People have different ways of dealing with loneliness: some seek comfort outward, and some retreat inward. And sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
He walked in with a bag of groceries, locking the door behind him -- an ingrained habit. There was really nothing here worth stealing, and no one with so much as an intention to steal got in the building anyway. But it was habit, and habits rarely die; they can only be repressed.
He walked through the darkness, avoiding the light switch. They had voice rec here, not like the last place he had been, and for the first week or so he had found it handy. "Light," light. "Light," no light. "Television," television. Handy. But the lights here were harsh, and there was no dimmer option, so in that sense he faintly missed the old place.
A string of old places, like faded photographs, only more potent: photographs of the mind. Images he didn't want to recall but that came unbidden. The past did that. Plagued you. Even if it was just a past of vacancies and nothingness. You had to look back. Too simple to live obliviously in the present. At night, and at quiet times, whenever the world burned around him, it turned into six o'clock attack-mode drama-news. The crackling newsreel of his life, coated with sugar-candy sweetness so the present would do an even harsher fade-over.
He realized he was standing a few feet inside the door of his apartment, in darkness, thinking about nothing at all, except maybe the past. He shut that down, hard, and walked to the kitchen nook.
Put the paper bag down on the counter. Paper bags, like from his past. When that had been so much vogue. Use paper, use paper, recycle, recycle, make the world free and clean and beautiful again. Something people in general didn't much understand was the phrase Point of No Return.
He emptied the contents of the bag. A six-pack of Coke. Piña Colada-flavored Crest. Condoms. Kleenex.
He stared past the darkness of his apartment and out to the dust-filtered flickering twilight that was setting down on the city.
What city was this? he wondered. Something with a C, he thought, and midwestern. Maybe Cleveland, or Chicago, but in the end it didn't really matter.
He didn't really need to go shopping. In this building, all you had to do was make a list through the idiot-proof television menus and your order would appear magically the next day at nine in your food tube. Unless you were paranoid, afraid of technology -- which usually meant old. Then you could get someone to bring it up to your door every morning. He didn't think there were any old people in this building, anyway. They had other buildings for them.
He put the Cokes in the fridge and left the rest scattered on the counter. He folded the paper bag carefully and dropped it into the incinerator tube. Latched it, fired it. Listened to the whir of the interior vacuum as it sucked the bag away through walls and floors, past pipes and wires, into an implicit fire that burned perpetually, miles below ground.
He sat down on the couch with a Coke and looked out the wall-window, out at the cityscape, the world. His little corner of it, anyway.
Not really seeing anything, but knowing there were people out there, behind the steel and the smog and beneath the cement and streetlights, hidden away behind reflectorized glass. People loving, people thinking, people watching TV.
But the image was distant to him, forlorn, and he abandoned it.
He left the apartment. In the hallway, he stole a furtive glance around. No one to ask him about the weather, or the pollution index this week, or television, or the illicit poodle that was pissing in the hallway and seemed to belong to no one.
He locked his door with the key they gave out mostly because it was a reference point, a symbol of false security, a hallmark from the past that was also ingrained. The keybox on the door beeped sonorously and lit up red. He turned and walked down the hall, hands in his pockets.
The elevator, empty. Until it reached level four, and then a woman of about his age got on. They were all his age. All heterosexual, too. The communes made sure of that. He nodded at her solemnly. After she asked if the elevator was going down, he nodded and looked away.
She got off on ground level, but he rode it further, down to the first sub-basement. He stepped from the elevator into cool temperature control. It was hot, very hot, and very loud, but it was also very crisp and cool down here. One thing he could say about this building was that they had a hell of an environment simulator. Like walking through a cool breeze on a warm summer day, or relishing the first soft telltale caresses of distant summer on a late winter day, with the snow melting beneath your feet, puddles everywhere, the effervescent purl of water dripping hollowly through rusting eave troughs.
Seasons, he thought. Were those a dream?
He walked past the burly bouncers who were almost undoubtedly there just for ornamentation, as he'd seen girls thirteen, fourteen, maybe younger, in the club numerous times. But when he asked them they all said they were nineteen, sometimes twenty, and the bouncers didn't care, and neither did the management, nor the tenants, so why should he?
The music was too loud. The lights were too dim. The flashball hanging from the ceiling and the numerous spasm bulbs that lined the walls almost made up for the darkness, but it was an uneven, convulsive light they shed.
He sat at the bar and ordered a drink, the special they had advertised on a chalkboard out beside the elevator. Something called Hedonist Frenzy, and he wasn't sure what that meant, but he ordered it anyway. He signed his name on the magnetic strip that the bartender handed him after he said he would be charging the tab to his room. The bartender took it back, frowned at him, and frowned at his signature, as if trying to discern if it was a fake, as if he could tell by powers of vision alone. Then it beeped, and he could hear it beep, even over the deafening, ubiquitous thud of the music. A little corner of the slab lit up green, and the bartender handed him his drink.
