With Rhett so consumed by his VR headset, it feels like Link has the whole apartment to himself. He can sit on the couch with his morning cereal or toast and Rhett won’t be there to complain about him scuffing the special fibers of the rug. He can do the laundry uninterrupted. So long as Ignatius isn't around to see them violating the tenant contract, Link has free range over the whole place.
Of course, it's not all peace and quiet. Rhett gets rather loud when things go down in VR and sometimes, with Link not in tune with the world Rhett is in, it catches Link completely off guard. Link will be watching TV or folding shirts and Rhett will burst into screaming conversation.
Rhett's walked into things, too. Link will be in the bathroom and suddenly there's a full weight thud against the door. Rhett's bumped into Link more than once, slapped a bowl out of his hands, gestured wildly with his hands and smacked Link in the head.
With virtual reality being Rhett's trend of the week, Link feels like he's got more of a 6'7 Roomba with no cleaning abilities stumbling around the apartment than an actual human roommate.
Link's started taking up neighborhood walks.
Rhett’s thankful that Link had been so patient the first 3 days after Rhett got his headset, but he'd also wanted desperately for Link to get one, too, so they could play together. Link said it wasn't his thing and Rhett hasn’t pushed any harder. It was dumb to pursue. Everyone on earth who knows him, knows Link is not a man in favor of change or experimentation and that's all virtual reality really is.
When Rhett isn't plugged in, like sitting down to work with whatever daily meal that has been delivered, he half wishes Link was in the apartment.
He's like having a cat , Rhett thinks to himself one morning, poking at a mystery soup. Takes care of himself and you're glad when he's out of your hair, but as soon as he's not around, you wish he was there just for the quiet company.
Rhett finishes his soup, writes up his review, and straps back into his headset. He’s moved on from the farming simulator to a general life game, like The Sims, but fully interactive.
A popup box flashes on his screen. Rhett squints and reads it. And after going through the terms and services, Rhett is sitting excitedly on the couch waiting for the download to finish so he can try out the new features presented to him.
“Did I walk into the wrong universe? Why aren’t you all plugged in, man?” Link asks when he gets back in from his walk, closing the door with his foot.
“Nah. The thing’s updating still.” It’s taking much longer than Rhett had anticipated.
Link snorts. “Gee, you’d think with the future and everything being here, updates would be a quick little thing.” Link goes to the fridge and gets a water, comes back into the living room where Rhett’s watching TV. “What’s the new feature? Feel real pain?”
Rhett’s eyes flicker over to Link and then drop back to the television. “Uh. New texture upgrades. Make the grass and water look better.”
“Oh.” Link sounds a little disappointed. “Wanna go out and do something for dinner tonight? I mean, now that you’ve got free time for once.”
Rhett’s heart jumps and he smiles, nods. “Sure. Any place in mind?”
Link matches his smile and takes a long sip from his water bottle, settles it between his thighs when he’s done. “Oh, for sure. You think I’d let the Daring and Brave Rhett McLaughlin pick where we eat? You’d have me trying chocolate-dipped octopus for all I know.”
“Hey, man, chocotopus is good, don’t knock it till you try it.”
Rhett’s headset is still working on the new upgrade the next morning so he and Link have breakfast together, genuinely together, for the first time in a few days. Link has cereal and wheat toast. Rhett decides on an everything bagel with strawberry cream cheese and some of the leftover barbeque curly fries from the takeout box in the fridge.
Link wrinkles his nose. “That’s nasty.”
“You know, Link. I feel bad for you. Not even as a superior food taster, just as someone who was born with taste buds in general. You’re missin’ out on so much.”
Link shrugs with one shoulder and lifts his bowl up to drink the rest of the milk in. “Born with all I need. I like what I like.” When he sets his bowl down, his dark mustache is hatched with little droplets of milk and Rhett looks down at his fries.
“No worth in forcing it.”
