Kisavo sat on the edge of the bed, aware of Nila on the other side, and waited until Sireno had fallen asleep, the tension gradually easing out of his muscles. Even in sleep he still looked exhausted and pale, the light spray of freckles across his nose standing out against the pallor of his skin. Kisavo reached out to stroke his hair back, checking the warmth of his forehead in the same motion. Under his hand Sireno stirred a little and subsided, letting his breath out in a sigh.
“I told you this was stupid dangerous,” he said without looking up.
“Really?” Nila said. “Because I kind of gathered that.”
“You’re one thing. He’s another.”
“In case it escaped your notice, Reno’s a grown man. He’s perfectly capable of making his own decisions and he doesn’t need you—or me—to look after him.”
“He’s doing it for you.” Kisavo looked up and met her glare. “If you won’t back off for your own sake, back off for his.”
“You act like he’s some fragile delicate flower.” Nila snorted. “He could probably benchpress you and he’s been gaming just as long as I have. So whatever weird crush you’ve managed to develop, shove it up your ass. He’s not a princess and he doesn’t need you to be his white knight riding up to rescue him from his tower. Get over yourself.”
Kisavo rolled his eyes, trying to shove down the flare of anger in his chest. “What, are you jealous or something?”
“Am I jealous?” Nila’s voice rose on the last word and she shot a quick glance at Sireno before getting to her feet. “Get out in the hall before we wake him up.”
She walked out and Kisavo hesitated only a moment before following her. As soon as he’d shut the door gently behind him and followed her down to the kitchen, she turned on him, driving him back a step until his shoulders hit the kitchen wall.
“Let’s get one thing very, very clear, you obnoxious little fuck,” she snarled. “I don’t get jealous. I know Reno’s a sucker for a pretty face and generally it’s none of my damn business. But he’s been my friend for a very long time and neither of us need a souped-up brainrot netjunkie to shove his opinions on us. If Reno wants out, I respect him enough to know that he’ll tell me he wants out. Until then keep your mouth shut and watch yourself, because to be perfectly honest, the more talents you display, the less I trust you. Are we clear?”
“Crystal.” He heard the edge in his own voice. “Hope you don’t get us all killed.”
“There’s the door.” She pointed. “You’re welcome to use it anytime. I’m going to bed. Night.”
“Night,” he said automatically, then blinked a few times, watching her walk down the hall to her room. Despite himself he smiled a little and shook his head before going into the living room to strip off and lie down.
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep for a while but the silence of the house seemed heavy and oppressive and the couch—though perfectly comfortable the night before—felt lumpy underneath him. After a while he gave up on sleep and got up to get a glass of water, moving down the hall on silent feet to check on Sireno. He stayed a few minutes to make sure Sireno was still sleeping peacefully then returned to the living room, settling down again and closing his eyes, this time to send his mind online.
He could vaguely remember trying out the VR visors when they were new, after his mother’s work had bought a few to study. They had been heavy, clumsy things, more like a motorcycle helmet than the thin band of circuitry and plastic they were now. He’d been sent into a looping program, a cartoonish game of sorts where he had been flying a fighter jet through a snowy landscape, shooting down perfectly round snowmen and ugly bug-eyed seals. Everything had popped back up almost as soon as he had killed it, and he had quickly grown bored and turned his mind to what kind of mischief he could create in the sim world. Even as a young child he’d been fascinated with computers and technology, an interest his parents had encouraged even when he got in trouble at school for hacking into the computer system.
Signing on now was an entirely different experience from those first few forays into VR, and even from what he had done at school or with his home system before he’d had to abandon it. With a thought he was online, bypassing the security measures on Nila’s and Sireno’s home system. His body and the couch it was lying on ceased to exist and he was only data in the system. The first time he’d done it—or could remember doing it—the amount of information had terrified him, especially in his weakened and confused state. Before he’d learned to control it, he’d found himself online at random times, even in his sleep, and for a while he’d been like every other netjunkie, confused on what was reality and what was virtual.
