Osaka in Japan, 2083
The sun was shining through the window with summer intensity, filling the hospital room with its warm light. But death wasn’t picky; it didn’t need depressing atmosphere to come.
The line stopped going up and down and became straight. The beeping faded after a while, it wasn’t needed anymore.
There was silence for a moment. A second of deadly tranquillity. Then sobs.
“Time of death—14:32,” the doctor noted down into his datapad.
He pulled a sheet over the woman’s dead body, looked at the child crying next to her bed and let out a resigned sigh. The boy couldn’t have been more than four years old and was adamantly holding his mother’s hand.
“Is the boy her only family?” the doctor scratched his chin with concern. “I’ve never seen any visitors. Where’s the father anyway?”
“I’d already checked the register, his birth certificate says father unknown,” the nurse shook her head. “The social services are taking care of him for now and are searching for his relatives in Europe.”
“He’s half Japanese, though. Do they really want to send him there?” the doctor bit his lip. He was mostly successful at keeping things emotionally professional but it was hard in cases when children were left behind.
“Doctor, is it true what they say?” the nurse asked, nervously studying the patient’s medical record. ”That the brain tumour was caused by VR?”
“Who said that?” the doctor frowned. “That’s ridiculous.”
“But she was some kind of game developer, right?” the nurse insisted. “She must have used that damn VR helmet a lot. There’re people who report headaches and…”
The doctor didn’t get time to answer as four men in formal black suits suddenly entered the room. Without hesitation and any greeting they quickly put the woman’s dead body on a stretcher. They had to forcibly tear the small boy from his mother because he refused to let go.
“Too soon for the mortuary service,” the doctor frowned. “Who are you? Who gave you permission to take the body?”
“A thorough autopsy is in order,” one of them said dryly. “We’re taking the body to a better facility.”
“Okaa-chan!” the boy screamed in Japanese and tried to get hold of his mother again.
“Ryuuto, your mom is gone,” the nurse gently caught him. “I’ve told you, remember? She was very sick. She’s in a better place now and doesn’t feel pain anymore.”
The doctor argued with the intruders for a while but they shoved official custody papers into his face and quickly left with the body.
The little boy, Ryuuto, started to cry uncontrollably. The nurse tried to comfort him and hugged him firmly but it didn’t help much. The doctor sighed and went to call the social service lady who was waiting in the hall.
“My mom’s not thinking anymore. Not thinking, not feeling,” the boy kept repeating as he was sobbing into the nurse’s uniform.
Prague in the European Union, 20 years later
The underground metro is always packed at this hour. A mass of turbulent emotions is the hardest to deal with but I’m somewhat used to it. An elderly woman bumps into me as she’s trying to secure her place at the last second before the door closes. No word of apology. Instead, her anxious emotions hit me.
I twitch and squeeze my way closer to the other door. A man holding a suitcase to my right is nervous about something but, thankfully, I’m not close enough to feel more. A girl opposite of me is looking in my direction but her eyes are unfocused. I notice she has an implant so I guess she’s browsing the Internet right now.
For a while I was considering getting one myself but after a product presentation with a mock implant that gets attached to one’s temple temporarily, I quickly changed my mind. Unlike full-dive VR, implants provide only partial virtual experience which messes with my telepathy. And I wouldn’t have the nerve to use it among people anyway.
When the train starts moving, windows change into advertisements banners.
“UrgoLogi corp. wishes you a pleasant journey.”
God, I hate ads. But this train is sponsored and therefore not as expensive so the commuters have to bear with it.
I notice a man eyeing me from a few metres away. I pull my face mask higher and check that my hoodie didn’t slip. Even though lots of people have all kinds of crazy cosmetic procedures done these days, my natural androgynous features still attract unwanted attention. Being harassed on my way to school is something that would ruin my morning so, after some unpleasant past experiences with train perverts, I always travel in disguise.
I turn my back to that man and take out my vibrating phone.
You free tonight? ^_^
I smile to myself and start typing a response.
Yep, I can drop by after school.
Cool, looking forward to it. Should I order some food?
Sure, no time for lunch anyway.