Link smiles softly, then pats the table with his hands and gets up, takes his bowl over to the sink. “Nope." He washes his dish and spoon and sets them both in the strainer.
Rhett's headset chimes around noon and he practically leaps across the couch for it. Link's gone out to pick up groceries, a task he didn't protest despite all the things Rhett always put on the list, spices and sauces and marinades that Link would never eat. He seemed to delight in the task though, and also enjoyed putting the foods away when he got home, able to stack and line them exactly how he wanted.
Rhett straps on the headset, pulls on the controlled gloves.
"Updates complete," a feminine, computerized voice reports. "Would you like to add another player?"
Rhett hesitates, pulls off his headset to look around like he's in a thriller. Link's not home. He pulls the headset back down over his eyes and says, "Yes."
The screen switches to a customization room, a stock character standing there naked except for their underwear, looking blankly at Rhett. He freezes again, feeling just a little bit dirty about this, but the moment passes, and he selects a hair color and style. Dark brown, almost black. A mustache. Strikingly blue eyes. Glasses. 6 feet tall. A red collared shirt and cream-colored khakis. Some flat-bottom sneakers.
That about covers it for looks. Rhett moves onto personality traits and goals. The list is long and you can only pick 4 main characteristics, 2 life goals.
It takes a minute of debate but Rhett ends up with some, in his opinion, solid choices.
Perfectionist, Neat, Picky Eater, and Outgoing.
The 2 life goals are a bit harder, so Rhett chooses them according to what he'd want most for the both of them rather than Link as an individual.
The Perfect Gardener and Home Design Hotshot.
Those seem pretty domestic, meaning Simulated Rhett can spend as much time with Simulated Link as possible. And for whatever inexplicable reason, Rhett feels like Real Life Link would enjoy gardening a lot.
Name your character.
Rhett air-types Link Neal and all that's left is modulating his voice to the correct pitch and adding Link to the family. Those tasks are easy enough and before he knows it, Rhett's got a roommate.
“Roommates, huh?” Simulated Link asks as soon as he and Rhett are flash-transported into the game.
Simulated Rhett nods, jogs up the steps of his house, and opens the door with a little bow, gesturing with his free hand for Simulated Link to enter. “Private server, too. We don’t have to worry about other players entering without us allowing them in.”
“Dang, man,” Simulated Link marvels as he steps in, brushing past Rhett to look at the high ceilings, the sitar that’s hung on display on the wall. “How much is this gonna gut me? I haven’t even picked a job yet.”
Simulated Rhett beams. “It’s actually all paid off! In this world, I’m the founder of Beanormous, a chain of all-vegan cafes that took off when I became a level 12 in cooking. I sold the general rights for a 22% cut of all current and future profit, so now I’m pretty much set, but things got boring, so now I help out part-time at an ostrich farm to make sure their feathers are up to snuff in softness and color. The feathers are uh, ethically plucked, of course.”
Simulated Link looks impressed. He whistles. Two Buddy Points pop up over his head, fade, and register to Simulated Rhett’s relationship inventory. “Can simulated ostriches feel pain?” he asks after a moment.
Simulated Rhett blinks. "Well, if they can, they don't."
"Good to know."
"Here, lemme show you around." Simulated Rhett claps Simulated Link on the back then leads him into the kitchen, pointing out appliances. “Kombucha bottler’s there. Double panini press. Ostrich egg slicer.”
Simulated Link raises an eyebrow.
“Well, it all looks very nice, Rhett, but does this world have cereal? Something in my programming tells me ostrich eggs and kombucha are not in my corner.”
Rhett warms at that, secretly proud of himself for how well this Link mimics the real one. “Cereal is a popular level 1 food, so I think you’re in luck.”
They move on from there to the living room, which is a big open space with long rectangular windows that let the sun in when the game cycles to midday to evening. There are Moroccan leather pouf chairs circled around a green glass coffee table in front of the television that hangs from one wall. A grey and red frayed Baja rug is spread out. Besides that, Simulated Rhett has several bamboo plants of various sizes in pots placed around, two tall stagger-stacked bookshelves stocked with skill books for learning new trades, a few yoga mats laid flat next to a large exercise ball.