He sipped it, liked it, and spun around slowly on his stool, all charm and boredom and scintillating indifference. Half imagining he was being watched, or maybe filmed. He smiled apathetically at the dance floor, at all the people, and imagined they smiled back.
A woman sat down next to him and his heart shuddered. He caught a glimpse of her left breast, a sidelong glance, as she talked to the bartender. He couldn't hear her words. Then she was looking at him. He forced his eyes to meet hers. She was smiling. A complex smile. She said something to him.
"What?" he said, too quiet.
"What?" she said.
He shook his head. She shrugged and smiled. She followed his glance, out to the dance floor and the thrash of the crowd. Then she looked back at him.
"What are you doing this weekend?" she asked.
So blunt. Just like that. His face flushed.
"No plans yet," he said, too loud.
She smiled. "Want to have sex?"
He choked on his tongue a little, trying to swallow what was in his mouth. It burned his throat and coated his stomach with heat.
"Do you go around asking everyone like that? Just up front? Do you just -- "
He stopped himself. Jesus, what was he saying?
But she kept smiling, although the smile faded somehow, if only in her eyes.
"It's just a test," she said, and looked away.
She looked back. Her eyes were black, he thought. Like the leather she was wearing. But it wasn't leather either, some sort of plastic, which was pretty bold, both because it was revealing as hell and because it was, after all, real plastic. No, he thought, he didn't know that for sure. But he liked the idea.
"It's a test. I just say that to guys, sometimes, you know, to see their reaction. If I don't like their reaction then I laugh in their face and tell them to fuck off."
He sipped some more of his drink and tried to avoid looking at her cleavage, but the drink was gone. He placed the glass on the bar. His hand shook slightly. Looked at her breasts. Then her face.
She laughed, but the smile faded further. "Fuck, I don't know." She was yelling, enough to be heard, he supposed, but he was afraid everyone in the club could hear. Before long, they'd all be looking at him, watching his reaction, and it would become a global test, an initiation, a joke. "A lot of people are assholes. I think it's good to start with a really blunt question that's on everyone's mind anyway, but they're usually too chickenshit to say it or even hint at it, right? And it's a theory, sort of, that people will act most like themselves under pressure, and that's probably all wrong, way off, but I at least know what they're like under pressure, how they can cope, what they can take, and sometimes, you know," she said with a sly smile, "I need to know that."
She turned toward him and moved closer, sliding one black -- plastic-clad leg over the edge of her stool.
"So, I ask you, you wanna fuck?" She smiled.
He asked for her room number and promised to call her. She shrugged indifferently and let her chest fall a little as he walked away.
Walked past the people, around the people, through the people, out the door, into the elevator. Finally, the doors slid shut with a pneumatic purr and he was alone with the pounding of his heart.
He met three people on his way back to his apartment. Two women and a man. None of them together. He avoided their glances. None said a word. They all got off on different floors than he did.
He stopped in front of his door, searching his pocket for his key. He found it, punched it through, then jerked it back. The box bleeped
INCORRECT READING -- TRY AGAIN.
He stared at his door number for a minute. Then he returned to the elevator, silvery threads of thoughts straining his mind.
The lobby was empty.
He walked across the vastness of marble-patterned linoleum to the pictures. There was no one around, except for the receptionist/security guard, who was watching local baseball on a plain cathode screen behind the front desk.
The pictures were lined up on the wall by floor, with the room number stapled below the face. The photos were just cheap security-pass duplicates, as there had been a move just a couple weeks ago and they hadn't gotten around to the professional treatment yet.
He found the face of the woman in the bar and committed her room number to memory. She'd told him in the bar, but he hadn't really been listening. She wasn't all that pretty. Her body wasn't ideal, not magazine-cutout perfect. Her eyes were a little too large, much like a cartoon, and she was a little too short.
There was the woman who was from floor four, the blond who had ridden down in the elevator with him. She'd said only a word or two to him, but she wasn't ugly, and they had ridden in the elevator together, so maybe he had a shot.
He found the face of the woman who lived on his floor -- right next door, in fact. The one who listened to that terrible music and watched a lot of pornography. He was often torn, late at night, between punching his hand through the wall and masturbating. Most nights, he did neither.
Well, he hardly needed her number, but he made a mental note of it anyway. Three numbers. It would surely do. Then, as a final safeguard, he memorized the number of a pretty brunette from floor twenty. It was completely random and probably utterly futile, but she was beautiful. Then he turned and walked towards the front doors.
The night was warm and black. As he stepped from the shadow of his building, he was born, a blind fetus emerging into the stinging putrescence of neon and graffiti, the undead commercial night. He almost turned back.
He passed by numerous receding doorways, all washing the sidewalk with voices, synthetic music, boisterous rainbow light. Hot stumbling bodies entering and exiting, narrowly avoiding tripping over their own feet. He followed none of them, and eventually their laughter dissipated somewhere behind him.
