No. Not a cave. He hated caves.
Dark, slimy crap lurked inside them. Crap that’d frazz you and then kill you.
Yuuri didn’t need to think too hard about the last time he’d done this to remember that being killed was a pain in the arse.
Was he actually supposed to go in?
He tethered his mount, Lady, to a tree and sidled across the grassy swath of ground in front of the dark yawning maw that led down into the bowels of the earth, longsword poised in readiness in his right hand. To top everything off, it was dusk and it was raining, the heavy drops pinging off his helm. He would have difficulty seeing in the gloom, but even if he had a torch, it would be too damp to light. For a moment he thought about fetching his shield, though that would restrict his movement. The plate mail should protect him well enough. He hoped.
Through the constant shushing of rain came clicking noises from the darkness ahead – and a series of inhuman squeaks that set his heart racing. He lowered his visor and held his sword in front of him with both hands, dreading what was coming; knowing it inevitably would.
The shadows in the aperture shifted, black within black. Then a pinprick of sickly yellow light, like a candle flame choked by soot. And another. And another. Until a whole cluster shone. They shifted forward. More clicks. Another squeak. Yuuri tightened his grip on the hilt, telling himself to be grounded; to keep his muscles loose and ready.
With a deafening screech, the creature leapt out of its lair. Yuuri cried out and instinctively thrust his sword up at its belly. It went in deep, evoking another ululation from the black horror. It must have a hundred eyes, all focused on him. Giant fangs nipped, while its hairy segmented body and spindly legs twisted. It flailed until it was free, and lunged forward for another strike.
Yuuri was ready. He parried the busy fangs, managing to spear a couple of the eyes as well, eliciting high-pitched shrieks. Clenching his jaw, he swung his sword in an arc and chopped off a leg – but then it was upon him again, attempting to smother him with its soft, loathsome weight.
He vaguely recalled what he was supposed to do to finish the thing off for good, once he was this close to it. Gasping for breath, he managed to reach a hand into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a glass vial, whose contents he splashed onto the putrid flesh pressing down upon him.
How did it go…? Jesus, he could barely think. “Lux in tenebris,” he forced out against the disgusting mass. A white flash was quickly followed by a sound like a large glass bowl being struck; it rang through the air, lingering. A final terrible shriek rent the air; a shudder…and finally a death-rattle before the thing lay inert, like a lump of clay.
Yuuri gave an almighty heave, and the creature rolled limply onto its side, its eyes shut and remaining legs drooping, black claws on the ends slick with rain. As he raised himself to a kneeling position on the sodden ground, fighting off an enduring wave of disgust, he looked up at the sky to see the clouds suddenly pulling away and a bright yellow evening sun dispelling the grey shadows. The rays glowed on his armour, though his white and red tabard dripped.
A smooth, commanding male voice called down, “Arise, Sir Yuuri, champion swordsman of England.”
Standing, his blood calming, Yuuri huffed at the ridiculousness of it all. He wasn’t one of those thrill-seekers who got special permission to have the settings changed to hyper-real, but he’d still been frightened – annoyingly so, because he thought he’d remembered to ban creeping monsters like this. At least he’d set the gore to zero; there was no yellow ooze on his blade.
For a boss battle, he guessed he hadn’t done too badly. It was supposed to have been hard. He hadn’t lost his touch, then. But shit, he might end up with nightmares about this for the next several nights now, pain and death jerking him awake in a cold sweat. It had been years since he’d played this game, and he’d always taken care in the past to make doubly sure that anything triggering for him wouldn’t turn up. Well, too late now.
Sheathing his sword, he raised his visor to get a better look at what he’d just killed. Giant spider, obviously. Looking at it now, all he could think was, How unoriginal. Then, as he watched, the carcase began to fade until it disappeared altogether, leaving a glittering blue gem the size of an apricot on the grass. Yuuri picked it up, admired its pretty inner fire for a moment, then tucked it into the pouch on his belt and returned to untether Lady. She was a camelard mount, which didn’t fly, unfortunately; but he’d have to be at Level 40 before he could get something with wings. And that wasn’t going to happen. This was purely a nostalgia trip.