Eat, skinny, you dumb.
I will… at your place. Promise. See ya.
Another stop, more pushing. The girl leaves and her place is taken by that elderly woman. It’s evident that she doesn’t approve of people who aren’t ill wearing face masks. She gives me a stare as she’s trying to guess my gender and shakes her head. She’s one of those people who hate ambiguity, I can feel her discontent. But I’m just a random stranger to her so she lets it go.
I close my eyes, trying to clear my mind. Too many emotions can overwhelm me to the point of a severe headache and that’s the last thing I need when I have an entire school day ahead of me.
A paper ball hits my arm and wakes me up.
“Ryuuto,” one of my classmates hisses at me. “The professor…”
I blink, confused for a moment. Then I realise that I must have dozed off for a few seconds. I get angry at myself—wasting precious time with a real teacher! At least she wasn’t looking at me; I don’t want to seem rude. She’s not here as a mere hologram, after all.
I stretch and finish my coffee from the campus cafeteria that is totally cold now. This is only my second lecture today but I feel exhausted already. When I think about it, I’ve been feeling pretty tired lately. And my back feels sore today. Maybe I game too much? But I don’t think I put in more hours than usual.
The coffee helps a little and focusing on the most enthusiastic students who really pay attention does the trick, too. One of my coping mechanisms I’ve developed over years. I like school even if it poses all sorts of problems for me. Like sitting in a lecture hall with twenty other students and perceiving their emotions whether I want to or not. I wish I could switch it off at will. But I can’t.
I buy another cup of coffee in the short break between lectures and manage to pull through the rest of the day. I look forward to seeing Erik which helps me tolerate another overcrowded train on the way to him. It’s not like we’re dating but I still really enjoy spending time with him.
Erik lives in one of those old historical buildings from the twentieth century. He’s not particularly rich but he was lucky enough to inherit the apartment from his grandparents. It’s a nice spacious place with nostalgic atmosphere but it’s not soundproof and the neighbours are mostly old people so we can’t be loud.
He greets me with a wide smile, grabs my hand and pulls me inside. I love his straight-forwardness. He’s a no bullshit kind of guy. And I can feel that he’s excited already.
“It’s been ages since your last visit,” he says and kisses me right in the hall. He immediately gets rid of my ponytail so that he can caress my long hair. He always does that.
“Two weeks, your shifts didn’t fit my school schedule,” I take off my shoes and put them on the rack. Unlike me, Erik keeps his place tidy.
His mood slightly changes. “You fucked other guys during that time?” he purses his lips in an accusation.
“No, other guys fucked me,” I correct him and try to make it into a joke. After all, we’re not dating. Normally I don’t feel guilty about it but Erik seems to be the only one who can make me feel guilty. I’m not sure why. I mean… I never cheat, my lovers all know.
Erik knows that as well but he’s still a little bit pissed; I can feel his irritation. His desire is bigger, though. He pushes me to the wall and slips his hand under my t-shirt. I gently touch his mind and the world around me blurs.
I’m an addict. A telepath addict hooked on my lovers’ feelings. Thoughts and feelings of strangers have a tendency to hurt or annoy me. Thoughts and feelings of people I like are a drug to me.
Erik unexpectedly pushes me back. I blink, confused. A forcefully interrupted connection is disorienting.
“Your stomach is rumbling,” he says, partly amused but mostly concerned. “Let’s have dinner first, okay?”
No need to argue, I’ve been starving the whole afternoon. Stacking various classes one after another is efficient but as a result I never have time for lunch.
“I ordered your favourite Thai,” he boasts as he presents me a plastic takeaway box.
His thoughtfulness never ceases to amaze me. I guess that’s why I fell for him. That and also the fact that he’s a medical helicopter pilot who offered me a free flight on the day of our first meeting in a bar. My first time flying. Or rather my first time flying in real life.
“What?” I mumble with a mouth full of noodles because he’s watching me for some reason.
“I just like looking at you, pretty boy,” he shrugs. “You should definitely do something about your diet, though. Have you lost some weight again?”
