On the short drive to the western shore of Lake Arrowhead, I reeled back the Jeff Fahey books I’d looked at what seemed like months ago now, vaguely remembering a line he had about the resorts near LA: like VR within VR within a psychopath’s thalamus.
I didn’t know what he meant at the time…didn’t even know what a thalamus was…but as we approached the first of three payment gates next to a fairly typical lakeside beach, I began to get an idea.
‘This one’s for general access,’ explained Nick, taking out his Arrowhead Residential Card and swiping it against the scan-pole. ‘Next one’s beach and swim, last one’s VIP. Don’t worry, Nick Stahl the local movie star can cover all of us.’
I was pretty sure none of us had our wallets, so if he couldn’t cover us then it would’ve been a short session. Nevertheless, we all said thanks and followed him onto the insanely smooth [and imported] sand.
The area itself – or the beach and swim section that Nick stopped us at – was around half capacity, with most people stretched out on the sun loungers, and the younger, sexier ones in the lake. Unlike the beaches in Japan, there was no net sealing off the swimming area, which meant you could pretty much swim as far out as you liked, to the other side of the lake if you had the stamina.
Maybe Nick was capable of such a feat, using his alien physiology?
Or maybe he couldn’t even swim?
I thought of asking him as he picked out a spot on the sand, but then Lexi took off her Xxun Alchemist t-shirt and my mind cut elsewhere. Back to the dungeon of Nightmare Castle. The couch in the video caffé. Her bedroom. Sadia’s bedroom. The tree outside. Sadia’s burning housse poem. The swimming pool in Compton. Syria touching herself under the surface, blood dripping off my knuckles.
‘The old Id finally hacking off the hinges…’ said Nick, yanking myself and the Planet Dark t-shirt back to the beach.
‘Lexi’s t-shirt is off.’
So? came out as a mechanical hum, my eyes still with the Pam Grier substitute, her Coffy bikini…
‘I’m going into the water,’ she whispered into my neck, brushing a hand against the bottom of my shorts. ‘You coming?’
‘In a minute.’
Lexi looked at Nick, then at the people splashing around in the lake. I followed her gaze. There was enough space in the water to slip into without being hassled by anyone, and all the people splashing around seemed to be in a group already so…not too bad.
Unless she wanted to be hassled?
It was a paranoid question and died quickly as I watched her stroll down to the lake’s edge, kicking some water at one of the wave-creating bots set up at the side.
For some reason, that made me laugh. Splashing water at a bot. Why?
I turned back to the non-human pair, still smiling.
‘Ah, your new fan is trailing you,’ Nick said, taking off his own t-shirt to reveal a body that could in no way have been worked towards. Not with the lifestyle I’d witnessed. That purple swirly shit had probably made the abs for him…and those triceps…
‘I will not talk to him,’ answered Juana, Spider Demon t-shirt already over her face as she lay, legs coiled-up, on the sand.
Their exchange pinballed around my brain a few times before I finally realized what they were referring to. Walking languidly towards the VIP area was Gai Father stalker Andi Chopra, baggy white shirt spotted with sweat, sunglasses honed in on Juana’s vermilion bikini.
‘He’ll keep coming,’ said Nick, picking up some powdery sand and rubbing it on his arms.
‘Twenty minutes…then he’ll stockpile enough ego to come and talk to you.’
‘No problem, I’ll answer in Spanish.’
‘He might speak that too.’
‘Then I’ll use Yaqui.’
Nick laughed, reaching over and tickling Juana’s Nadja ja ja tattoo. Then ruffling the rogue strands of hair sticking out from under her makeshift blanket when she told him to fuck off.
‘Is that a language?’ I asked, sitting down next to Lexi’s t-shirt, then switching quickly to an innocuous spot on the sand as Juana turned to face me.
‘Si, claro. My native tongue.’
‘Si. You can say that.’