“Let’s get this to its rightful owner, huh?” he said to her. But a glint from behind the nearby tree caught his eye, and he wondered how he could have forgotten to scout the area before leaving; it used to be second nature. Venturing away from Lady once more, he discovered a Potion of Full Healing glowing white in a crystal vial and took it. Within the cave mouth, in the dying light of the day, he found an unlocked wooden chest with a hundred gold coins in a small leather sack and an Amulet of Strength. He placed them in a bag on Lady’s back, then swung himself up and headed off toward the nearby village of Winterborough.
As a teenager, he used to love exploring the seemingly endless vistas here; different landscapes, seasons, villages and cities, monsters and treasures. At twenty-four, it wasn’t that many years in his past, but somehow it seemed a lifetime ago. Immersion had moved on to more realistic scenarios. You could kill within it more realistically, too, if you wanted to. Yuuri didn’t. He’d always made sure he fixed the settings so that he wouldn’t be given humans as targets, even though he was laughed at when people found out. It’s just a game, they’d say. What’s fun about killing a person, even in a game? he’d counter, and they usually struggled to articulate an answer.
There’s enough death in actual life without that added to it. Real heroes don’t kill people and mix it up with honour.
But they killed giant spiders, apparently. And as primitive as the tech was, it gave Yuuri a decent workout. Having watched a holo-film with elves and wizards the previous evening, he’d been wondering what it would feel like to revisit Swords and Sorcery, after the struggle it’d been to actually let it go. He thought he was pretty good with a blade. The skills and fitness he’d developed from all his time in this place were real, even if the rest of it wasn’t. Like being comfortable on his mount when in real life he’d probably get a foot caught in the stirrup or fall out of the saddle.
As Lady took him down the forest path through the deepening evening, he decided the sensory illusion still worked well, considering the vintage of the game. Immersion had been cutting-edge tech when it was first released. Like many other things, it operated at a low hypnotic level, making it seem to the player that what they were experiencing was real, even to the point of picking up objects and using them. Yuuri knew he wasn’t riding a horse/camel hybrid anywhere. He wasn’t wearing armour, hadn’t been stabbing a monster with a sword, hadn’t collected any treasure to take away. Wasn’t any kind of champion. What he was doing was moving around in a large gaming room at the gym in his ward, because if he tried this in his little flat, he was sure to bump into a piece of furniture or a wall. But if he thought too hard, it would begin to spoil the illusion; and since he’d decided to play, he might as well make the best of it.
The trees thinned out, revealing gold-lit fields of wheat and barley. Rosy-cheeked peasants clad in bright clothes, with white aprons and caps, were finishing their work for the day, waving at him as he passed. There were never any old people or children to be seen, but well, you couldn’t expect this to be too sophisticated. The buildings, as he entered the village, were remarkably like each other as well, wattle-and-daub with thatched roofs, the main difference being that some were longer or had an extra storey, and lights were burning inside a few, mainly taverns. All the shops had prettily painted wooden signs swinging outside. He found Ye Olde Traveller’s Rest, where he knew he was supposed to go, tethered Lady outside, and pulled at the iron-latched wooden door, which swung open with a creak.
Though crowded and stuffy, the inside of the tavern was clean and brightly lit with torches bracketed on the walls and a merrily dancing fire. More rosy-cheeked peasants sat at wooden tables, drinking ale from pewter tankards, laughing and singing and smoking pipes. Buxom young women bustled about with trays of drinks, their bosoms bulging out of low-cut white blouses reined in by tight corsets. Yuuri’s eyes lingered on a serving – was there a word for a male wench? – in tight tan trousers and a nicely fitted jerkin, or whatever those tops were called. It was all just a bit of eye candy, though; this wasn’t the type of game where you could sneak away with a character for a tryst. Not that Yuuri would have been interested in trying. Immersion games were too close to reality, which meant he got just as tongue-tied and awkward with people he knew didn’t even exist, and that took the embarrassment up a notch that was dangerously close to pathetic.
He scanned the room until he spotted a man concealed by a dark brown cloak sitting on a chair in a corner, peering out warily at the revellers. Yuuri approached him, attracting his attention as he drew near. “Are you Deckard Coyne?” he asked the man, who gave a start at Yuuri’s words.