The tumult of bastardized daylight slowly receded to true night, the streets fading away to the warmth and desuetude that he longed for. Cracking pavement, shallow streetlight.
But he couldn't escape it. Not even here in the slums. The distant hum of engines, music, electricity, even voices. He felt small, all of a sudden, like a toy in a box.
He kicked something. He stopped walking, enraptured by its movement as it skidded across blacktop. He sat down on a nearby bench, leaned over, and picked it up.
He held it for awhile, not looking at it, not looking at much at all. He liked the feel of it in his hand, smooth and one. Hard, complete, old. He slipped it into his jacket pocket without a thought and sat there for a little while longer before getting up. The night was cooling, and he zippered his jacket up to his neck.
Late at night, with dawn encroaching beyond a rosy pavement horizon.
Unable to sleep, he rolled over and kicked the covers from the bed. He got up and walked over to the generic building-supplied deck, which was mounted on the television. He goggled.
He tried to remember the names and the numbers. No, the names didn't matter. The woman in the bar, however, was Rita Ess, something like that, and the woman next door he knew as Jennifer Rourque. But the numbers. The numbers were eluding him.
A cartoon dwarf with egregious cartoon breasts stood in the bottom right hand corner of his vision, patiently tapping one foot. "Need any help?" she breathed.
He goggled out and entered the numbers manually. He remembered all four, finally, but left out the woman at the bar. She was a bit strange. That whole test thing. Some kind of joke. A game. He could do without.
She wasn't that pretty, anyway. Not really. Not really.
He fell asleep minutes before the sun began to filter past soot-stained building tops.
Awoke the next day. he rubbed his eyes with dry, peeling hands. He hated the soap here. He blinked through the sleep in his eyes and focused on the clock. God, it was bright. But the sun was receding. 5:15. P.M.? It felt late. Too much sun. The woman next door had her television way up again, some pre-evening soap. Cheesy instrumental music and overly dramatic monologues. He hated the fucking soaps.
Thursday today, he thought. Fuck night.
He gargled salt water from the tap and spit it down the suck-drain. He turned on the disposal and heard it whoosh away.
He put on yesterday's clothes and ate some cheese. On a sudden yet oddly demanding whim, he walked over to the deck. He punched through menus, watching the words morph and scroll on the screen. He entered the number. The woman from the bar.
He didn't feel any better, but it was almost six, and the cut-off was at six, every Thursday. Still, hardly gave you much time. Results would be uploaded by seven. Dates were arranged for eight, always, unless one of the parties needed a half-hour extension, or needed to get started earlier, or whatever. It didn't matter. He wouldn't wait around, holding his breath.
He went out to get breakfast.
The television blinked when he returned. He walked inside, locked the door, and looked.
Blue on red was a match: A date has been arranged for you this evening. Please dial this room number and confirm the arrangement. Have fun.
Red on white was failure. He'd seen it enough. But usually it was okay; it wasn't cause for any underlying psychological insecurity or anything. No inferiority complex. He could always blame it on himself, or on the bitches he chose, or something else. Usually himself. Better to blame himself, his personal choice, his unsociability, whatever. Sometimes he didn't even enter any applications at all. Then the screen didn't blink at all. It remained silent and black and unassuming. Peaceful.
But tonight it blinked green on black.
Good evening, Holden M. Decker.
A confirmative match has been found for you this Thursday evening.
However, due to scheduling conflictions, the following potential matches for you were rescheduled or aborted.
Match one(1): Rita Ess, (F), at room number 1734. Status: Aborted. Explanation forwarded: Not found.
Match two(2): Not found.
Have a nice day!
He felt tired, suddenly. Nearly twelve hours of sleep and he was still tired. He decided he didn't care. He turned off the box and walked around it, past the kitchen alcove, and around the poorly-positioned clothes chute, which was little more than a trap door over a hole in the floor. You dropped something down there, it would be gone forever. Unless, of course, it was clothing, and properly bagged and tagged. Then it came back the next business day, right to your door, in the fleshy hands of a semilegal alien, working under strict visa for the right to stay in this wonderful land of opportunity.
He fell to the bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time.
"Lights," he called to the gently and precisely oscillating air. "Window," he yelled, and all light from the city and the sun was cut off, without a millisecond of pause. The light trapped within the apartment flickered and burned slowly away, dancing across his retinas, until all that remained was a shifting void of blackness and the undulating electric voices from next door.
He didn't sleep. Some time later he sat up in bed, staring at the cartridge.
He didn't realize he was staring at it. He wasn't even fully aware of being awake. It was sheer coincidence that he found himself looking at it.
He'd taken it out of his pocket last night, and tossed it onto the overturned stacking crate that served as a coffee table. His jacket lay nearby, on the floor. He stared at it for some time, not seeing it, not seeing anything. But then he did see it, suddenly, and his mind strained to find significance and meaning in it. For long blank minutes he could not recall what it was.