I scratched a couple of times at the space station on my t-shirt, then scooped up a handful of sand, nodding. So you were human at some point? was what I really wanted to ask, followed by why are you still using Spanish, but that would undo the cranberry juice moment we’d had earlier and, for some reason, my brain was telling me, don’t undo it, don’t undo it.
Did I like her in some way?
Was she my new surrogate mum?
But…the red bikini, the Spider Demon t-shirt…her cannibal flesh…
A suicide fuck?
The only way to jumpstart my evaporating, conked-out sex drive?
Abstract Yaqui Juana…
I let the sand trickle out of my fist, imagining it as brain dust.
Nearby, a toddler screamed out as someone’s dog stepped on their sandcastle, getting an uncomfortably loud build a-fucking-nother one from the guy next to them.
‘Looks like you’re being usurped, Keni-cat,’ said Nick, brushing the sand he’d just sprinkled on back off his arms.
My face feigned confusion despite, instinctively, knowing what he meant.
‘In the water.’
I dropped the pretense and turned, scanning for a few seconds before zooming in on Lexi. She was up to her thighs, riding infant waves, flanked by two stripped guys on either side. One pink-white, the other Japanese.
‘She’s a grown adult,’ I replied, scratching the space station again.
‘As opposed to a non-grown one?’
‘You better get that t-shirt off and get over there. The Japanese guy’s getting quite close. Could hijack your novelty factor.’
I patted my stomach, still feeling quite stuffed from the Hainan chicken.
‘Just breathe in,’ said Nick, reading my pretty blatant body language. ‘No one will notice.’
‘Breathe is right,’ added Juana, removing half the t-shirt from her face and squinting up. ‘Relax another minute, wait for them to go away.’
‘Too long, the Japanese guy’s already stroking her arm.’
I looked at the water again, scrunching up the bottom of my t-shirt as Lexi stood there and let the Japanese guy with his fairly well-built arm brush something off her shoulder. At least that’s what I hoped he was doing.
‘Lake Arrowhead bravado, Keni. These people are used to getting what they want. Within the hour typically.’
Some feral Spanish from Juana – or was it Yaqui? – followed by a swipe of the claw. ‘Men talk to Lexi all the time. Even when she’s not wearing a bikini.’
‘I mean…at work, when she’s in the Tenebrae t-shirt. Or wearing a jacket. They come and talk to her because she looks friendly. Then she steers them into a cul-de-sac and, eventually, they go away.’
Juana was clearly so confident in her prediction that she pulled the Spider Demon t-shirt back over her face, coiled her legs in tight to her waist again, and turned onto her side. Nick, on the other hand, was getting more excitable, pointing at the water and telling me how relaxed Lexi looked.
I lasted another forty seconds, maybe a minute, before his words became a toddler’s whiny scream and then decided, fuck it, even if I’m a sexless monk, I’m not letting that guy get his paws on my Nightmare Castle playmate.
Awkwardly pulling off my t-shirt [and throwing it at Nick’s face], I breathed in fifty per cent, jogged down to the shore and took a straight line towards Lexi’s position. Something in my head was saying, guy’s in the way, push him, smack him in the face, and my fist was ready, but then I saw Lexi’s face and the pacifist part took over.
‘Entertaining the kids?’ I asked, moving close, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder
It was an odd line, and no one answered for a second, but then the Japanese guy conferred telepathically with his white friend and came back with a ludicrous, ‘who the fuck are you, chunk?’
I turned, the tone of his you re-activating my volcano cortex and…watched as the back of Lexi’s hand clipped him on the ear.
‘The fuck…’ spluttered out of his mouth, and then, ‘fucking crazy bitch,’ as his friend grabbed his arm, acting out a pretty unconvincing show of pulling him away.
One or two other faces looked over and shrugged.
Fucking bitch, servant fucking cunt, didn’t wanna fuck her anyway.
Some childish splash backs.
Then, a minute later, they were next to the wave bots, perving on a group of paddle-boarding Indian girls.
‘Fucking deserved it…’ said Lexi, the look in her eyes the same as mine when Ryu had tried to explain Hegel one time. ‘Right?’