“Who art thou, that wishes to know?” he said a voice similar to the one from the sky that had announced Yuuri as the champion swordsman of England.
“I thought you might want this,” Yuuri replied, taking the blue gem out and placing it in the palm of his hand for the man to observe.
He stared in shock at the gem, then slowly stood, throwing his cloak off in dramatic fashion. And lo! (Yuuri added by way of silent narration), underneath was the raiment of a king, plate armour shining in the firelight, a gilded crown resting on his brow. He took the gem from Yuuri’s palm and drew a glittering silver sword. The room fell silent, its occupants gazing at him in wonder.
“Behold!” the man exclaimed. Yuuri took a step back so that he wasn’t blocking anyone’s view, and folded his arms across the metal plate and wet tabard covering his chest. “No longer am I Deckard Coyne, the wanderer. You look upon Anwyl, rightful King of Ethnaria. This gem – ” He took hold of it and held it up for all to see. “ – hath restored my strength and vigour. Therefore, along with this worthy knight – ” He gestured to Yuuri. “ – and other stouthearted followers, I shall commence preparations to march on Elgar the Unwieldy, usurper of the Sceptre of Ethnaria, and regain the throne!”
The room erupted in cheers.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Yuuri muttered, mentally flicking a switch.
Anwyl and the tavern disappeared. Yuuri was standing in an empty black room with flat, even white lighting from above. No longer the rain-drenched hero of Ethnaria, he took a moment to regroup, becoming aware of the soft material of his own athletic clothing – black long-sleeved top, tracksuit trousers and white trainers. Then he trotted over to the metal door, which slid open in front of him. No matter how many times he played these games, coming out of them always felt somehow like waking from a dream.
He passed a series of doors that led to private workout rooms – little enclaves of Immersion that offered environments for running, cross-country skiing, rowing, and even swimming, which had been the latest innovation thanks to quantum superconductor tech. Phichit understood how such things worked. Yuuri could fix them when they went wrong, though the actual theory behind them eluded him. Anyway, he’d always preferred something that gave the illusion of going on an adventure, rather than exercising in a specialised program. Something that took him out of himself for a while; that could make him believe he had a real purpose and was achieving it.
Swords and Sorcery didn’t do that for him anymore, though that was probably for the best. Strange how the same thing could look so different when viewed from the eyes of an older person. All right, he’d always credited the game with being a little naff. He’d just been mistaken about the true scale of its naffness.
He stopped at his locker to take out his black coat; it hung down to his calves, and he did up the middle buttons to keep it fastened. Should still be protection enough in the cool weather. Climate control had announced a dry week with steady temperatures ten degrees or so above freezing, and occasional rain overnight. They weren’t in total control of the weather, of course, or even anywhere near it; but they could usually be pretty accurate about the upcoming mix of their efforts at doing so, combined with the might of nature that would invariably break through. As he exited the gym, a yellow sun lingered on the western horizon and a gentle breeze blew, and he got the feeling that the climatologists were winning the battle today.
Stuffing his hands in his pockets, Yuuri made his way down the path, passing other pedestrians and houses of various vintages, from red-brick Victorian terraces to individual prefab units stacked on top of each other like cells in a honeycomb. Space in cities like this was at a premium, despite the fact that streets which had been wide enough to accommodate ground-based motorised traffic were now largely given over to pedestrians and cyclists. The skies were enough of a menace now, Yuuri had decided, that he preferred to get a little extra exercise by walking when he could; because despite the existence of air traffic control, people tended to treat it as unwanted and unneeded advice, like the safety warnings on new tech that no one ever read. There was something comforting about being anchored to the ground while a panoply of cars, buses and hoverboards buzzed and zigzagged and beeped at each other overhead. As long as none of them dropped anything that landed on you.
Eventually he arrived at the complex that contained his flat, a square three-storey edifice with a large courtyard in the middle, which residents referred to as the quad. As he approached, the pale, smooth travertine stone of the long walls gleamed underneath street lamps that warded off the gathering dark. The main door slid open to admit him, and at the other end of the short entry corridor lay the grass and trees in the courtyard, illuminated by artfully placed lighting that almost but not quite mimicked natural sunlight.