Then, finally, something clicked, and his thoughts turned sour. He frowned in the half-darkness, feeling vaguely nauseated. He had been searching for its identity for long minutes, minutes that mutated within him into hours, hours filled to the rim with longing and hope and need. So much time spent pondering that little object, which he was almost undoubtedly positive was something important, something supernal. But then he remembered it was just junk from the street, and he wanted to spit.
He got out of bed and walked to the wall panel. Turned on the lights. Extreme white light. He turned them off again. But it was too late, he was blinded, his night vision obliterated. He turned the lights back on, squinting painfully. He sat down on the desiccated old couch and picked the object up. He rotated it slowly in his hands, pensively. As his eyes gradually adjusted to the light, he realized what it was. A sim.
Like from his childhood. There were still sims around, everywhere, in abundance. But usually you wanted a sim these days, you downloaded it. That was the only legal way, anymore, since it ensured against copyright infringement and illicit exhibition. It didn't really, nothing was ever foolproof, but usually it made the dealer breathe easier. Even the pushers downloaded, unless they wanted to distribute and make it surreptitious, untraceable. Then they used standard coin. You didn't see a sim in cart format like this anywhere, ever, not anymore.
He found the deck wrapped in an old sweater on the top shelf in the closet. He knew it'd be there. The deck had both cart and coin slots, so it was pretty old, but when he'd bought it, it had been edge-biting. He hadn't used it in over a year, when he had given up sims, leaving them to the masses, because at the time, he considered himself better than all that. Getting the old deck out felt natural, though, and the old cellular fear resurfaced. The fear of losing identity.
And another fear began to rise, more potent than the other. Even as he unpackaged the deck and its gear, as he uncoiled the fiber optic, as he cleaned off the tongue-piece with a paper towel, as he blew dust off the new-found cart, as he plugged it in and prepared to jack.
Fear like bile, rising in his throat, but he pushed it down and ignored it.
You didn't punch deck on some cheap-ass cartridge sim that you found out in the street. Bad enough that rainwater and engine oil and dog piss could corrode the goddamn contacts. That was bad enough, because serious corrosion made a bad connection and could fuck you up, plain and simple.
Not only that, but you never punched deck on a sim you just found. That was insanity. `Specially a goddamn cart that was just lying on the street. No doubt it was probably heavily laced with bugs, if it wasn't a downright snuff job. The deck itself had viral screens, but they were just rudimentary. They didn't pick out the new stuff, the street breed of any virus.
He wasn't thinking any of this, not consciously, but he was, too. It sparked in his mind, somewhere deep down, ever so dimly, in a fraction of a second, before he could choke it off. There was fear underlying what he was about to do, but the determination overrode it.
Kneeling on the floor, the deck between his legs. He lifted the cable, eyeing it cautiously. It was clean. He attached the mouth-mod. A clean, wholesome, use-me-I'm-sterilized type click. He opened his mouth.
Placed the jack softly on the back of his tongue. Closed his mouth.
Bent over. Flipped it on.
Synthesized endorphins released at the speed of light, down his throat, into his stomach, his lungs, his bloodstream. Metastasis.
No intro screen. just the sudden brightness of importunate sunlight, clean and brisk air, crisp and wet, working through his lungs.
Or maybe this was the intro. Didn't feel like it, though. Nothing was happening. This was response-based, and all the intro clips he'd ever seen were fast-paced, sharp, colorful, extreme and inexorable. Totally stand-by-and-watch, and try not to piss your pants. They were put in to grab your attention and give you heart palpitations off the tip, so you stayed jacked, so you played it out.
There was a woman down the beach. Waving. Beckoning. The crystal-blue water lapping at her legs, licking her knees.
He ran toward her.
She needed his help. Her leg was broken, or something. She said no words; it didn't matter. The message was relayed directly to his brain in dreamspeak.
She was beautiful. He tried to focus on her body, but none of it mattered. He tried to memorize her face, her beautiful immaculate features. He tried, but it wouldn't come. It was strange, not being able to really truly see her, but all he could focus on was the knowledge of her consummate beauty. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen, ever known, ever dreamt of. Yet he couldn't even discern the color of her eyes, the tint of her hair.
He lifted her in two bulging, capable arms. Her gratitude emanated from her in a cogent, nearly overpowering radiance. His heart swelled and his blood ran warm. He smiled benevolently down at her and carried her away.
"Are you all right?"
Whether he spoke the words or merely felt them was immaterial. She answered.
"Yes, I think, could you just..." Her voice slightly strained, perfect pink lips pulled taut through the pain. He quickly dashed across the room to her. He made a swift motion with his hands across her knee. Her face softened and her eyes fluttered. He wasn't sure what he had done, but it had been the right thing. She would be all right, if he was here, to watch over her.