I leaned in and kissed her, wrapping my arms around her back.
‘Lake Arrowhead bravado,’ I said, finally pulling back half an inch, the tone on the last word fading a bit as I realized there was still nothing happening in my shorts.
‘Just…really felt like hitting him…’
‘I know the feeling.’
‘…even before you got here…’
After kissing a bit more, and splashing each other [as was expected when people were in water yet couldn’t be bothered to swim], we both got a bit bored – literally said to each other that we were bored – and waved at Nick and Juana to come and join us.
Nick stared back like an android programmed exclusively to sit on sand and stare, while Juana didn’t even see us with the t-shirt over her face. However, she did appear to have Andi Chopra on radar, and, when he started a staggered approach towards her position, she sprang up from the sand and walked quickly into the water. Apparently afraid of being alone, Nick left all our stuff behind, including his residential card, and followed her in.
‘Thought you were in a coma,’ said Lexi, as Juana lowered her head onto the top of the surface and pseudo-bobbed towards us.
‘Recharging,’ she replied, rising back up and spitting water into Nick’s face behind her.
‘That was hygienic,’ he said, wiping it off with more lake water.
‘… … … … …’
‘He’s coming,’ said Juana, giving the slightest nudge of her face towards the shore.
I skimmed the faces even though there was no real need. Andi Chopra was a distinctive guy, from filmns and hair insurance ads, and the way he was striding through the water made everyone else take notice too. Like a local tyrant coming to inspect a peasant’s fruit stall.
‘Bit behind schedule, comrade,’ said Nick, as Chopra reached Juana and, with the same confidence as his most iconic character Captain Eto, put his hand directly on her waist.
‘… … … … … …’ Juana spat, pushing it away.
‘I was hoping you would do that,’ Chopra answered, looking down at her stomach and then roaming slowly up.
‘… … … … … …’
‘My place is just over the ridge there.’ He pointed across to a large, Portuguese type villa on the shore, about a kilometre away. ‘We could be in bed with Chilean grapes in twenty minutes.’
‘… … … … … …’
‘Is that Spanish, darling? I don’t recognize any of the-…’
‘Yaqui,’ said Nick, splashing water over his shoulders.
‘An indigenous language that everyone knows.’
‘Are you a resident here?’
‘You don’t recognize him?’ Lexi asked, giving some kind of coded look to Juana, who was slowly sinking back down into the lake.
‘I know he’s not David Arquette,’ said Chopra laughing, reaching out for Juana’s arm and failing to pull her back up.
‘Nick Stahl…from the Terminator filmns…’
‘Dead Bitch on Pluto, Post Office, Bully, ’ Nick added, his voice slightly irritated.
‘That’s stellar. Another D-lister. From fifty years ago.’ Chopra fake smiled and stepped closer to Juana. ‘Now, about our little trip to my place…’
‘Busy right now,’ she replied, sinking down to mouth level, shifting back towards Nick. When she got close enough, her body rose back up again and backed right into his chest, her spoon hand pulling his arm around her stomach like a seatbelt.
‘Wait. She’s your bit?’
Juana spat out lake water. ‘I’m not a tennis racket.’
‘You’re together? Really?’
‘Only until you leave, Chopper,’ said Nick, eyes lighting up lilac.
‘Fuck. This guy? Over me?’
‘… … … … … … … …’
‘… … … … … …’
Nick put a hand on Juana’s wrist, stroking down onto her fingers. ‘She said get the fuck out of here before I rip open your skull and eats the spongey bits. I being her. Not me.’
‘I’d just flay you. Or freeze you. Flay and freeze.’
Chopra slouched back his arm, and I could see in his eye that he was already mentally smashing his fist into Nick’s face, but some part of his brain managed to get the leash on, probably warning him about the headlines, the horror vlogs, telling him to save it for the servants back home, or even better, the NPCs in VR Lake Arrowhead.
Then Lexi splashed water in his face and told him full spartan to fuck off.
