They headed for the seventh floor of a nearby high rise. The couple clung to each other and did their best to avoid eye contact with either Jason or Hender.
“Jason,” said Jason as the doors closed.
“Butterfly,” one mumbled.
“Drax,” said the other one.
“That your real name?” said Jason before he could stop himself. He was tall, certainly, but he slouched in a way which suggested he wasn’t used to his own body. “You don’t look like a Drax.”
“Kevin,” he mumbled.
Butterfly scowled. “I didn’t know that.”
“What I used to be.” He turned away. “Before.”
The elevator opened into a short, brightly lit corridor. The carpet appeared new, but Jason suspected that was just because not many people walked on it and because the maintenance robots did a good job of keeping the dust at bay. Drax stopped by a dull metal door and pressed his palm against a security pad. They were in.
The blinds were down, and the lighting subdued. The apartment had the feel of a recently serviced hotel suite, stripped bare of anything which made a house a home. There were chairs, a table, even a vase, though it didn’t look like it had seen flowers in quite some time. A slight smell of ozone mixed with a chemical residue which Jason couldn’t quite identify. Half detergent, half… something else.
The girl shuffled over to one of the single large sofa which dominated the open space. Drax sat next to her, leaving Jason and Hender standing awkwardly.
Hender broke the silence. “Say, you guys wouldn’t have any coffee would you?”
Drax shook his head and blinked, as if coming out of a trance. “Wha? Oh. Kitchen.” he waved at a closed door. “Good idea.” He got up, quickly followed by Butterfly, and soon Jason could hear percolating sounds and the distinctive comforting smells of a good roast.
“Who are these guys?” said Jason. “They’re deathly pale, and they have really bad acne. They should use cleanser. Or get out more.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think they’re used to getting out at all. I get the impression they met each other in one of those virtual worlds. I think this might be the first time they’ve actually met, in the flesh.”
“They don’t seem to have much to say to each other.”
“They seemed mighty pleased to see me. I guess the alternative to having us around is that they might actually have to talk to each other.”
“Where’d you guys meet?” said Hender as Butterfly came in with a tray of coffee.
“Ragnarok,” said Drax.
“Ragnarok Five, actually,” said Butterfly. “I was attracted to his blue wings.”
Drax smiled. “The same shade as hers. It seemed we were meant for each other.”
Jason noticed they avoided eye contact. “You spend a lot of time in Ragnarok?”
“All the time,” said Butterfly. “Until yesterday.”
“All the time?”
Drax shrugged. “Couple of years maybe. Spring of ’92. There was a heatwave so I closed the blinds.”
Not been opened since, thought Jason. “Drax, that was twelve years ago.”
“You telling me you’ve been in Ragnarok for twelve years without a break?”
Drax looked pained and took another sip of his coffee. “Don’t sound so judgmental, man.”
Butterfly leaned forward. “Drax was already there when I joined. He was in charge, actually. Well, as far as the game parameters would let him. Ragnarok Five’s a benign game.”
“Meaning the system won’t let you screw things up for the other users. So Drax got to rule over one of the Seventeen Kingdoms as long as he kept everybody happy enough to want to stay.”
“You didn’t stay.”
Butterfly started to sob. Drax turned his back. Even Hender seemed uncomfortable.
“Look,” said Drax. “This is painful. Maybe we should talk about it tomorrow.”
“Or not talk about it at all,” said Butterfly.
“Perhaps we should go,” said Jason, ignoring the panicked look on Hender’s face.
“No!” said Drax and Butterfly together.
So Hender took the couch, and Jason curled up in the corner under a borrowed blanket. He assumed the others discovered a bedroom somewhere.
Jason was still bleary-eyed when Hender shoved a cup of coffee in his hand. He took the first sip instinctively.
“Good. Stronger than last night.” He nodded in satisfaction. “Where are Kevin and the girl?”
“You mean the people formerly known as Drax and Butterfly? Presumably still finding out whether they like each other in the real world, whatever that is.”