"Oh, God, thank you. That's so much better." She smiled at him.
"I love you," he whispered.
Holy fuck, what the hell are you saying?
Back out, slide out, retreat, deny.
He yanked the trode from his mouth and spat. He looked at the sleek deck accusingly, horrified.
"Those weren't my words," he said quietly to the still air.
He could smell his own stale sweat. His back was still arched over, his knees and lower legs were completely numb. He tried to shift his weight and fell to the floor.
"Not my words," he whispered, grimacing through two simultaneous muscle spasms in his legs. "I wasn't in there that fucking long, maybe an hour, but I hate those fucking cheap-shit wares that place fucking dialogue in your own goddamn mouth, makes you start to wonder if you're losing your mind, godammit, stupid shit, falling in love with a goddamn personality construct."
He furiously kneaded the constricted knots of muscle in his legs. One, then the other. His feet and legs began to tingle, ghosts of nerves promising to return.
He lay on the floor then, for a long time.
The woman next door was either having sex or watching it. Moans and flesh-muted screams buzzed through the wall.
He didn't remember falling asleep.
A flare of pain in his back awoke him to dark silence. The hardwood against his cheek was cold and confusing. Where was his bed?
Then he got up, clenching his teeth against the pain in his back and neck, and started limping slowly towards his best guess at the location of the bed. He kicked the sim deck with his left foot, sending it skidding across linoleum. It clacked hard against some table leg or counter base. His knee collided with his nightstand and sparks jolted up his leg. He swore. He fell to the bed, cursing at the darkness. He near-screamed for the window. Hypnagogic, light-red sunrise flickered in and stung his eyes. Night gone, already.
"Window," he said softly. Then louder. Then again. Finally, darkness returned.
A warm, electric, pleasantly distorted image flashed behind his eyes. Of a beach, and a woman, and beauty.
He didn't sleep.
A week passed. spent in his apartment. Avoiding the people in the building. Going out only at night. Then sitting for long hours in bars, narrowly avoiding drunkenness. Watching the subtle organic dance of the frequents, the unspoken gestalt of business and professionalism, manifesting itself in twenty-dollar cloned hookers, fresh from the flesh tank. Silence and laughter intertwined; the smell of alcohol and perfume and sweat.
Avoiding meaningful glances from heavily blushed faces, avoiding surreptitious nods from hustlers on the street, druggies procuring their wares from under brittle skeletons of storefront awnings.
The night sucked him up without distinction, giving him anonymity and peace of body.
Peace of mind, another matter.
Thursday came. Through equivocation, he pretty much managed to avoid thinking about fuck night at all.
He woke up at three, yawning stiffly. Gray sunlight stinging his eyes. He offed the windows and stumbled to the kitchen. Gulped warm orange juice that he had left out on the counter. Walked to the television.
He didn't even bother with the headset. Just flicked through menus. The screen buzzed, the bluish light cloaked his naked legs.
He called in a wildcard.
Then he dialed downstairs for movie listings. Instantaneous text appeared on the screen. He scrolled down through it and finally ordered a year-old Playboy-funded pseudo-porno.
He sat on his bed and watched. He fell asleep ten minutes into it.
He awoke with a thought: time.
He looked at the clock. A bad feeling already growing in his stomach. Because sometimes he awoke, like this, just knowing he was late, knowing he had slept too long. 9:37, flashed the numbers. Too fucking late.
A disastrous scenario pounding around in his skull. His match for tonight, whoever she might have turned out to be, had come up to his room. Or maybe she'd sat at home, on the edge of her bed, a chill glass of champagne going flat between her thighs, waiting for him. Yearning. Or knocking on his door. Or phoning. Letting it ring fifteen times. And he hadn't awoken. And she had either been stood up, screwed out of a date for tonight by his lassitude, or had submitted for a rematch.
He jumped out of bed and ran to the television. His heart thudding and reverberating within his ribcage.
An amorphous cube of dusty floor and blank wall flickered somnolently with red and white television light.
He didn't bother reading the words. Knew what they'd say.
He stood there a long time before turning off the television, and a long time afterward.
Walking through blackness, reveling in his stealth, his blind dexterity. He stepped into the closet. Pulled the deck from the shelf. Cool and hard to his heated touch. Already gathering a film of dust across its sleek surface. Tossed the jack and the wire across his shoulder.
He sat down on the edge of the bed. He listened to his own breathing for a long moment. His body began to shiver. The back of his throat trembled a little.
He plugged the wire into the deck by touch. He sat the icy box on his lap. He stuffed the jack into his mouth quickly, defying hesitation. The instinctive motion of a hungry child.
She lay supine on the bed, gazing up at him. Her perfect white body listless, her eyes gray and demure, resplendent with carnal diffidence. He felt his own body shudder, the muscles in his neck rigid with delightful tension.