‘You black little…’
The back of his hand shot out, clipping her on the chin, and whatever satisfaction he got out of that lasted about three milliseconds as I caught him square on the nose, and then a second hit slightly to the side of it as I pushed forward and tackled him into the waves.
He was fairly strong, but not enough to topple me, and definitely not enough to stop Lexi jumping in and shoving his face under the water.
‘Sick of all you fucking…perverts,’ she yelled roughly at the spot where the reflection of his face was…and then just into the water itself as he was gone and I was holding nothing and everyone else in the lake was splashing around as if the whole thing had never happened.
‘What…’ I mumbled, dazed, snatching at random parts of the water.
‘He’s over there,’ said Nick, still with his arm around Juana.
‘Did we just…’ started Lexi, looking at her own hand, the water, the background NPCs.
‘You hit him, he hit you. Then I altered things a little to stop you drowning a world famous filmn star in front of two-hundred, financially comfortable witnesses.’
‘But…he was right here…’
‘You altered everyone’s mind?’
‘…now he’s there…’
‘Two hundred of them?’
‘Relax, no one’s calling the police. It was a spat, you traded blows, it got resolved, he’ll go back home and take it out on a maid or something.’
‘So I did hit him?’
‘Or crawl into his private VR suite. Yes, you hit him, and Lexi got him too. It was very explosive. How about we all swim a while, let things simmer down?’
‘I don’t understand…’ mumbled Lexi, poking a finger into the water.
‘Proposal approved.’ Nick lifted Juana’s arm off him and tickled her Nadja ja ja tattoo, letting out a fake wah when it didn’t rub off. ‘How about this? We race each other to the middle of the lake.’
‘As you’re my girlfriend, I’ll give you a five minute head start. You too, Lexi.’
The idea didn’t seem to stimulate Lexi much, probably cos she was still scanning the shore for people calling the police or holding their phones up to record themselves reacting to the Chopra brawl, but Juana seemed to be okay with it.
‘Memory magic,’ she said, seizing Lexi’s hand and leading her further out into the lake. ‘Better not to dwell on the details.’
‘You saw it too?’ she asked, offering token resistance.
‘Swim time. Start kicking.’
When they were a few metres away, Nick put an arm around my shoulder and told me he was a bit worried.
‘Lexi. This new-found aggression of hers.’
‘She only splashed him…if I’m remembering right…’
‘…and punched the Japanese guy. Dude, I see everything, eyes in the sky. She wasn’t like this before, at the video place, so what I’m wondering is…’
‘You caused it?’
‘…did I somehow-…yeah, exactly that. It’s a fickle, unpredictable process, the purple fixing…and there’s a chance that I did it so much that it knocked the balance out. But then again, it could also be other factors, more naturalistic issues.’
‘Like never answering questions and putting hard porn posters up?’
‘Dude, that was an assist. A blatant one.’
‘Which made things a hundred times worse.’
‘Huh, you mean you didn’t do anything last night?’
I flinched, looking towards the shore.
Andi Chopra was back in the VIP area now, with a bottle of something in his hand. No glass. No maids.
‘Wah, that bad? Hmm. Maybe it’s stress. Or Lexi’s new attitude…’
‘It’s not her. I’m fine.’
‘…or maybe you just fucked each other too soon, too many times. Evaporation of the lust factor…actual comprehension of the words she’s saying during conversation and feeling kind of bored of it.’
Something about his voice made me turn and…
‘Did you do something to me?’ I asked, rushing the words out.
‘Why, do you feel strange?’
‘No…’ I stammered, caught a little off guard by the speed of his response. ‘Not really.’
‘Then I didn’t.’
About thirty metres distant, Lexi yelled back at us, telling us to start swimming.
‘Besides your brain is already messed up with all that science nonsense. Too dangerous to go in there now.’
‘You didn’t change anything, last night at the party?’
‘Not my style.’
‘Dude, no time…they’re getting too far ahead.’
Nick let go of my shoulder and pushed down and forward into the lake. When he resurfaced he was already halfway to Lexi and Juana.
