fine wine, better women, but an excellent computer network is my motto! "

"You also go broke by it," Matt jibed. "Eric, it cost my cousin an arm and a leg for this junk and its still not paid for!"

"Yes, but its the absolute best junk plastic credit cards can buy!"

"Well, maybe we can put it to some real use now," Eric gave me some good news. "The fiberoptic suit is almost done and you can start trying it out next week."

"Hot damn! The code I've written is worthless without it! This will make life a lot easier!"

The fiber optic suit was what we were waiting for, what I was desperate for. It was the last link that would transform me from a pathetic twitching hunk of meat.

"Eric's the technical godfather of this project," Andy explained later. "He deserves a medal for it. The copper wiring and electrodes of most bio-electric control network are bulky and inflexible. Worse, they really don't give the computer feedback about the position and motion of the limbs. We could get muscles to flex and extend by exciting them through the skin with electrical pulses, that's so last millenium. It was sort of like catching the hot end of a spark plug wire -- the patient moved a lot, but didn't know where his limbs were going to end up.

"Before using fiber optics, we had problems getting good feedback," Eric jumped in. "It was like a scarecrow flopping in the wind, we could get some motion, but it was random and certainly wouldn't get you down the yellow brick road."

"Sort of the way I am now," I suggested morosely. "So how did you come up with the idea of using fiber optic sensors?"

"I was reading an Airforce Journal article about active-skin fiber optic sensor devices," Eric continued "It struck me we could do away with the copper wiring and use fiber strands to gauge mechanical stress and also transmit a signal as well. We'd get motion sensing and a control signal all in the same package."

"Kevin Armstrong dug up some DARPA Department of Defense research grants to pursue the fiber optic idea, " Andy broke in. "And before you knew it we had a light driven filament suit. Unfortunately, Robby, died before the system could be fully tried out. These neuro-suits have to be glovetight to work and that sent us back to the drawing board a bunch of times with Robby."

"But that's okay," admitted Eric. "We learned a lot with those first prototypes and we corrected a lot of the mistakes in the one you're going to wear."

"And what kind of mistakes were in the first one?" I asked suspiciously after seeing a deceptive look on Eric's eyes which had narrowed to guilty slits.

"Just a few electrical shorts, they weren't anywhere near lethal."

"But I thought you said this was a fiber optic system, little filaments of plastic carrying harmless light."

"It is, but you still have to excite the muscles by electrically shocking them with an AC current. The fibers act as sensors and as signal triggers but in the end, you still have to discharge a current through the body. We coat the fibers with carbon nano-tubules, so they are conductive."


"And sometimes when Robby was wearing the suit the software would hang and his whole body would get shocked and he'd go into spasms that almost ripped him up." Andy was first to confess, engineers have a hard time lying.

"Those are the tiny mistakes you solved?"

"Well, we think its actually mostly a software problem," Eric suggested. "You'll have to fix some of the bugs."

"Damn straight I'll fix them." I resolved. "Damn straight indeed."