Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

The walls are sweating as I labour up the stairs. Intravenous packs are heavy and I have to buy in bulk, otherwise I couldn’t afford enough of them. The door opens to my retina print and I barge in, pushing the door closed with my arse.
Colin’s left me a fresh sterile pack with needles – he must have got his overtime. Shame he doesn’t care enough to stay realside and celebrate. Virtual sex may be athletic, but it’s just not squishy enough.
Drink a half-litre of sugar water and strip. Into the recliner, sort the wires and tubes, sliding the needles into my arms. New steel feels strange, for all that I know there’s no real difference. At least he hung full bags for me. I don the headset but leave the gloves. Reaching into the left one, I press the ‘engage’ toggle. As the wires slide into my brain, my hands clench and arms shake. Medsites say that’s a symptom of nerve damage, but it’s irrelevant. Not like I can afford to have it treated, let alone fixed.
With jitters out of the way, I lie back, slip the interface gloves on, and press the ‘dive’ toggle. The darkness goes grey, then I’m standing on a moonlit balcony, overlooking a beach. The sun is setting and Colin is leaning on the rail next to me.
“Got out early?” He grins. Perfect features move smoothly, no trace of psoriasis. He is an Adonis of his own making. I look at my zebra-striped short fur and smile. Who am I to pick at someone’s affectations?
“Yes. There was a bomb scare, so they sent us all home. Starting an hour early on Monday.”
“Nothing’s free these days.”
I suspect that’s always been true. The cost has simply increased to a point where that truth is unavoidable. Extended childish logic: if I don’t realise it, it’s not happening.
I shrug: “What scenario are we doing?”
“Falmeddar. A noble quest against the Ravening Keep. Going in with Solange, Andre, Tierney, and Klimdt.”
Colin’s happy. He idolises Andre and has a virtual thing with Solange: hours spent in a two-person private domain. I would mind, but occasionally those ‘late shifts’ give Tierney time to visit and get squishy with me, when he’s in town.
“Let’s go.”
He nods and vanishes. I remember when he’d hold out his hand so we’d get the buzz from the signal bleed as we switched domains.
There’s a grey flash and I’m standing in an autumnal clearing with the five of them. Colin’s next to Solange. Andre and Klimdt are checking their gear. Tierney’s watching Colin with a little smile. As I go from 2D to 3D, he turns to me and winks. At that moment, a patrol from the Ravening Keep burst into the clearing.
Why not state the bloody obvious, Colin?
Before I can raise an energy barrier, a spearhead emerges from my chest and things go grey.
I’m still on the recliner when a message from Colin arrives: “Bad luck, Layla. See you tomorrow eve. I’ll tell you all about it.”
He’s going straight from scenario to a ‘late shift’? Tosser.
Another message, this one from Tierney: “Took ages to set up that ambush. I got a transfer. Come live with me, if you want to.”
I so want-
The door opens. Glad I aliased him onto the access list. I shed needles and gloves, am in his arms before the door finishes closing.
“Good to go.”
“Wearing nothing but a headset. The taxi driver will stare.”
“Don’t care.”