He can definitely swim then, I thought, pushing off after him.
Like a fucking Napoleon.
The rest of the afternoon was fairly uneventful.
We swam about a hundred metres out then turned back when Nick told us there were giant eels in the deeper parts of the lake.
None of us really believed him, but once the image was there…
On the beach, we stretched out on the sun loungers and tried to nap.
Nick tossed me his copy of Moon Prison, which he’d apparently taken back the night before, and told me to focus on the scene transitions. I was confused for a second, but then I remembered my own stab at writing, Yellow Muon Blob, and said, ‘sure, scene transitions.’
Andi Chopra drank two bottles of wine and was carried out of the VIP section by what I assumed were lifeguards.
Juana sat up to watch, saying she was hungry.
‘Too famous,’ warned Nick, licking sand off his finger.
‘Not him. Dinner. I feel like tacos.’
‘Ah, good idea.’
‘There’s a place next to the VR plaza,’ said Lexi, sitting up and slowly stretching the Xxun Alchemist t-shirt down over her bikini. ‘I noticed it yesterday.’
‘Gods in heat, not VR…’
‘I wasn’t suggesting that.’
Lexi fixed the creased parts of her t-shirt round the shoulders and stared at the intransigent alien time genie thing.
‘You will,’ he repeated, licking more sand.
Turned out Nick wasn’t as psychic as he thought.
We did end up at the VR plaza, but it wasn’t Lexi who pulled us there, it was a slightly drunk and whimsical Juana, who started with, ‘I tried one of the Harem Survival games once,’ and finished with, ‘how about the Category IV Lake Arrowhead thing?’
Nick didn’t look too pleased about this suggestion, but it was three against one and no one was letting him near their heads with those purple fingers of his, so in we went, the extortionate price neutered by his magical resident’s card.
Being located in a millionaire’s haven, the set-up was a little different from the more common franchise places I’d played in before, with a lot of extras:
1] There was an optional concessions drip; alcohol, nicotine, soup, weed, cocaine, though the higher level drugs had an auto-cut off to prevent in game ODs.
2] As Nick had previously mentioned, some real-world celebrity residents of Lake Arrowhead had signed consent forms to feature as NPCs, most of them appearing as younger, slightly tweaked versions of themselves.
3] A blue beacon was auto-embedded in the player’s arm while in the simulation, to let other players know they were human and untouchable.
Of course, the majority of these were only applicable to the Category III and IV versions of the games [if they had them], like Nightmare Castle, Harem Survival 4, and the one we were patching into, Lake Arrowhead X [it would’ve been Nightmare Castle for Lexi and me, if the server hadn’t been closed for repair – the sign received a kick and fuck you for that one…not from me].
‘I’ve set the weed drip for sativa effect, fifteen milligram, four hours,’ said Lexi, leaning over to my seat and examining my pad menu.
‘I’ll do the same then.’
‘I’m going to Maika Monroe’s housse.’
‘Her name’s on the character list…madura y lista…gonna try and fuck her, if she’s in.’
‘Okay, Chopra,’ I muttered, finishing my own settings and lying back.
‘Can’t believe I’m debasing myself like this,’ said Nick, sitting on the end seat with his legs crossed.
‘You can wait outside if you like,’ said Lexi, head back, eyelids down.
‘Fucking replica of Lake Arrowhead…’
His voice faded to static hum as I patched in and, after the usual few seconds of staring at the near distance, pushed myself off the bench outside the VR plaza and followed Lexi out into the middle of the main road.
Juana joined us for a second, commented on how realistic it all looked, then got on one of the rental bikes nearby and rode off towards Maika Monroe’s housse.
The blue beacon on her arm kept her in sight all the way to the first bend, when it was replaced by another blue beacon coming the other way.
‘Is she coming back?’
‘Different player,’ said Lexi, adding fuuuck abruptly as someone broke a window across the street.
Blindly obeying gut-reflex, I stepped in front of Lexi, then settled in at her side as she maneuvered around me. Two guys were cheering with their arms raised outside the Happy Later Yoga Centre, their boots crunching on the broken glass.