“No idea, I don’t own a scale,” I dip a piece of fish in a spicy sauce and shove it into my mouth. “I eat when I’m with you.”
“And with other guys,” he still refuses to let it go.
He usually doesn’t have such a problem with it so I guess he must be feeling neglected by me. Erik is actually very possessive which makes him a bad choice for someone like me but I can’t help it when someone’s mind attracts me. My telepathy is a double-edged sword when it comes to love.
“I’m with you now,” I assure him and I really mean it. I always fully focus on the person I’m with at the moment. It’s impossible for me not to if I like them. It’s like being addicted to chocolate and having an exquisite bar in front of you. Impossible to resist or think about anything else until you eat it whole.
We finish our dinner and decide to take a shower together. He enjoys undressing me and I enjoy feeling attractive in his eyes. I used to be ashamed of my lack of masculinity when I was younger but only until I found out that certain types of guys are totally into that. And these guys often happen to be the types I’m into so it’s a win-win. Unless they’re train perverts, of course.
Erik takes the soap and starts washing me. He’s the only person I know who insists on these traditional soaps instead of shower gels from automatic dispensers. I think it’s an adorable quirk.
I feel a weird tickling sensation when he soaps my back, especially the area under my shoulder blades.
“What?” he stops as soon as he notices my discomfort.
“Nothing,” I shake my head. I must have strained my back at school. Sitting for several hours can be demanding.
Then it’s my turn soaping him and I enjoy every second of it. Erik is quite muscular but not too much, exactly as I prefer it. And he’s tall. Well, it’s not like I’m particularly short myself but my lovers always end up to be taller than me.
We continue in his comfy wide bed and I lose myself in his mind again. I know exactly how to please him. The physical and the mental blur—I’m high.
Suddenly, he pushes me down and stops for a moment which blunts the connection.
“How did you know that I would like that?” he looks at me strangely.
Oops, I did it again. I try to be careful but I fail more often than not.
“Telepathy,” I joke.
Only it isn’t a joke. But he has no idea. Nobody does.
“Have you tried that with other guys?” he guesses and looks saddened. “Am I not enough for you? You really like me, admit it.”
“I’m not boyfriend material,” I say, grumpy that he’s stopped at the best part.
“You’re not slut material either,” he raises his eyebrows. “Why do you act like one?”
“I simply don’t have time for proper dating. I have school and my job,” I quickly come up with an excuse. I can’t tell him the true reason.
“Your job,” he repeats. “Which I still know nothing about.”
Erik has a tendency to talk a lot when something bugs him. It’s cute but rather distracting when we’re supposed to do other things. And he’s not pesky, only genuinely concerned.
I silence him with a kiss to deepen our connection again. I remind him with my body why we’re friends with benefits and that talking isn’t necessary.
I don’t do mornings so I dress up when Erik falls asleep. I watch him for a few minutes, he’s so damn handsome. I bend down to kiss him goodbye and get the last taste of him. His sleeping mind is so soothing. I’ve never met anybody like Erik, to be honest. I could spend countless hours in him. But I know I can’t.
I stop myself in my thoughts. What was I just thinking? Erik doesn’t know me. Not really. He just likes my face and body. That’s it. If he knew the truth about me, he would probably run away and call me a freak. No, I can’t get attached for this exact reason.
My apartment isn’t as fancy as Erik’s place but compared to my previous tiny room at grandmother’s, it’s heaven. Rents in Prague are extremely high and sharing would be much cheaper, but my telepathy makes it impossible for me to have flat-mates. I also don’t want others to know how I make a living.
I put down a package that I picked up downstairs from the delivery repository and sigh. The box isn’t that heavy but I’ve always had difficulties carrying stuff that weights more than a few kilos. I’ve tried exercising several times but I could never develop any muscles.
I suspect that my frail body might be somehow connected to my telepathy. What else could it be than some strange genetic mutation? But being scared of doctors and hospitals in general, I’ve never gone to any major medical check-up to confirm it.
Besides, I shiver at the thought of what would such confirmation mean. They’d probably never allow me to leave hospital ever again and run all sorts of experiments on me. I mean—real telepathy. The scientists would go crazy.