It was where he had left her. Only slightly different. If he remembered. Her leg seemed healed, if it had ever in fact been injured, not just a game or a trick. But it was all a game, all a trick. He knew that. He knew that. If he accepted that, he could pull out at any time.
Yet how was it possible that she lay here, convalescing or otherwise, in the same position he had left her? And he could sense, could feel that she remembered him, too. It was all a trick. A fancy memory bank filtered through a gracious smile and waves of near-tangible desire. Coming from her.
Stupid, he told himself. So what? It had a resident memory in the chip, to save progress, and maybe an individual DNA scan, or something, because surely there had been others before him, others who had used it. Used her. And he hadn't left off where they had gotten. The wear on the label of the cart. Previous ownership. Indubitable.
She whispered his name.
It was a cheap trick. Cheap. He knew she wasn't actually speaking his name, knew she wasn't a she at all but a complex personality structure hardwired into a visual illusion. The drug rampaging through his body merely made him believe she spoke his name. Direct brain plant, using existing information. A cheap trick. Effective. Uncommon. Frightening.
She spoke his name and he tingled.
A distant, recessive part of his brain pondered if he was really responding so strongly to her words, to her body and her lips and her voice, or if it wasn't just the sim telling him he was. If it wasn't another cheap trick.
A dominant, longing part of his brain ultimately decided it didn't matter. His body joined hers on the bed.
Her more palpable features slowly accreted under his touch. The only thing that could possibly make her more beautiful was detail. Her voice become more personal, filled with warmth and character. Maybe even love, and that wasn't so impossible; it was easier to accept love when it was behind the guise of a cheap street sim.
Her body and face solidified. Her body supernal, eliciting a simple cellular rush within him. Her hair now blond, soft, smelling of honey and fresh rain. Her eyes dark gray, glimmering with the intricacy of reflected sunlight on deep coagulating puddles. Her voice like water. Thick red wine, her white cheeks flush with blood. Her face not completely unblemished, which added to the amalgam of depth and realism.
Her body warm on his skin. Naked or not, it didn't matter. The mystery of her body nearly insufferable in its proximity. Her love in her lips, brushing his neck and chin. His love in his fingertips, brushing infinitely fine strands of blond from her cheek.
They made love. Or they did not.
It transcended the sexual.
"Do you love me?" she asked of him, propped up on one elbow, studying his face meticulously as the air conditioning kicked in across the hotel room.
"I love you, unconditionally."
"Will you ever leave me?" she asked, fixing a drink for him from the small cooler set in the sand, her naked body sprawled on a bamboo-twine lawn chair, the tropical sun heating and lightly tanning her soft skin.
"I may part, but not for long. I will never leave you. Not intentionally."
Walking through a thunderstorm in a deserted European bazaar at night, holding hands.
"Do you remember anyone before me?" he asked her.
"I have never known anyone but you. Through you, I think, I am complete."
Lying together in thick green grass, a canopy of verdant foliage overhead masking the sun.
"Do you feel?" he asked.
The corner of her mouth faltered. She kissed him.
"I know that I love you," she said.
When he pulled out, it was because of a voracity that even a sim couldn't hide. Not legally, anyway. It was against the law to make a sim where you could consume food or drink that actually seemed to replenish you.
Otherwise, you might just forget it was, after all, a sim. And die from thirst, within a few days.
He dialed down for room service. Next month, for his work term, it might mean working an extra two hours or so, but he didn't much care. Everything cost hours. And there was only so much you could do within a work term. But he knew if you started running up debts they demoted you to less enjoyable tasks, come next term. Like going from short order grill cook to midtown streetsweep, or sewer basin detail.
Fuck it. He could always call in his holiday time.
The knock at the door came, and he called for them to leave it. The bar of light beneath the door flickered briefly, returned. He left the lights off in the room. Too bright. Just wavering blue television light, so easy on the eyes.
He unlatched the door, opened it a foot, and grabbed the warm paper bags. A smell of heated Styrofoam and charred grease and moist dough wafted up to him. He closed and relatched the door.
He sat on the edge of the bed and opened the bags between his legs. He ate the two vegetable burgers, and then the deep-fried chicken sticks. He drank half the Coke. Couldn't stand it without the caffeine. He slotted the paper and plastic into the incinerator tube and fired it.
He fell heavily to the couch and spiked the sim.
I sometimes think we've talked about everything.
Everything there is to talk about. Everything there is to believe. Everything to feel.
It doesn't matter. Words are inconsequential. We've got each other. We've got our love.
We've got our love.
On a tuesday, a move was called. Black on white words blinked complacently on the television screen.
He looked at the words, his body itching, for a long time. His neck so sore. Calling a move. His throat dry.
He drank a liter of warm cola and returned to the television. He scanned through menus. New menu item. He punched it. He called in a suspension.
He took a shower.
