The rain is streaming down the glass of my window in lazy waves, as if cast against the frames sideways. I always imagined it was a giant dog slobbering our house from the outside. But that is utter nonsense of course, everyone knows that no living being has dared to tread the surface of the Earth for hundreds of years. Moreover I have only seen a dog in the books I am so fond of going through.
A large screen on the wall lights up and my mother frowns at me. I know she can see I haven't teleported anywhere for weeks. I see no point in social gatherings and haughty communications. On the other hand I don't care for relaxed thrashing against each other at the dance floor as well. There is no other socially acceptable way of spending free time for young people in our decadent and dying from boredom society. Books are out of fashion and mostly long forgotten. They say in the outer colonies people live differently, but since the last spaceship exploded together with the dock there is no way out from good old Mother Earth. We are doomed to finish the cycle of the humanity on this planet, hoping space colonists will learn from our mistakes.
"You've been reading all night again," is my verdict. I sigh. Guilty as charged. Dear mother, how else can it happen that I stand in the middle of the fluffy temperplast floor soaked wet in my overall? Of course I have been up all night, on deck of the "Duncan" admiring Lord Glenarvan from the distance and clutching the rails not to be washed over the board. My skin is still goose-bumped after the steely tongues of the winds tore at it. My eyes are still sore with the tears of happiness I shed when Captain Grant was found on a desert island. I only got back because I – so to say – turned over the last page of the book. And I am itching all over to send my dearest progenitress to seven hells and devour the next book. I feel that all my lifetime will be not enough to read all the worthy books written in the centuries past. My family thinks I am mad, spending time among the fictional characters, speaking of places that no longer exist and things that haven't been used for generations, and I think they are as insane, consciously preferring the artificially conditioned air of our houses to cool winds and bright sun of the books.
My mother begins ranting, I hardly listen, shedding my overall in haste and drawing another, crisply clean one on. One phrase catches my attention abruptly, she cries "Remember what happened to your great-uncle Horatio!"
Oh, yes, that one. I bitterly regret I was too small to remember the man himself. He went into a book one day when I was barely two and has never been seen since. I don't condescend to mention to my mother that I am planning to do the same in fact. I just haven't found the right book yet. The scraps of information I managed to find about book portals hint that if the book is just right for you – the characters will be able to see you – and accept you as one of them.
I don't want to argue with my mother, I know that I am much too tired to go on reading, but this is more than I can bear – the snakeskin rustle of the videocomm, the constantly gaining pitch shouts of my mother, the steady sloshing of the acid rain on my windows – all of it winding and straining and crushing on me in a wave of sounds that is creeping me out of my skin. I don't want to be here anymore. So I decide to sleep in the book and jump in the portal, my mother's words still hanging in the midair.
Floating in the subspace of the beginning of all the books in the world I lazily think that maybe reading was forgotten on purpose. Maybe people were afraid when the book portal was first created – a mind-blowing way to read a book in the essence – by simply living in the world where the plot was happening, with all the alterations, sequels and screen versions tightly interwoven together to produce the single environment that is emotionally closest to the author's initial intention. There were no limits in these worlds, you could wander along the plot – or stray off the road on purpose and explore. No one took any notice of you, could hear or see you – but everything was palpable. You stroll in the street fight and get killed. Maybe this was what scared people most. The only thing people these days still held dear was their own life. With powerful medicine to ensure the life was very, very long – it was unthinkable to mess with something that could end your existence prematurely.
Books align in front of me in the shimmering coil of the matrix. The infinite ever-shifting tapestry with a scattering of bookmarked highlighted dots – those are the books I have already read, some for several times. I wave the obedient lines of stories away and slide towards the random choice. I have trusted the random of my book portal for a very long time. This time it offers me a book with a seemingly never-ending list of authors, this is something that has a multitude of sequels and alterations, additions and fan-written versions. I know I will see the version that possesses all the important features of the original book but enriched and empowered with all the best from all the stories written by people who sincerely adored the canon. The very best carved out of layers of fantasy with the core of the story intact. I don't even care about the book name – it has lots of them as well, so I don't bother reading any.
I am thrown out of subspace in the middle of a busy street. I manage to scramble to the pavement before one of the ancient petroleum-fueled cars knocks me off. Slight headache is distracting and annoying, but that is the price for almost 40 hours without sleep and two different books accessed in rapid succession. I know I have to sleep before fully immersing in the plot but my curiosity burns brighter and brighter and I am already too much engrossed in staring at the city I turned out to be in. It is old to my twenty-third century eyes and at the same time seems to be constantly changing and evolving, new multi-storied buildings growing near tiny ancient churches like strong big brothers protecting their fragile little sisters. Cold drops of the not-quite-rain-yet refresh me and allay the seemingly irresistible urge to sleep so I wander off through the crowded streets and then go astray to the green of a small park. I feel the plot is tugging at my heartstrings, the story is starting there now.