He glanced through the system and added a few security measures of his own before jumping straight to NetLife. Another thought made him invisible and he wandered through the dusty streets, watching the various avatars as they went about their business. When he got bored of that, he stepped into one of the FPS games and spent a while causing havoc and trying to tire himself out. He stepped out again feeling better than when he’d gone in, but still found himself wandering towards Utopia, almost without realizing it.
He checked to make sure he was still invisible as he approached, shielded from even the highest level of gear, feeling a nervous drop in his gut at the sight of the tower. The crowd around it had thinned out with the late hour but avatars still went in and out. Settling himself where he could still watch but keep out of the way, he marked a few of the more unique avatars and waited to see if they would come out again once they went in.
As the minutes ticked by he felt himself getting sleepy and had to cover a yawn a few times. A glance at his internal clock told him it was nearly 2 in the morning, and he was on the verge of signing off so he could sleep when he saw one of the avatars he’d marked staggering across the bridge away from the tower. Sitting up, he watched the avatar closely as it reeled off the bridge and onto the street, drunkenly shambling towards one of the buildings and leaning on it.
Nobody else seemed to notice and after a moment Kisavo pushed himself to his feet and went after the stranger, keeping back until they’d left Utopia behind. When he felt safe, he let himself become visible again and reached out to tap the avatar’s broad shoulder.
The stranger lashed out at him so suddenly that he just barely ducked in time, feeling the wind of the blow over his head. As he straightened up he had to reach out to steady the avatar’s listing form and the muscles seized up under his hand. He caught a glimpse of frightened blue eyes, oddly human in the avatar’s broad-featured face, then it doubled over and collapsed, limbs twitching spasmodically. Kisavo knelt down beside it and turned it over as best he could; the avatar had seized up and was curled in on itself in a stiffly unnatural pose. The skin under his hand had the feeling of leather stretched over hard stone and he quickly took his hand away, wiping his fingers off on his jeans.
A crowd had begun to gather and half a dozen voices asked him what happened, more than one tinged with suspicion. He shrugged and pushed himself to his feet, stepping back away from the downed avatar and spreading his hands in a puzzled gesture.
“Some sort of system malfunction is my best guess. Or maybe he got sick, he was walking funny.” He glanced back at movement and saw the avatar wink out of sight. “There, signed off.”
A few people gave him frowning looks but after a moment the crowd began to disperse, wandering back to whatever they had been doing. Sticking his hands in the pockets of his jeans, Kisavo headed towards the main square, waiting until he was out of sight of most of the crowd before dropping offline and opening his eyes again to the darkness of Nila and Sireno’s living room.
He got up to use the washroom and glanced into Sireno’s room again, then eased Nila’s door open a crack to check on her too. Both of them were fast asleep and the sight made him feel better, enough to lie down for the third time and finally slip into sleep.
He dreamed of a narrow room lit by a bright light that washed all colour out of the walls and floor. He was lying on his back on some sort of cot, his arms strapped down by his sides. The position allowed him to turn his head slightly to either side, enough to let him see that there were wires and tubes in both of his arms, pumping some sort of fluid into him. It hurt but not nearly as much as his skull, which seemed to throb in time with his heartbeat. Something warm trickled down the side of his face and when he touched his tongue to the corner of his mouth, he tasted salty blood.
He tried to move his arm and found he couldn’t, even when he concentrated as hard as he could. Cold fear flooded through him and he made a helpless whimpering noise through clenched teeth, struggling to lift his head. Somewhere a door opened and he heard footsteps approaching the cot, then the sharp pain of a needle in his arm. The light began to blur and fade almost immediately, his weak struggles stilling as he began to lose consciousness. Gentle fingers stroked his forehead and then darkness claimed him.
“Kisavo. Hey, Kisa.”