Late one night, taking a brief leave of her. Necessary for food and drink and hygiene. And sanity, he thought, with a soft giggle.
Outside, beyond his door and behind the walls, people were moving. Shouts and laughter and muted talk and televisions being switched off. Doors shutting. Weak thuds of lightly-packed suitcases hitting hallway carpet. The distant chime of the elevator, the oil-swept hiss of the doors sliding open, then shut. The voices fading away into the darkness around him. All sounds disintegrating until he was alone.
But it was a temporary solitude. More would come. Soon.
He disjacked. he left her to take a piss. After apologizing to her profusely.
Distant televisions buzzed and voices murmured, to themselves or to others. The sound of feet on linoleum, glass on glass, and springs and hinges creaking. The overwhelming smell of dust, sweat, climate-controlled Freon, frying hamburger, floor wax.
Like they had never left, he thought.
He wondered vaguely if it was Thursday.
Laying back in bed. The deck on his chest. Eyes closed against the oppressive black. Slow-lapse time freeze, the mouthpiece sliding smooth against his wrist, into his hand, cutting the air, arcing invisibly. His involuntary, primal grin at the aesthetics of it. Down his throat.
Her love and passion and heat consuming him from within.
Only when he came out did time exist. Then his body would ache and his stomach would growl. His skin would itch and the electricity humming through the walls would grind at his bones.
And the pasts of this darkness, this life, this apartment and the many before, would consolidate into a silver line, tangible and intense. His childhood and his adulthood and all the times of pain and disgust would coalesce into a tight hot lump in his stomach. Bile rose in his throat. His anger flared through dry fingertips.
He came out, raging at the irreverence of leaving her.
He almost put his fist through the wall that day.
Instead, he showered, put on clean clothes. Ate all the food left in his fridge, which amounted to a couple of shrink-wrapped pickles and a rigid crust of cinnamon bread. Combed his hair neatly. Looked for a long time into the mirror, the rage threatening softly to resurface. He left the apartment, locking the door twice, and left the building.
It was night and he was glad. Instead of a busy, overcrowded deli or supermarket, he turned into the first twenty-four hour neon-encased superdrugstore.
They had little for food. So he bought fifty dollars worth of the junk food that so brightly lined the front counter. Six more liters of Coke. More aspirin. His nerves were singing. From exhaustion, lack of sleep, or lack of activity. He didn't care. Walked back through stacks of glossy magazines and baby products and sexual aids. Asked the corporate pharmacist for Demerol. The woman shook her head, launched into the Drug Legality Act speech. He cut her off, asked for morphine. Anything legal. She traded him a small bottle for a hundred-bill, some change, his health card. He paid for it at the front.
Rifling through his wallet, his vision blurring. Peripheral movement. He looked up. Outside, through the caged glass and neon advertising logos. Into the night, the street.
She was gone.
He shook away the image. He hadn't seen her. This was life. She was dream. Fantasy.
He paid the cash and hefted his bag in one hand. He exited finally, out into the street, the bright illicit business of the city and its many emblazoned slogans sizzling against his retinas.
He locked the door, twice, behind him, and clamped his eyelids down. He could smell himself here. The smell of warmth and bed sheets and carpet and garbage. And something else.
He opened his eyes.
She smiled at him.
The blue static of her eyes soporific and melancholy. Her skin glowed radiantly. Her teeth shining gray despite the darkness. Her hair, fine as sand.
Despite the complete darkness of his room, he could see her. And then, somehow, he could not.
He fumbled feverishly for the lightswitch. Tripping over garbage and his bag of food.
"Fuck!" he screamed. "Lights!"
Apocalyptic white drenched the room. His eyes shuddering against the differential, pupils quickly shrinking.
He finally opened them. She was gone. His apartment, nothing more. As always.
"Wait," he whispered, too late.
Inside. She beamed at him.
"Was that you? Were you out there?"
A quizzical grin. "Out where, love?"
"Out of here, out there, in my goddamn apartment!"
The grin fading behind subtle folds of pale skin. "I don't know what you're saying. I can't be there. You know that."
"I just saw you. In my fucking apartment. On the street, too, by the sidewalk, outside, in front of the drugstore, you were there too. I swear to God I just saw you in my apartment, and I wasn't even stimmed. Were you there? How did you do it?"
A solitary tear slid down her cheek, leaving the faintest pink trace. "I can't leave here. Here is the only place we can be together. I don't exist out there."
He stared. A long moment. Eternity held in a moment. He comforted her.
Out again, being born to light. "Lights," he spoke falteringly. The depth and comfort of dark returned.
He popped morphine tablets, slept.
When he awoke, if he awoke, she stroked his cheek, lovingly, and caressed his arm. Her tongue slipping between his lips.
He was drugged. He took his consolation in that fact. And tired. And sick. Very unhealthy. He was drugged, and he succumbed.
He awoke in the sim. She smiled, pleasant, innocent, oblivious.
