He only had two hours before he had to be at class, but the simulator would make it feel like six. Compressing time was a necessity if one was to live two lives at once. Adam used his faculty pass to swipe his way to the labs, then picked one of the jacks in the far corner. He had the room to himself, four in the morning being too late for most and too early for all. He still went for as much privacy as possible, knowing he would possibly have company before he jacked out. There were only a few reasons to hit the sims at certain times of the day. Adam wished the stigma weren’t true in his case. He wished.
The seat squeaked as he settled into it. Adam swiped his ID through the reader; the beeps and whirrings of the booting machine were as familiar as a song. And like music, they did something to his autonomic nervous system. His sleepless brain felt a jolt of energy, a dangerous surge of love and lust. He took the jack pads from the table, untangled them from each other, then wiped the cups off on his shirt. A dab of adhesive grease went on each, then he pressed them to sore points on his temples, burning with memory of the precise location.
Adam waited impatiently for the sim to boot. This was the longest part of his day. He could compress all the rest right into it, he was sure. It was also the only time he truly reflected on what he had become, what he was about to do… And he hated himself in those moments.
The dimly lit lab disappeared, the twinkling lights of idling machines replaced by alien constellations. Adam was floating in the center of an artificial cosmos. He was God. He could go to any dozens of planets and planetary nebula, observe tectonic plates shifting with x-ray vision, or zoom to the level of the protein and watch them fold as salinity and temperature shifted. His choices were limitless, but of course he had no choice. He hurriedly selected a familiar star out of one of the constellations. The star was named Beatrice Bondeamu Gilbert III, after the donor who paid for the servers on which it was hosted. The fourth planet out, right in the Goldilocks zone, was named Filster after her late husband. Adam “chose” the planet with his mind. It was as simple as looking at something and wanting it. He wanted it.
There were a million ways to approach the planet. If from the entomology department, one might swoop through the night clouds like a bat, sonar picking up invisible bugs. The climatologist would play god, sitting over the clouds and swirling them with his finger, taking notes. Geneticists would become the size of molecules and be lost in worlds the scope of a pea. Adam had little use for such imaginative probings. He remained much as himself, if a little taller, thicker of hair, more tan, and less paunchy. His being emerged from a bathroom stall in a bookstore he had claimed as his own territory—had paid quite well for it, in fact. He nodded to another customer. Filster was one of the handful of human planets on the sims, and not jarring as some could be. It felt perfectly natural to nod to someone who didn’t really exist. The computer simulated customer nodded back. It, of course, thought it was real. It thought the book it was about to pick up and peruse was real. It thought the sunshine streaming through the front windows, the grime streaked across the windows, the dust floating in the air like a grid of stars, the clatter of bells whacked by an opening door—everyone in the bookstore thought all of it was real.
Adam soaked it in. He wanted it to be real as well.
He turned. Belatrix stood behind him, her green work apron hanging around her neck, two creases running down it vertically from having been meticulously folded the night before. Curls of brown hair hung like springs behind her ears. Her bright eyes smiled at him.
“I didn’t see you come in.”
She showed him the small stack of books she was shelving, as if to apologize for not hugging him. Adam smiled what he knew to be a perfectly symmetrical smile full of bright tombstone teeth.
“I kinda snuck past to the bathroom.” He waved a little wave to excuse the lack of a hug. Adam glanced at the books in her hand. “You getting off soon?”
She was. Adam knew she was. He had chosen the time and rate of time when he logged in. He had to be in class in two hours, but the flow rate would give him six. Belatrix smiled at him then slid a book into place. Adam tried not to think of the other him, the other world waiting. He gave himself up completely to the sim.
“How was work?” Belatrix asked him as she pushed open her apartment door and shrugged off her coat. It had drizzled on their walk over from the bookstore. Adam wiped his feet on her mat, then kicked off his shoes. Details like the mud, the shiny drops of water on the tile, he still lost himself, bewildered at it all.
“That interesting, huh?”
Adam broke out of the trance and helped her hang her jacket on the hook. “Work was fine. Closed a pretty big deal this week.”
He was sure it was true. When he wasn’t here to fill his avatar, it performed as autonomously as anyone else on Filster, or any of the other dozens of planets. Belatrix, in fact, had been to his place of work more than he had.
“Sure,” he said, even though he hated the stuff. It wasn’t tea, but that was a closer translation for the language parser than coffee. Horseshit would have been best, but the machine looked in certain categories. The only thing it left untouched were proper nouns, which left Adam with the moniker of Hurxy, a dreadfully common Southwest Filster title.
“Bitter apple?” Belatrix held up a grainy lump of spice.
“Please.” It made the horseshit taste like wet dirt, a distinct advantage. Adam often considered fast flowing through these bits, but the domestic foreplay was a crucial part of the fantasy. This was the life he wanted to live. He took the steaming bowl and glanced in the mirror at his clean and neatly groomed self. The sim had taken the time to do that in the morning, brushing his teeth and his hair. It felt like room service for the body.
“Seamonsters and Mist is opening up at the cinema this weekend.” Belatrix took a loud sip and looked at him over the rim of her bowl. “You wanna go?”
“Love to,” he said. It felt amazing to make plans for his avatar’s time, knowing he wouldn’t have to go, but that he would. He drank as much wet dirt as he could take, set the bowl aside, then plopped down on one of the floor cushions. “I’m feeling kinda horny,” he said with a grin.
Belatrix smiled back. Adam could get away with saying such things, could rush the moment with her, because he didn’t do it often.
He did it every time.