‘I guess they don’t like yoga,’ was the best line I could manage.
‘Where’s Nick?’ asked Lexi, checking the intro bench behind us.
‘Maybe he didn’t patch in.’
A horn beeped to the left, making the two guys stop their celebration. They raised another rock up in the air then saw the blue light on the driver’s arm, slurred something about loving Bitch on Pluto and went back to ape-dancing.
‘You getting in?’ Nick asked, pulling up at a skewed angle.
‘To go where?’
‘Away from those lunatics. If this thing’s accurate, there should be a quiet little beach spot about ten minutes east.’
‘Err…we might just stick around here.’
‘Or go to one of the celeb housses,’ added Lexi.
‘Kim Ok Bin is just up from my beach spot. Angela Bassett’s housse too. You can break in and trash the place. Force her to watch Supernova. Stare into those dull featureless eyes.’
I looked at Lexi, trying to communicate without words that I didn’t want to spend the next four hours in an awkward triangle. Based on the subtle shaking of her head, she didn’t fancy it much either.
‘Relax, guys…I have no desire to watch you two grope each other…in a stale fucking construct. I’ll show you the spot then go for a long walk.’
‘In the other direction?’ asked Lexi.
‘Down to the bottom of the lake…into the water…if that’s what you want?’
True to his word, Nick dropped us off at a quiet part of the shore, with fairy lights hanging from arbitrary branches of the surrounding trees, and immediately headed down to the water’s edge.
‘Watch out for perverts,’ he shouted back to us, scratching at the blue light on his arm.
‘You too,’ Lexi replied.
We sat down on the sand and watched him shift left towards what he claimed was Kim Ok Bin’s gothic-style mansion, then switched to lying down and stroking each other’s arms.
Now and then, a blue light would blink in the distance, but they either didn’t know about this spot or had no interest in it as none moved any closer.
‘I wonder if Juana’s fucking Maika Monroe yet,’ said Lexi with a dry giggle, the drip-weed clearly taking effect.
‘Long as she’s not sucking out Andi Chopra’s brain.’
‘Ha, I didn’t think about that.’
‘Me neither. Until just now. Wah, is that a boat?’
Lexi squinted at the dark mass that was the lake and, after almost a full minute, said, ‘maybe an eel.’
We both laughed, moving our hands down each other’s sides, kissing with our own blue lights blinking neon on our faces.
It’s Lexi, I told myself over and over, praying for some kind of response as she ran her hand over my shorts, then, when nothing stirred, I changed tack to VR, it’s VR, probably the type of weed they’re feeding in, better wait till later. In the sex poster room. Where I’d failed the night before.
I put my fingers on her Mizuno shorts and stroked a bit, then took her hand and pulled it up towards my lips.
‘Not feeling it?’ she asked, letting me kiss each knuckle.
‘Probably the VR.’
‘Yeah, I feel a bit weird too.’
‘Or the weed.’
‘Almost routine, like we should do it, but…I don’t know. It’s hard to explain. Everything just feels a bit foggy, like I’m not in the right place. Which is kinda true…objectively…I guess.’
‘Probably Nick’s purple memory stuff…the after effects.’
I took a long open-forum breath, sifting through the sand with my free hand. ‘I get the routine part though. The last day or two here, last night in bed…my mind is just…weird. Like, I don’t seem to feel much. Sexually. About anything.’
‘Not even the lady in the lake?’
‘She was naked…big tits…’
‘Yeah, I noticed.’
‘Very alluring. Ha, yeah, pale and bloated. My dream woman.’
Lexi turned, snuggling into my side. ‘Maybe it’s the two brain thing?’
‘I have no idea…honestly. The scientists who did it, they didn’t really explain much…or they did a bit, they came to see me after and…I vaguely remember some parts of what they said…what they said in Japan too…but it feels like ages ago now. Like, last year or something. Longer.’
Lexi shifted again, propping herself up on one elbow. ‘What exactly did they do?’