Sun shone through the slats in the blinds. Jason checked his watch. “I’m going to check on them.” He left Hender trying to work out how to operate the View Wall. He knocked gently at first, but when he got no answer he knocked again, louder this time.
Someone inside was crying.
The door wasn’t locked, and the handle turned easily. Black drapes covered the window, and the only light came from the doorway. The room was crowded; as well as the bed, wardrobe, and other furniture, a large rectangular box shoved over to one side filled most of the available space. Butterfly leaned against it, slumped to the floor, sobbing.
Jason flicked on a light. “Where’s Drax?”
Butterfly gestured over her shoulder, to the rectangular box.
“In there?” Jason walked over and peered in through the glass paneled lid into the box, filled with viscous fluid. And something else: Drax. “What the hell is this?”
They took her to the park mainly to get her out of the apartment, but also because they were hungry and the only food they could find at Drax’s was way past its use-by date. It was mid-morning, but apart from a solitary jogger and a couple of old women chatting on a bench, they didn’t see anyone until they reached the auto-café at the northern edge. An old man looked them up and down, waved his coffee cup in greeting, and shuffled off, mumbling something inaudible as he left. He wore an old business suit, frayed at the cuffs and collar, too small for him now; but his shirt looked clean and pressed, and he wore a tie which might have been new. Keeping his standards up, Jason supposed. Maybe the alternative was giving up.
She stopped crying after she’d finished the second sandwich. “That’s the first food I’ve had since we came out.”
“But you were in the restaurant last night,” said Jason, helping himself to more coffee.
“Doesn’t mean I was eating. I thought I’d forgotten how.”
Somewhere a dog howled. Jason tried his best to ignore it. “Tell me about Drax. About the box.”
“Box? Oh you mean the tank.”
Jason gave his best blank expression.
“You really are from out of town, aren’t you? The tank. The V-world Immersion Chamber.”
“Look, Butterfly, or whatever you’d like me to call you out here. Last time I was here, you accessed V-world with a nifty little wide headpiece. I do remember it getting almost so you couldn’t tell you weren’t actually in the real world. But I don’t remember people closing themselves off in coffins.”
“Yeah, well. Progress. The old V-worlds were great, no doubt about it. Or they would have been if you didn’t still need to eat or shit. That meant forty-eight hours, tops. Maybe more with a drip and a game nappy. But you know, it’s kind of a mood breaker unplugging to deal with your own fetid crap. Not to mention the smell.”
“So now you encase yourself in nutrient fluid and you never have to leave the game,” Hender said. Jason shot him a glance. “What? Despite appearances, I do read stuff you know. There are intelligent nanoparticles in the goo that regulate bodily functions and apply electrical stimulus to the muscles, which is why Butterfly here can walk and talk like a normal person.”
Now Butterfly shot him a glance. “I know I look bad to you, but apart from the spots and the whitewash face, I’m telling you I feel better than I’ve ever done out here. I mean, before I hit the tank I was two hundred pounds and getting bigger. Moving to Ragnarok probably saved my life.”
“Then why leave?” said Jason.
She sighed. “It was Drax’s idea. We were in love, and we wanted sex.”
“You can’t do that in the game?”
“You can do anything you want in the game, including and especially sex, in all its forms. Subject to the parameters of the particular world you’re in, of course. Which in Ragnarok means that eight-foot tall blue guys with equipment sized to match and three-foot nothing flying insects were never going to get it on, not really.”
“Hence your brief return to the real world.”
“And what a waste of time this has turned out to be.”
“So I guess Drax has gone back.”
“I think I was a bit of a disappointment to Drax. But that’s okay. He was more than a bit of a disappointment to me.”
”Are you going to go back too?”
Butterfly laughed, but with no smile behind it. “I think the spell’s been broken, don’t you think? Anyhow, you can’t go back, not to the same place, anyway, which is another reason people never leave. Once you leave, the system resets you with a new identity. Drax ain’t Drax any more.”
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