He opened his eyes at the sound of the voice and squinted up at Sireno, dimly visible in the first dishwater grey light of dawn coming through chinks in the blinds on the windows. Sireno raised an eyebrow at him, settling back onto his heels.
“You were whimpering. Bad dream?” His fingers traced a line of subdermals going down Kisavo’s arm.
“Yeah.” Kisavo took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“Nah, I have an early class. Got a test so I don’t want to be late. Sure you’re all right?”
“If I say no, will you stay home with me?”
Sireno laughed. “No. Nila has to go to class this morning too so you’ll have the place to yourself until probably about 2. Think you can handle that?”
“I’ll do my best.” Kisavo leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Nila says if you want out of this whole Utopia thing, you’ll tell us. Will you?”
“I think we’re all in for the long haul now.”
“Not really answering my question.” Kisavo caught his hand as he got up. “You will, right?”
“If I thought I could, yeah. But I’m pretty sure I can’t, just like you can’t and Nila can’t. And I don’t need a babysitter, okay? I’m working with you guys. Don’t spend all your time trying to look after me and end up getting your ass kicked. You’re as bad as Nila.”
Kisavo snorted. “She told me that you weren’t a princess in a tower and I didn’t need to ride to your rescue.”
“Yeah, that sounds like Ni. So take her advice.” He checked his phone for the time. “I’ve gotta run. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
“Good luck on your test.” Kisavo reluctantly let go of his hand and watched him grab his jacket before heading out the door, then closed his eyes again.
He dozed until Nila got up and started banging around getting ready to go to class, then pushed himself up to make coffee, offering her a cup when she came in as a peace offering. She snorted but accepted the mug and stood at the kitchen counter to drink it, yawning between sips. After telling him not to make a mess or catch anyone’s attention, she grabbed her keys and went out the door, leaving him alone in the house.
For a few moments he wandered from the kitchen to the living room and back again, not sure what to do with himself, then poured himself a bowl of cereal and sat down to eat it. As he ate he checked online news articles, splitting his attention between the cereal he was spooning into his mouth and the articles his search pulled up. They hung in the air in front of his eyes, turning the kitchen into a fuzzy dim background, and most of them he skimmed until the headline from a small newspaper in Maine caught his eye. Moving it back to the center of his vision, he read the article accompanying it carefully.
When Nila and Sireno came home, he told them what he’d found, from that article and from others he’d searched out once he knew what he was looking for. The news article from Maine had given him the name of a boy who had been found unresponsive and bleeding from the ears that morning, still wearing his VR visor. It hadn’t taken him a lot of effort to access the NetLife databases and confirm that the boy had been wearing the avatar he’d seen coming out of Utopia, the one that had collapsed in the street before vanishing. Already people were putting it together with the rash of comas and deaths from before and a lawyer hired by the family of the boy in Maine had gone on record declaring that he would get NetLife shut down.
“Can he do that?” Nila asked, looking to Sireno.
“I’m not sure. He can try, but his evidence is pretty flimsy.” Sireno chewed on his bottom lip. “And NetLife has some good lawyers on their side. But maybe it would be a good thing. I mean, no NetLife means no Utopia.”
“I don’t think it would be that easy,” Kisavo said. “These people, whoever they are, have gone to a lot of trouble to set this up and we still don’t know why. They’d probably just pop up in some other location or some other form, and keep doing whatever they’re doing.”
“We could contact this lawyer, tell him what we know.”
“You two can try, but I’m not getting involved with any lawyer.” Kisavo shook his head. “They’re worse than cops. No offense, Reno.”
“A little taken,” Sireno muttered.
“Flirt later,” Nila said. “We keep going then? Stick to the original plan?” She held out her hand. “Are we still all in this together?”
“Yeah,” Sireno said after a moment, putting his hand over hers. “Kisa? Can’t do it without you, man.”
Kisavo sighed but put his hand on top of Sireno’s. “Yeah. But we need to do it quick. We’re running out of time.”