I plop tiredly on the bench near two men conversing over plastic cups of some strongly-smelling hot liquid. I suppose it should be coffee or tea, seems right for this epoch from my solid background of books I have been devouring for the past ten years. One of the men, Stamford, is plump and wearing glasses, chatting away happily. I guess he is glad to see an old pal. The second one, Watson, is more complicated, the lines carved in his attractive but worn out face speaking volumes of his eventful past. He is toying with a cane nervously so I realize he must have a limp. Both seem to be medics. They are talking about sharing a flat which is a strange notion for me, having spent practically all my conscious life in my own house like the rest of my degrading society, communicating only via videocomms.
Stray shards of quivering sunlight burst through the shroud of clouds. I always feel so alive in books. I felt an intruder at first, being invisible but able to watch even the most intimate moments of the plot. I still blush remembering the time when I read "Lady Chatterley's lover". But now I feel simply inside a story that slowly unfolds in front of my bleary eyes. The small details get to me most of all: the tired furrow between Dr. Watson's brows and the unconscious way he stretches his numb fingers, the careless fold of Stamford's collar and charming dimples in his cheeks when he smiles. When Stamford offers Dr. Watson to introduce him to a friend who can potentially be his flatmate as well I feel the familiar tinge running along my spine. The story reigns in and I am ready to ride. Or so I believe strolling behind two men to the hospital building.
It's pleasantly cool inside St. Bartholomew Hospital and my curiosity is spiking all the time we move along quiet corridors. I feel strange tenderness towards Dr. Watson following closely in his footsteps and watching silky strands of his short hair that has such strange color that I can't define it for myself although I try during the whole walk. It looks like an exquisite precious alloy of silver, gold and brass. I like him despite the haunted restrained look in his eyes, despite the feeling of despondency that radiates from him like from a caged bird with cut wings. I have read many books and I am sure he will find his wings again – or someone will give them back to him. The more you read, the more you can predict from the first pages.
I realize how unreasonably self-assured I am and how you should never think too much of your own predicting capabilities when we step into one of the laboratories. I rather liked fluffy Stamford and was charmed with intriguing Dr. Watson but nothing could prepare me for the hailstorm of emotions I am thrown into when I see that man for the first time. I can't even remember what caught my stare first – ethereal shimmer of pale skin, dangerous planes of outrageous cheekbones, audacious springs of dark curls, a seemingly fragile curve of a strong wrist, uncertain of its own color jasper of mischievous eyes... I just force myself not to slide down the wall and watch, absorb him, breathe him in. And I see Dr. Watson watching him as attentively, there is obvious chemistry between the two of these men promising a complicated and incredibly close relationship.
Listening to the talk of three men in front of me makes things even worse. This man is a genius apparently. Maybe he reads other people's minds, I wonder. But this book doesn't seem to be the one about magic, it doesn't feel like that weird sort of electricity in the air. I listen and marvel at him and then suddenly I feel his eyes on me. He sees me over his shoulder.
"So how about that coffee, Molly? Black, two sugars." he turned to me and squinted slightly.
It wasn't even a shock, I just thought my exhausted body was playing tricks on me. I never expected to really find a book in which I would be happy to stay – and for sure never thought it can be a book I barely started reading. But the icy-blue (at the moment) eyes were probing me with merciless precision and there was no way he was staring at someone else. And if he was able to see me – that meant I had already subconsciously agreed to the book request to stay in it.
I close the door behind me trying to breathe, the air suddenly seems overloaded with smells and tastes. I realize my overall is gone and I am now wearing a strange match of shirt and trousers and a white smock. There is a disgustingly tasting substance slathered across my lips, I wipe it off absent-mindedly and then try to find something to wipe the startlingly red mess from my fingers with. Some instincts kick in suddenly, which is I suppose a part of growing into this world, by trial and error I find a room with a sink and a coffee machine and spend some humiliating moments trying to open the tap and then to make a cup of coffee. I am shaking all over and I suppose must look rather sheepish but the wish to see him again is overwhelming so I gather my willpower and stumble back to the lab.
"What happened to the lipstick?" he drops, his words seething through my poor heart like drops of hot molten lead through ice, and when I scramble for words and painstakingly mutter something in reply, he adds, "I thought it was a big improvement, the mouth's too small now."
I try to mumble something again, feeling hot flush of embarrassment conquering the inches of my face and run for cover. Ragged breaths like sobs hurt like hell, I can't say if I am crying or just feel overwhelmed. Two things are perfectly clear at the moment. I am staying in this book and I am doomed with unrequited feelings. But help me Gods I will see where this plot takes me.