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Sara ran at him, arm upraised to hit him, to hit him hard. She really wanted to hurt him, to make him feel some of the pain she suffered. He was used to it, even appreciated it. Vicariously he enjoyed her pain, it made him feel real, something he had been having genuine difficulty with recently.
He flinched but didn't move and she collapsed onto his shoulders. He helped her over to his buffalo-hide sofa and sat her down with his arms around her. He squeezed her firmly, hugging her to him as if trying to become permanently attached, mixed up with her plasticene.
"It's alright," he told her. He started rocking her gently back and forth, loving her fragile form.
She pushed away from him and looked at the floor between her legs. "Don't do that, Mike. I don't like that. My mother used to do that."
He said nothing and she looked up at him. "I'm sorry," she told him,"It's just I don't like to think about it all."
He nodded sympathetically. They were all here trying to escape, some more desperately than others. In the ever-changing rooms of the complex they massed, sharing their simulated humanity, celebrating their mutual shrugging-off of reality.
He looked through the glass wall at the rugged coast with its over-dramatic high cliffs and rock stacks. Nobody in their right mind would build a house up here, he thought, the wind would be awful. He thought of his childhood home, nestled in a beautiful valley, far from the destructive chaos of the cities.
He looked back at her, she was now staring sightlessly at the same view he had been looking at. He stroked her smooth and perfect cheek with a finger and wished for wrinkles. If only there was some roughness, some imperfection, he thought, this bloody place is so clean, so antiseptic. When he looked back on his childhood it seemed to consist entirely of touch sensations, the scraping of wood and the bite of a splinter, the gristle in a piece of meat, the soft tickling of hairy arms.
Sara sighed. "I've got to go," she said and stood up.
As she walked to the door he shrunk in on himself, letting his shoulders slump. She paused and looked round. "I ... I like being with you." She waited for a response but he gave none. "Will you be here again?"
He nodded, expressionless.
Her face furrowed into a frown and she put her head on one side. "Do you ever leave, Mike?"
"Not often. I ..." he choked on his words, not able to look at her, "I like it here."
She relaxed and smiled. "So do I."
When she had gone his face lost its animation and became repossessed by old tics that knew his face well. His teeth toyed with the edge of his bottom lip on one side, his eyebrows lay strung above unfocussed eyes.
Sara had walked towards a discreet bulge on the wall and put her hand on it. A tingle ran all over her and everything went black. She waited as the hardware retracted from her face and body, freeing her to stand up. Blinking her dry eyes back into moistness she checked her credit rating at the terminal by the door and then left, expressionless as the machine told her that she was running out of money.
She pushed open the door and walked onto the pavement. Her nose wrinkled with disgust as the noxious warm air of the city hit her in great wafts as cars went past.
"Shit," she muttered and walked down the street, heading for home.
It always hit her bad, coming out. There was no beauty out here, everything was so used. She put her card into the lock and pushed open the heavy doors to her apartment block. As she pushed past the bored kids on the stairs she wished she could spend more time inside, maybe all her time.
Her dad grumbled at her as she walked in, telling her she spent too long in that place. Why couldn't she be satisfied with what she had? That made her laugh, as she slumped onto the battered sofa, closing her eyes against the cloud of dust that rose up from it.
She lit a cigarette, breathed in deeply staring at the wall.
Her dad watched her, slumped in his armchair. She ignored him, knowing he was going to ask for a cigarette.
"Sara, love..." he started.
"No. Get your bloody own!" she shouted.
She looked at him, in his patched jacket and scruffy shoes, two-day stubble on his chin. "You pathetic old git. I'm going out"
"Why can't you face reality?" he shouted as she walked out.
Mike stalked the corridors, a damned soul unable to leave his haunting ground. From the bright, colourful ceiling above hung a million signs inviting him to take part in a thousand different forums, to play hundreds of different games, to link into tens of other networks. He moved on, robbed of enthusiasm by his singular nightmare.
Lost deep in melancholy he walked at random into a forum, not really caring where he was.
"And these figures show a clear increase during the late 20th century of multinational companies and a corresponding decrease..." The man standing in the sharp corner of a diamond shaped room spoke to a crowd of listeners.
While the speaker droned on Mike watched the walls of the room move discreetly outwards as more people came in. "...and with the empowerment of aggressive PR departments, the world saw more and more exploitation of third-world labour and..." It reminded him of a council meeting in his home village he had once attended. Everyone seemed so respectful to the person speaking, even when they had disagreed with what was said there was no jeering or interruption. It had annoyed him at the time, he remembered.