Still drugged, probably, because her form shifted and shuddered and focused. The walls and the sands and the sky fragmented, focused, melted, reshaped, and petrified.
The smell of papaya, mango, dish-cleaning liquid, damp socks, fresh air, burning leaves, laundry detergent, sweet feminine perfume. The taste of her tongue and her skin and saltwater.
His actuality was spiraling, refracting, dissolving. He screamed, or dreamt that he did, and pulled out.
In the glow of the television she stood.
"I'll love you forever," she said.
"I know," he said, but his voice was silent.
He stood. His legs nearly collapsed. Stars and cracks of white darting light swept across his vision. The morphine was dying, and maybe his rationality with it.
"You're real," he said, his voice cracking, his throat parched. "Will you stay? Or will I wake up?"
She smiled, reached out to him.
"Motherfucker!" he screamed, his throat scorching. Through the walls, he knew they could hear him. But they were not real. Not real. Maybe none of them. Maybe not he himself.
"Motherfucker," he whispered. Tears began to stream down his cheeks, and it took him a long desperate moment to recognize the sensation. Salt on his lips. A wrenching synesthesia.
And then it came. Less like a bolt of lightning, more like a hot wet rag being slowly wrapped around his cerebrum. Within his very skull a dull warmth spread, hot and chlorine-rich, his mind wading into the shallow bubbling effervescence of some esoteric whirlpool.
His eyes and thoughts thickly coated in cotton. His head ringing. Sound erupting. And then a black plane behind his eyes began to crack, until the shards were expanding with a muted, slow-motion dissiliency.
The thought came. It was pure:
I'm in the sim.
He tried to pull out. Panic and reaction. He stuffed his fingers into his mouth, feeling around for the mouthpiece. He coughed and spat and flexed his throat. His fingers triggered his gag reflex, and he couldn't stop; suddenly he was vomiting all over the floor, his stomach heaving with vacuous tremors.
There were knives, and forks, and knives, and maybe even an icepick. Supplied with the room. In the cupboards, in the drawers...
He nearly slipped on his own vomit. His mind was buzzing with white light. Distortion. White noise, feverish, high, infinite, vibrating through his skull, focusing in on the backs of his eyeballs.
He bit down on a scream.
Fumbled towards the kitchen. Fumbled through a drawer. Another. A knife. He held it with unsteady fingers.
He walked to the bed with renewed calm. Greased gears within his very flesh seemed to glide into position. All systems go. It was very close to being clear, despite the fog of confusion and pain.
He stabbed through the deck. Three, four, ten times. A single clear drop of battery acid sliding across sheer black plastic, singeing a hole in the bedsheet.
The thought of tears permeating the fog. A tear on immaculate flesh. Memory...
He stabbed the cartridge. Once. Cracked casing. Two thin fragments of dull and finger-worn black plastic. Sudden contrast of gray-black shards against gray- white sheets.
Then silence. An inertia.
Behind him, beyond him, in the darkness, outside his apartment, yet so close that he could taste it. Girl's voice, and the slow, muted sound of crying. Her voice, her tears on his lips, her soft weeping.
He screamed then, and threw the knife with every twitching muscle in his body.
A dull crack, a flicker of blue spastic light. The knife collided and stuck in the window-wall. A pained hiss. The slow, lugubrious fall of white sparks, television tears.
Then the sunlight erupted all about him, flooding in through and around the concentric freeze-framed black lightning.
In a small foam-enclosed sleep casket, fifty dollars a night. Nothing but a clothes-filled suitcase to prop his head on.
A receipt for the wall-window repair, seven hundred dollars. An official eviction notice. An Inappropriate Conduct written reprimand. A form to apply for transfer; basically a mandatory move. Another city, new faces, new life. But always the same, inside.
He'd stay. The communes weren't for him. Not anymore.
A street pistol, twenty years old, bought from a kid on a corner, ten blocks from the apartment, twelve dollars.
A fake passport, wholly superfluous, three hundred dollars. He didn't feel like going anywhere. A prosaic street ID, under the name Gregory F. Gardener, two hundred.
No new face.
No new life.
He walked at night, garbaged all the papers. Defied the past to haunt or plague. Dared any of it to reach him.
But it did, slowly, eventually. As he walked at night. As he killed, or stole, or ate, or drank.
Sometimes, beyond him, from the dark, came her voice.
Mollifying, soft and smooth, feminine and voluptuous.
His only comfort. He would smile, or cry. And then, without warning or pause, she would be gone. And for a short while, he could almost convince himself it was as if she had never been.
Craig Boyko (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a sometimes student at the University of Calgary in Alberta. He's constantly being shushed by his next-door neighbor.
InterText stories written by Craig Boyko: "Decisions" (v6n1), "Wave" (v6n2), "Gone" (v6n6), "Ghettoboy and Dos" (v8n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Craig Boyko.