Yuuri carried on ahead, hands still in his pockets, paying little attention to the enclaves of activity around him. Children running around a small playground, jumping on a trampoline and spinning on a merry-go-round; they could delight themselves for hours in a zero-G room at the gym, but somehow seemed to have as much fun on old standbys like these. Someone sitting on a stone bench with a cushion, staring blankly ahead at the trees in front of them, no doubt reading or watching something on the Cloud. A group of three middle-aged women in tunics and baggy trousers performing tai chi. They’d asked Yuuri once if he’d be willing to join them; he wondered if it had been because he was Japanese, and many people in this country seemed to assume that meant he was somehow learned in the mysterious Ways of the East that in their minds were an agglomeration of the different cultures which existed in that general area of the world. Never mind that he’d been living in York since he was five. He’d politely declined.
“Hey, Yuuri,” said a young man in a tan coat who crossed in front of him.
“Hey, Gaz,” Yuuri replied, not missing a beat as he arrived at the far end of the quad and entered a stone hall identical to the one through which he’d passed minutes before. His feet instinctively guided him to Number Four, the door slid open, and he went inside.
When Mari called, he was grilling miso-glazed chicken thighs for dinner, having decided to take the trouble to cook in order to treat himself to food that he could chew and taste. He almost hadn’t heard the beep over the clattering of the pans in the kitchenette, and resolved to take his wristband off and open up the box containing the qubit processor when he was at work the next day; as irritating and dull a task as it was, it was about time he looked into what was wrong with the volume control. The BCI, or brain-computer interface, ought to respond to any command he gave it, but it seemed to have been developing a stubborn will of its own lately. And that wasn’t good, because it was his main connection to the Cloud.
“Hey, little bro.”
“Hey,” he said as he stirred the contents of a small pan that were filling the flat with the aroma of stewing apples, cinnamon, cloves and vanilla. Enjoying the scent was almost better than eating the food.
“I’m cooking dinner.”
She laughed. “You like making things complicated, don’t you?”
“You never complained when I made meals for us both,” he replied distractedly, pulling a bunch of asparagus spears from the fridge and chopping them while the steamer boiled. “And besides, you can cook up a storm yourself when you want to; don’t deny it.”
“But it’s like making your own clothes. It takes a lot of time, and it’s more expensive than just buying your meals in. Or taking a nutri-pill.”
“Time isn’t usually something I’m short on. And I don’t care if it’s more expensive. Anyway, you always said that cooking for someone else is a sign of love, so call it self-care. Taste buds need a workout sometimes.” He tipped the asparagus into a container and placed it on top of the steamer, then grabbed the tongs to turn the chicken over.
There was a pause, then Mari said, “Haven’t heard from you in a while. What’ve you been doing besides working and cooking?”
“Well, I went and had a game of Swords and Sorcery today.” But as soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t.
“You what?” came the predictable response. “Yuuri, you promised – ”
“That was a long time ago,” he said, stirring the apples again. “I hadn’t played it in years. It was just for old times’ sake.”
His blood pressure spiked. That motherly tone she took on; it still could do that to him. “I quit before it finished, anyway. It’s silly. I don’t know what I ever saw in it in the first place.” Though that wasn’t entirely true, of course, and they were both aware of it.
She sighed, and Yuuri felt like doing the same, in relief, knowing it signalled a change of topic. “Anyway, I just wanted to say the spa isn’t very busy right now. You should come visit. When was the last time you had a holiday?”
The spa she ran in the countryside with Sharon. It was nice there. Relaxing. But…“What would I do with a holiday? I don’t need them. You can imagine you’re visiting anywhere in the world with Immersion, you know? Someplace that’s full of tourists. The Louvre in front of the Mona Lisa or something; you can have it all to yourself. And the Egyptian pyramids, if you want. Climb them, go inside. I don’t see any point in the expense of going to see the real thing, just to get stuck in crowds and bad weather, do you?”
“That’s still what you think, huh?”
“Sure, why not?” He pulled the grill pan out and sat it on top of the cutting board, the chicken thighs sizzling.