“I have plans to buy a pottery wheel and a kiln as soon as I reach level 4 in sculpting, but I don’t mind the open space much for now.”
Simulated Link smiles cheerfully. “It looks real good! Great view of the yard.”
They go through the rest of the house fairly quickly and end the tour at the second bedroom, which will be Link’s.
“Here’s your spot,” Simulated Rhett announces when Link opens the door.
3 Buddy Points spring up in bright green a few inches above Simulated Link and collect into Simulated Rhett’s inventory again. “Oh, Rhett, it’s perfect!”
Before the download had finished, Rhett knew he’d be making a Link character to live with him, so he’d gone into building mode and added an extra bedroom. He’s furnished it with what he thinks suits Link: a twin-sized mattress with a plain wood headboard and a neatly pressed, blue checkered comforter with pillowcases to match. Wood letters hang on one wall, spelling out his name in all capitals. There’s a shelf lined with skill books for Simulated Link to study and a potted succulent on the window pane. Rhett’s made sure to include a closet with a hanging rod, an ironing board, and enough drawer space for Simulated Link to store his pants folded nicely without risk of crumpling.
“You like it?”
2 more Buddy Points spring from Simulated Link. “It’s all I could ask for, Rhett. You’re the best roommate I could have been created by.”
Link gets back to the apartment later than he’d expected. Opening the door, balancing a brown paper bag on his hip, Link calls out, “Rhett? I tried finding ‘no wheat wasabi peas’, but I checked 3 stores and none of them had ‘em in stock, so I figured I’d get a little daring and switch them out with crunchy peanut butter instead o– Rhett?”
Link sets the groceries down on the dining room table and peers into the kitchen, goes to look for Rhett in the living room, but that’s empty, too. “Rhett?” he calls again.
“Link? I’m– Hang on, I’m in the… bathroom.” Rhett pauses his game and pulls off his VR headset fully. He’s not sure exactly how or when he ended up in the bathroom, but he’s facing the wall inside the shower. He steps out and opens the door, greets Link with a big smile. “What were you saying?”
“No wasabi peas,” Link reports.
“Oh.” Rhett blinks. “That’s alright. You get turkey bacon?”
Link nods and Rhett follows him back to the kitchen. “Yeah, that was easy. Peas were the only thing I couldn’t get my hands on.” Link starts unpacking the bags, makes busy with putting things where they belong.
Rhett leans on a counter in the kitchen and watches Link move around the table from the arched doorway, a little outside of himself as he studies the Real Life Link doing his thing. In VR, he and Simulated Link had just started laying mulch down in their garden beds before Real Life Link had gotten home and Rhett had hit pause like he’d been caught masturbating in a church. He feels a little dirty, even more so when Link brushes past him to get to the fridge. It feels like he’s violated Link’s privacy somehow, making him into a little puppet for his own world.
“What’s that look for?”
“If you’re really so devastated about the peas, I bet we could order them online or somethin’.”
Rhett shakes his head slowly, licks his bottom lip absently. “No uh, it’s just… in VR I was…”
Link smiles like he’s amused, raises his eyebrows at Rhett when he looks over at Rhett from his squat position in front of the fridge, putting away the yogurts Rhett had asked for. “You were what? Winning awards? Going to space?”
Rhett snorts and shakes his head again. “No. I was digging a garden.”
“I’ll never get it, man. Why don’t you go out and do that in real life? We’ve got a yard, you know,” Link teases.
“I can’t explain it, Link, sometimes things are just so much better in there.”
Link rolls his eyes with a warm smile, goes back to the kitchen to empty the last bag. “Whatever you say.”
Three virtual days have already passed since Simulated Link has been created. In real time, it’s been less than 24 hours.
