Tonight the fog is unusually thick, rolling in turbulent brown waves that crisscross the window, blocking the billboard at each intersection and breaking his concentration. He’s practiced enough, but imagination is the child of sleep and he’s had none this week, and it shows.
Two hours he sits there trying, his hand wet with spit and envy. Half of her teeth, her pouting red lips, and most of her eye disappears behind intermittent clouds of ash. For a moment she looks dead, like the air outside and the upstairs neighbor last week and the little brown dog his father abandoned in the alley behind their shop the day of the bombing, dead.
Yuri gives up around midnight, when the streetlights fade from yellow to red and there’s just no compensating for it, that bloody patina, warning a world that should be asleep, but isn’t. He sits back on the bed, resting his head against layers of concrete, ceramic, argon, and recycled plastic.
For a moment, the world outside infects his own little world as a single ruby shaft of light streaks through the torn window film. The tear is of his own making; it’s against regulation, but the super avoids the lower floors at night, and there’s enough stick left on the window that he can press hard with his palm and the film will usually stay, for a while. Sometimes, when the air is especially humid, the window sweats and the film slips down, threatening to expose his little private game.
What is the punishment for masturbating to a public advertisement? Surely they can’t fine him for indecency; most of him is out of sight, all but his eyes and perhaps a bit of forehead, but that was all you needed to ID someone. He was posing for a mugshot with his cock in his hand. For a moment, his imagination returns. He wants a cigarette. He reaches for an oblong black pen on the bedside table. Puts it to his lips and inhales deeply. When he exhales, the room vanishes in a cloud of milk.
Slumped over with his feet on the bare floor. Smoke billows around his skull. A single bulb hangs from the ceiling, coughing light into the square room, touching his desk and workbench with a fluorescent blue corona. Coils of wire and bundles of fiber optic cable climb the concrete walls, spilling onto the floor like slick black snakes. Racks of hardware beep and purr beside a tiny metal desk in the corner. There’s a refrigerator on the opposite wall that leaks in the summer and freezes in the winter. It rattles when the pump kicks on against the wall.
He catches a sidelong glimpse of a shadow beside him. A monster hunched on the bed, philosophizing. Its back arched in a sickening way. Too much spine showing through. The head larger than it should be. He shudders.
He looks down at his arm. The skin is translucent and jaundice in places. Is that a bruise? Hmm. He doesn’t remember falling.
When he looks up, she’s there in the window again.
“Lona,” he says. For a full minute her smile is visible through the fog, then she disappears.
Lona, he thinks. His thoughts race. His legs tense and spread. He needs to unwind.
He stands and pushes the film against the window, deleting the red light from existence. Pads over to the desk and swivels the chair. Folds the armrest down and slides in. Locks it back into place. Gets himself settled. The electrodes are cold on his neck. He reaches two fingers back to make sure they’re hitting the bald spots; they are. He reclines like this for a full minute, letting his spine stretch against the chair. Feels himself starting to drift. Sleep is right there standing in the doorway, just beyond a threshold he refuses to cross.
He blinks and punches a button on the keyboard. The overhead monitors wink on in sequence, left to right. The light is a curse. His eyes want to retreat. You need to sleep. He squints in protest.
The deck is custom, and fairly expensive. He saved almost every credit from every paycheck for a year after his father died. The Admin pays your bills the first year, and half of the second. Government benefits aren’t half bad when someone dies for them.
Since he didn’t leave the apartment except to buy groceries, and since he spent enough time each day in the chair that he didn’t need to eat much, he was able to scrape by on almost nothing for the better part of eighteen months. Plenty of time to build the rig of his dreams.
The chair was a good find. He won it in an auction online, sniped at the last possible microsecond from a dentist in Fresno. The rest of the parts were trickier, since half of them were illegal in the residential district, and the other half were retired from older systems. His Frankenstein monster didn’t howl in the night, but it did break the laws of both man and god. The Admins are not a god you want to piss off. Not if you plan to enjoy a living wage and basic internet access.
He christened the build with a simulation of his own design. Nothing spectacular, just an offline vacation experience he pirated from a remote server and modified to suit his needs. The code was simple enough that he didn’t mind tinkering under the hood. With offline sims, there’s almost no risk. The current experience—the one he loads with a few rapid taps on the keyboard—came the following year.
This is how Yuri spends his nights: supine, fully relaxed, numb to the teeth with SMRs, eyes twitching behind a pair of goggles that look like a diver’s mask.
He opens a small orange bottle and pops a pill under his tongue. The goggles are the final touch. His fingers do the rest. When he opens his eyes, he sees blackness. He hears nothing but his own breathing and the pounding of a heartbeat in his neck.
The rush is quick and sharp like static.
Then he’s far away.
He wakes from the dream of a world eating itself alive. He’s on a beach. Water rushes and retreats against the shore. Gulls crow and caw. The wind sprays cool water across his bare feet.
Smells: hot sand, sea salt, lotion, rust, raw fish, pine trees. He feels the rumble of an ocean. A real, living ocean. He hears voices behind him and opens his eyes.
Up the beach there’s a bar, a little island hut with torches and a woven-grass roof. The hut is made entirely of wood. A sign on the outside reads, HAPPY HOUR. He looks to his left. Down the shore a ways is a family lounging in the sand. Mom and Dad, couple of kids. A little brown dog. The kids are throwing a Frisbee out into the water and the dog is running out into the tide, chasing after it. Even over the roar of the waves and the gusts of salty wind he can hear them. Laughing.
No one is coughing. No horns or sirens. No screaming.
He leans back on his elbows and lets the sun warm him. He is tingly, all the way through to the bone.
“Welcome back, stranger.”
His skin goes cool. He fans his hand over his eyes and stares up into the face of a beautiful young woman. Dark hair, red lips, sweet eyes. She’s standing over him in a bikini. There’s something familiar about her, yet at the same time there’s something wrong about her being there.
“Hello, Yuri. You’re putting in a lot of hours this week.”
“You know me,” he says. “I’m a workaholic.” She laughs at this. It’s the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard.
“You need to get some sleep.”
“Nah, I’ll be fine. I promise.”
“Yuri, I worry about you.”
He smiles. She worries about him. How did he get so lucky? “You shouldn’t. I’m fine. I just miss you, is all. When I’m not here.”
Lona is quiet a moment. She looks out at the open sea before them. The wind blows hair around her face. Yuri tries to paint this memory in his head. “Where do you go?”
She looks down at him. “Where do you go, when you leave here?”
Yuri frowns. “You know we can’t talk about that. Come sit down with me.”
“I can’t stay. You need to get some sleep.”
“Lona, my love. I can’t sleep. I’d rather be here with you.”
“But none of this is real.”
His blood runs cold. He sits upright in the sand. He feels the chair, the goggles, the sharp metal of the armrest on his palms. He’s losing it.
“Lona, don’t— don’t say that. You shouldn’t say things like that.”
“I love you, Lona.”
She takes a deep breath.
He does not. He pushes himself up off the sand. His body is heavy. Something pinches the back of his neck.
“I have to go now, Yuri.”
“Wait, there’s still—” he starts to say. The world turns. He feels sick. Lona backs away from him. She appears to be walking normally, but she’s moving in reverse. Her image flickers. She’s beside him then she is gone. She reappears by the little wooden hut.
The beach tessellates as the world fragments around him. Colors split apart and shift as a fractal tunnel emerges in the center of his vision. The edges of everything goes dark. Everything is silent, like the sound of the whole world was muted.
And then he is back in the chair.