"Sociologists had predicted as early as the end of the 20th century that virtual reality would have a profound effect on society but at that time few saw the link with commercial activity. The delocalisation process that followed was perfectly suited..." People don't care, Mike thought to himself. If they thought this was so bad they wouldn't be here. He drifted into sleep, lulled by the voice.
He woke with a start, and realised that it was a different person speaking. He lifted his head and saw a man in the audience standing up.
"Would the speaker say then that the world would be better off without the inside?"
Hell, yes, thought Mike angrily. Look at the cities, they're falling to pieces.
The lecturer chuckled. "No sir, he would not. The problems we see at the moment are merely society adjusting itself to the new order of scattered hi-tech villages. We're just not used to it. Humanity will be a much more civilised, restrained creature when the changes are complete." There was a spattering of applause.
Mike left in disgust.
The social worker, Jervin, glanced over the data and looked up.
"You do realise that you've been in a position of privilege?"
"Privilege? You're kidding me."
Jervin put on a stern voice. "Yes, Mr Campbell, privilege. People spend a lot of money to visit the complex. Why should you be allowed to serve your sentence here? Society has been very good to you, Mr Campbell, you..." he looked down at the file before continuing, "you commit a crime against society and then society bestows upon you a great luxury."
The social worker continued, frowning. "I take it, then, that you don't like it inside?"
Mike leaned forward. "You're damn right I don't. Get this, I hate it. OK?" He never felt comfortable being angry, always feeling that he was imitating a actor in a film.
The social worker seemed unperturbed. "And you'd like to leave?"
Mike paused suspiciously, suddenly unsure. "Well, yeah."
"It just might be your lucky day. All cases are up for review. If I can give you some advice, Mr Campbell, stay out of trouble."
Jervin kept eye contact as his finger flicked the switch and Mike's presence vanished from his office. He sat for a moment, trying to bring his thoughts to some rational conclusion. He never felt quite safe when Mike was there, though obviously he could cause no physical damage.
He tapped in his recommendation to the board slowly, pondering his urge to send Mike back to the dreadful situation outside. It was the end of his shift again. He left the report unfinished and stood up. Taking a pad with him he walked across the veranda and stepped out onto the sand. The heat from the sun struck his shoulders. Beyond the lapping waves the water was clear and deep. He sat in the shade with his back against a palm tree and checked his account on the pad.
He had been saving up time inside for as long as he had been working here, now he had over a month in hand. One day, when everything got too much he would use it all up in one go, just go wandering up into the hills away from everyone for days. He watched the seconds of his store decrease now that he was in his own time. He reached for the button and punched out.
Feeling sweaty and stiff he stood up, casting an eye over the ranks of colleagues in the booths around him. He limped to the showers wishing there was sand to wash out of his toes.
At home Sara lay in bed, listening to the shouts of gangs in the street below. She pulled the thin sheets around her neck and stared at the ceiling. Police sirens echoed from around the city blocks and got louder as they approached. The shouting had stopped, she heard a bang from downstairs, and then the sound of a door slamming.
Blue lights raced each other across her ceiling. She heard her father cry out. If she half closed her eyes she could imagine the light was reflected from a swimming pool and that she was lounging in the sun next to it. She shut her eyes tight as she heard angry arguing from downstairs and tried to keep hold of her daydream.
The blue lights went away, there was silence downstairs. She looked at the now bare ceiling, with its cracks and its peeling dampness. She thought about Mike, always in a different landscape, always ready to talk to her. She thought about persuading him to meet her outside one day, how they would make love. She pulled at the rough sticky sheets, hugging them to her body.
She found the body of her father in the morning, slumped as ever in his usual armchair. She looked at his blank eyes and his limp arms, he seemed even more pathetic and weak now he was dead. There was surprisingly little blood down his chest she noticed.
A slight noise made her turn to the sofa, where a man lay staring at her from underneath a blanket, eyes wide and frightened. Many of the houses around were empty, he must have thought the old man lived here alone.
He made a grab for her but she twisted round and ran out the door. At the end of the street she stopped running and looked round. He was standing outside her house watching her. She looked around helplessly. The man turned and went back inside.
Mike paused on a bridge, watching a gondola slip past underneath. It was impossible to tell whether the tourists were constructs or genuine visitors. They looked about them with suitable expressions of slightly bored awe.
He walked on through a square and then down an alley at random, wandering vaguely if Venice had ever actually been anything like this or whether they had exaggerated its quaintness. It seemed smaller than it should be.
A plane was crossing the sky, and though its engines must have been running at a deafening scream, no hint of sound reached the ground.
Mike walked on, occasionally running his fingers across the rough stone and plaster of the houses, having to imagine the sensations of touch.