“I think it’s different if you’ve got someone with you.” There was a pause while Yuuri put the thighs on a plate, then spooned some apples and asparagus next to them. “I hope – ”
“Look – someone’s at the door,” he lied, “and my food’s ready. Gotta go. But speak soon.”
“Yeah, OK. Bye, bro.”
Yuuri picked up the plate, sat down at the two-person wooden table next to the window that looked out onto the quad through its net curtain, and stared at the food. Mari meant well, and he knew she cared, but he could do without the lectures and the probing. When would he find something worthwhile to do? Get a boyfriend? Get a life?
He was ticking along just fine, thank you very much.
He might not feel like visiting Mari’s spa at the moment, but going for a dip appealed. After dinner, he swam a couple of miles in the pool at the gym, then returned to his flat and watched a few shows on the Cloud. Maybe he could call Phichit and find out what he was up to, he thought afterward. But he’d probably be disturbing him in the middle of something. The possibility of venturing into the courtyard to see if there was anyone to talk to flashed through his mind, but he immediately dismissed it. He wasn’t in the mood for that, either.
Yuuri watched another show, then pulled his pyjamas on and brushed his teeth, having showered at the pool. Then was disconcerted to discover he’d left some highly personal things on his bedside table – a bottle of lube and the sex toy he’d bought on the Cloud the other day that sounded intriguing at the time, but hadn’t done much for him and had kind of hurt. Maybe there was a knack to it. He’d gone back and read the instructions carefully, then browsed forums until he felt he’d seen more than enough information about what other people were doing with it, or claiming to do. At least the cleaning robot hadn’t come today.
But then, as he swept the items up and placed them inside the table drawer, he wondered why he was feeling embarrassed by the hypothetical reaction of a machine. At worst, it wouldn’t have known what to do with the stuff and would’ve disposed of it. Which, Yuuri thought, was probably what he was going to end up doing himself anyway, to the useless toy, at least. The lube was different, even if he’d become more accepting of the inevitability that it was going to be for the pleasure of one instead of two. For someone like himself who often didn’t know what to say to people, it would probably be a hell of a long time before anyone wanted to get into bed with him, if indeed it ever happened at all.
Once under the sheets, he read the news, then stared at the ceiling. It was hard to fall asleep this early. Well, early for him. His natural inclination was to be a night owl. In his quest to find things to do earlier, maybe he should’ve gone next door and asked Mrs. Wells if she’d needed any help. She was ninety-four and could barely walk, and had fallen in her flat a week ago; he’d found out when he’d seen young members of a care team coming and going. But she could order everything she needed from the Cloud, and the robots still came to service her flat. Yuuri had brought home-cooked food over to share with her on occasion, though he often second-guessed himself these days before he went, having quickly learned that elderly English people didn’t always appreciate spicy foreign foods. He hadn’t thought she’d much care for miso-glazed chicken, either.
His brain wanted to keep ruminating rather than sleep, it seemed. His wristband could entrain his brainwaves to the perfect pattern for dozing off, but the problem with that was you had to let yourself fall asleep with it on, which went against all the rules of Cloud safety, with good reason. You never knew who might try to hack into your device. Removing malware at the university was a regular part of his job. He took the wristband off and put it in the drawer, then lay back to stare at the ceiling again.
It was silly, he knew, but his thoughts drifted to Mick and Yan, the couple from his favourite show which had ended last month, Double Trouble, about a couple of mismatched roommates who ended up falling for each other. He’d never been that fond of sitcoms, but the supportive love they’d developed seemed unusually deep for a Cloud show, all the more so because of the circumstances in which they were embroiled week after week. Yuuri imagined now that he was Mick, with Yan lying next to him, holding him – blond, ripped, almost intimidating in his looks, though surprisingly sensitive inside. He wondered if he’d ever actually meet someone like that, then gave a silent laugh and decided imagination would have to be second-best. Yan was crazy about Mick and didn’t judge him, even if he got angry with him on plenty of occasions. Such people surely didn’t even exist.
Yuuri could practically feel the arms around him, the other man nuzzling into his neck, sending tingles down his body. The warmth on his cheek of a pair of lips, brushing…
…and then he was opening his eyes to watery light filtering through the white curtain across his window.
Fuck. He hadn’t set his alarm.