‘In technical terms? Fuck knows. It was supposed to be a transplant of…them replacing my old identity with this one…Mark. I mean, the original Mark. But it didn’t quite work…the machine, I think…went wrong somehow, fucked things up.’
Her finger ran down the side of the space station on my chest, stopping at the reactor core. ‘I don’t really get it.’
‘Yeah, me neither.’
‘You wanted to erase your whole-…your life before this?’
‘I suppose I must’ve.
‘And you still remember the Japanese part…’
‘…and the language.’
‘Yeah…and other stuff…’
I paused, pretending to be interested in something crawling along the sand. There was more on my mind, but it was Ryu-related and I didn’t want to tell her that. However, she was looking at the sand too, the exact same spot as me, so I had to say something.
Or I would’ve if there hadn’t been weird noises in the bushes nearby.
‘You hear that?’ she asked, looking over.
‘Probably Nick messing around.’
‘Can’t see any blue lights.’
‘NPC messing around.’
‘You wanna check it out?’
It wasn’t really an offer as she was already up on her feet and moving towards the tree line. I got up and followed after her, accidentally hitting myself with a drooping fairy light as I moved one of the branches aside.
The noises were both sporadic and varied; a series of desperate grunts, then a pause, then some kind of cracking sound.
I wasn’t sure what species of animal would make that noise, so I figured it was an NPC being weird or malfunctioning, and Lexi agreed.
Then we saw two blue lights, hovering fairly still in the near distance, and reassessed.
‘Could be someone fucking.’
‘Would that be permitted in this game? Two players?’
‘If they paid enough.’
‘What, rich on rich?’
‘Hmm…good point. Probably not.’
Pushing more branches out of the way, we traced the two blue lights to a child’s playground in an unknown celebrity’s garden. Surprisingly, they weren’t close to each other at all: one belonged to Nick, who was slumped against the ladder of a wooden slide, while the other belonged to the guy he was watching.
I circled round to Nick, keeping hold of Lexi’s hand, and tried to make sense of what I was seeing. Superficially, it was a tall guy in a loose-fitting mask, naked, fucking an equally naked NPC woman bent over a swing. But he was clearly old, or tired, as every few thrusts he would stop, breathe raggedly, then hit the NPC’s back with a stick. It was pretty bleak, but not the worst VR I’d ever stumbled across.
And then the NPC turned her head.
‘Wait, isn’t that…’ said Lexi, keeping her voice to a hush.
‘…Malina Weismann,’ Nick answered at normal volume, not looking up. ‘A younger version of her. Around seventeen, if I had to guess.’
‘And the elderly player guy?’
‘Malachi from Children of the Corn.’
I remembered the diner the day before, Nick telling me something about this, but for Lexi the answer was so bizarre that she let out a sharp what? Then quickly covered her mouth and ducked behind the ladder.
‘It’s okay, you can speak up. He doesn’t mind.’ Nick picked up a bit of gravel from under the slide and threw it at Malachi’s head. It must’ve struck him as he turned and told us to stop fucking interrupting. ‘Even Malina knows. The real one.’
‘She’s okay with this?’ I asked, raising my voice to overpower the whipping sound.
‘Can’t add a profile without the model’s permission.’
‘Even if someone’s…doing this to her?’
‘Consent covers everything. Rape, torture, murder, spitting.’
The rest of whatever my question was going to be petered out into simulated air as Malachi adjusted his younger self mask and started up with the thrusts again, adding, ‘you like it, don’t you, book girl?’ between grunts.
‘I think I wanna go home now,’ whispered Lexi, squeezing my hand and grabbing a rung of the slide ladder with the other.
‘You mean Nick’s place?’
‘No, Fresno. Tomorrow.’
‘I’ll drive you,’ answered Nick, throwing another speck of gravel at Malachi, hitting him on the ass crack.
‘Bus will be fine.’
‘We’ll all go. Make it a road trip…’
‘I prefer the-…’
‘…our platinum family adventure. What do you say?’