Sara appeared in Mike's room, her face strained with fright.
"Mike! You have to..."
She looked around desperately but couldn't see him. She grabbed her pad and ran a search. Not present on this provider, it told her. She threw it onto the floor, then picked it up and sent him a one-line mail. She slumped onto the sofa, watching the graphical representation of her mail being sent. Her eyes strayed to her credit counter, watched the pitifully small amount of time left tick away. She let the pad slip out of her fingers onto the sofa and stared out of the window. She pulled her legs up and sat hugging them.
Jervin's back-ache had been getting worse steadily, the booths provided by the company were not top of the range. You didn't notice the steady pain when you were inside of course, perhaps if you did it would give you a chance to change position occasionally. But he had to build up his account or spend the rest of his life outside.
He climbed the stairs out of the basement slowly, feeling the weight of his body as he lifted it up each step. He walked across the large marble lobby, through the large doors and out.
He almost walked straight into the protesters before he realised that they were a coherent group. He stopped suddenly and backed away, taking in the message on their placards too late. He tried to run but his shoulder thumped into one of them who had got behind him. He got pushed away roughly, fighting to keep his balance.
His stomach was a twisted knot, he could see how the inevitability of the situation would have appeared to someone watching. A fist flew, making him curl over in sudden pain. I shouldn't be here, he thought, if only I'd seen them sooner. Boots kicked his face, he lost consciousness.
The flashing on his pad attracted his attention, Mike lifted it from his waist and read the message. He stared blankly at it for a moment then checked the time. He touched the home button and saw Sara before him on the sofa, staring blindly out of the window. She looked round and ran to him, head down, and grabbed him, tears on her face.
He hugged her back and for several seconds they stood together. He closed his eyes and held her, knowing how little time she had left.
The pressure on his arms suddenly went, he opened his eyes and she was gone. Her credit was all gone, her time was up. He wrapped his arms around his body and did nothing.
It was six months before they met again. One day Sara appeared in Mike's room, like she had so many times before. Her smile seemed different though, he thought, less naturally happy.
She took him for a walk, arm in arm along the cliff tops of a reconstructed Brittany. She told him how good they were together, how she had thought of nothing else, how their relationship was a beautiful abstract thing so removed from the dirt of everyday life.
He walked. Hearing her associate their relationship with the inside left him cold, as if she believed he was just another part of it, a construct for her to fall in love with. But then really he saw her in a similar way, to him their relationship was his only link with the outside world, without it he would be adrift. To touch her, however simulated and fake, was to reach out of his cell and stick his fingers into damp soil. But he didn't say anything, it didn't sound right to him.
She told him what had happened to her since she left. About her rape, about the people she had robbed, about how she sold her body for the cash to get back inside. He felt numb, she was so determined to be happy about it all.
They sat, watching waves crash into rocks below. Sara took his hand.
"Mike, I can't come here any more. " She watched the expression on his face.
"But..." he started to protest, then subsided. She seemed much stronger than before, while he had just got weaker.
"Listen, I want you to meet you outside. I've got it all worked out. We can take a tent, live out in the countryside, maybe find where you used to live. Just the two of us."
Mike stared at his feet in front of him. Her words carried over him.
"I can get a gun, we might find an abandoned house. I feel so much happier already, it makes so much sense." She gripped his hand and smiled at him.
He felt the bottom falling out of his world. Like being back at school, he thought, caught with a guilty secret.
"I can't," he said.
"Of course you can, we'll..."
"No, listen. I can't leave, I'm a prisoner here. They won't let me out."
Her face froze, she let his hand go.
She looked away, tried to fathom the horizon. When she spoke again her voice was shaky. "I didn't know they did that."
"What did you do?"
"Destroyed public VR centres. Over four years ago now. Killed eight people."
She digested this information. "Destroyed them. What the fuck for?" She was truly shocked, the public centres - and coming to see Mike inside - were the only thing that had made her life worth living for the last three years.
He stared out to sea. Waves crashed against stacks of rock.
He closed his eyes. When he looked round minutes later she was gone.
The breeze lifted his hair as he stood up, made it fly like tethered kites up into the air. He allowed himself to fall forwards, the numbness he felt in his head spreading to his whole body as he fell. He knew full well he wouldn't hurt himself, he didn't really know why he had done it.
Now at the bottom of the cliff, lying on his back on the rocks, he stared up at the sky. He was back in his childhood, lying in long grass on a summers day. He watched the clouds drift across the blue sky - they're so damn realistic, he thought. Probably in a few years time you won't be able to tell the inside from the outside. And then they'll have to set me free.