All of a sudden, my stomach starts grumbling in discontent. I guess my Thai dinner didn’t quite agree with me even though it’s a dish Erik orders regularly for me. But weak digestion is another thing I’ve learnt to live with.
To distract myself, I log into my account to check my current balance. The developers sent me 500 Euro for yesterday’s raid that was streamed on the official game channel. As I’ve already paid the rent for next month, I send the whole amount to pay off another little bit of my huge debt.
“Fan mail,” a reminder AI speaks up.
“I know,” I nod to myself and switch on the holographic projector.
Many famous streamers want their true face to be known but I dread it. Being asked out on a date by random strangers, often quite pervy, is bad enough. I don’t need more attention. Also, I can’t spare money for an apartment with better security. VR celebrities are always under attack by their own fans and have stalkers. That’s why I’ve never told anyone who I am in real life. As a telepath I wouldn’t be able to handle it.
I set the holographic projector to materialise a cosy coffee shop scenery behind me and cover my appearance with a 3D version of my ingame avatar. I start to open fan mail, commenting on exceptionally nice letters written on real paper by hand and thanking senders for any little presents inside. Fans love their nicknames being mentioned.
Of course, I get most fan mail digitally but handicrafts had their second renaissance recently so it isn’t unusual that I get cute hand-made plush toys of ingame pets and knitted bracelets with game logos. Once I got a very nice winter scarf that I love wearing ever since.
“Thank you, Liu24net, a beautiful picture,” I smile and hold up to the camera a drawing of my ingame avatar in a rather erotic pose.
Majority of my fans are girls with such fantasies and I present myself as openly gay so it only gives them more fuel. Another reason not to ruin their illusions by revealing my true identity. Well, I’m quite confident that they’d most probably like my true face because it isn’t that different from my game avatar but I suspect that these fangirls are mostly into my fictional inhuman parts.
“And now time for real work,” I smile to myself.
I lie down on my bed, put on the latest VR helmet—courtesy of my game employer—and log in. The game starts the initialisation process.
Checking VR compatibility…
Welcome to DRACONIA ONLINE
I stop feeling my real body and instead I start experiencing that familiar weight of wings on my back. The feeling I love. I open my avatar’s eyes and the virtual world around me materialises.
I’m standing in front of a cave, the last spot I was in before my last log off. I can hear birds singing, the wind pushing into the trees and a nearby river. But for me it’s like total silence because I can’t read anyone’s thoughts or feel their emotions here. VR is the only place apart from sleep where my brain can truly rest.
I suddenly hear voices, several players are approaching. I quickly pull a cloak out of my digital inventory and put it over my wings. It can’t hide the fact that I have them because they’re too huge for that but I just need to cover their colour. At the last second I pull a hoodie over my silver hair.
“Hey, somebody’s already here,” says a Dragonkin who appears out of the forest. He’s in full-plate armour and is carrying a shield and a sword. His scales are dark green and black horns on his head exceptionally big.
He’s followed by a mixed party consisting of a Clawfang wolf, an Earthborn with a bow and one more Dragonkin of a monk class.
“And it’s a Celestial, lucky us,” says the Clawfang girl. “Wanna join us? We could really use some magic in there. What’s your level and class?”
“Sorry, I’m waiting for my own party,” I lie.
“What’s up with the cloak?” the Earthborn asks. “I thought you Celestials hate to cover your wings.”
“I’ve been in a different location and it was raining,” I lie again. “Please, don’t mind me. This dungeon is a private instance anyway.”
The first Dragonkin, who looks like their party leader, shrugs. Any other race might be a player killer waiting to ambush unsuspecting victims but Celestials aren’t built for that so he isn’t wary of me.
When they disappear into the entrance, I quickly take off my cloak. The Earthborn archer was right, Celestials hate wearing anything over their wings. It simply isn’t comfortable. But my pure white wings are unique in Draconia so unless I want to deal with fans—or haters for the matter—I have to mask myself.
“Okay, let’s do it!” I say to myself enthusiastically and start streaming for my channel. “Going solo to the Forgotten Cave, attempt number 4.”