In that time, Simulated Rhett’s unlocked a kiln and pottery wheel. Simulated Link’s been busy in the garden, planting bulbs that sprout into blossoms and earn him Life Goal Points that Rhett can’t see in his own inventory, but knows are being collected, because Simulated Link’s starting to breed hybrid blooms. They’ve also gone to the park together and checked in on Simulated Rhett’s vegan cafes in person, which produced more Buddy Points from Simulated Link as soon as they’d entered.
Currently, Simulated Rhett is figuring out if he’s got the budget to build an inground pool and expand their property to fit it, which it seems like he does. That will definitely help with Simulated Link’s life goal of Home Design Hotshot.
“Big plans?” Simulated Link asks, coming in from the garden. His character does a cartoon tornado twirl and he’s switched from his dirty overalls and sunhat to his polo shirt and khakis.
“I was thinking maybe we should get a pool.”
A single Buddy Point floats away from Simulated Link. “A pool sounds good!”
Simulated Rhett smiles and nods, gives his beard a stroke in real life. “I think we can have it started within the week. Beanormous just opened 2 more locations. Profits are up 27%, according to my Email.”
Simulated Link sits down on one of the pouf chairs. “Oh, speaking of Emails. I’ve been invited to a Garden Show in the park for my Liger Lilies. I was wondering if I have your permission to attend.”
Simulated Rhett blinks, closes out of the edit window he had open to browse pool tile and pumps. “My permission?”
Simulated Link nods. “Most actions I can execute without command, but my player doesn’t have free will. I can’t leave the property without your consent.”
“Oh.” Rhett hadn’t known that, but now that he thinks about it, whenever Simulated Link goes to get groceries or visit the gym, Rhett always gets a pop up asking if his player can proceed. “Well, I don’t see why not, Link. Your flowers are beautiful.”
A pop up flashes in front of Simulated Rhett, displaying the same thing Simulated Link has just asked: if Link can attend the Garden Show, with the options Approve and Decline . He selects Approve .
Another card enters screen immediately after.
Would you like to give your secondary player, Link Neal, free will? Player’s actions will be reactionary to his/her interests and environments with the help of adaptive AI. You will no longer receive notifications for player Link Neal’s actions outside of property and/or life choices.This can be undone at any time.
There’s a moment of hesitation, but Simulated Rhett approves and the notif disappears.
“So you’ll come with me then?” Simulated Link asks like they’re having an ordinary conversation.
“Uh. Sure, Link. Let me know when and we can go together.”
The Garden Show goes well, with Simulated Link winning 3rd place for his Liger Lilies. When Simulated Rhett praises him for it, Simulated Link rockets with 10 Buddy Points and they go home together with a black cut screen.
Simulated Rhett’s about to follow Simulated Link into the house when a notification blocks him.
Friendship with Link Neal has reached maximum Buddy Points. Pursue Romantic Relationship?
Rhett pauses and peels his headset off, his face warming to a deep red. He’s flirted with other players, mostly because the options were amusing, but he’s never been presented a Romance option before. He hasn’t consciously planned for this, but he knows, guiltily, in the back of his mind, there’s a curiosity. It’s been there since Link had shown up on his doorstep.
Rhett gets up off the couch and tiptoes down the hall to the bedroom, peeks in to see Link taking an afternoon nap on the top bunk. His face is soft and peaceful, mouth slightly ajar as he dreams.
Oh, Rhett certainly feels guilty, but what Real Life Link doesn’t know can’t hurt him, right?
Rhett puts the headset back on. He selects yes , walks his simulated body into the house, closes the door, then saves his progress, and powers the thing down for the rest of the day.
He feels giddy and devious, butterflies swooping around in his stomach. Rhett backs out of the bedroom and stands there in his silk robe, biting down a smile, then goes into the kitchen to find something to eat.
Time escapes him when he’s with Simulated Link and Real Life Rhett is hungry.