“Move, kid,” I said, filling his seat once he stumbled to his feet. He grabbed onto the back of a nearby chair to steady himself, but let go once he grazed the hair of his friend occupying it.
“What? No. I won’t let you,” Hardwick said, his orders more like questions.
Fulfill my drug-fueled cravings and end up a hero or go home to an empty apartment littered with cat hair from neighboring strays? No question, no hesitation. I picked up the plug and hovered it above my wrist, ready to dig in.
“Hold up,” the kid said, fishing a double-bladed knife from his pocket. It looked like a glittering peace sign. “You have to slit yourself with this first. Then jam in the plug.”
Instead of grabbing the weapon, I held out my wrist, delegating the job to him. He made the slash sharp and quick, then pushed the plug through the oozing holes before I could take another breath.
My eyes shot open, my lashes nearly hitting my brows. When my body convulsed, it felt like sparks were snapping at my veins, jolting them with electricity. My sight switched between flashes of black and white, so I could barely see the wire my blood slipped through.
One more flash — this time a deep yellow — and my body slumped, my mind fully transported into the machine.
It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the emptiness that stretched on for miles. The walls and ceiling, if there even were walls and a ceiling, were all white. So was the floor. The only color came from the people scattered around, each equipped with a series of weapons.
To my left, a woman strangled a guy with a piece of fishing wire. To my right, a man with a rifle fired a dozen bullets into a kid’s torso. In front of me, a teenage boy plucked out an eye with a screwdriver.
Unable to stomach the scene, I turned on my heels. Behind me, I saw a familiar face. Just not the one I wanted.
“You were in the library today,” I said when I approached the young girl. “You and your two friends. One bailed.”
“You here to arrest me?” she asked when she saw my uniform. “I’m already among criminals, so there’s not much you can do.”
“Aren’t you worried they’ll kill you?”
She laughed. I could see how she and her buddy back on campus were friends. “We’re a projection, a consciousness, a series of 1s and 0s. No one can kill us. The people dying are conjured up by the criminals in here. That’s the point of this place. A safe spot to kill.” Her smile sparkled with excitement. “Close your eyes and think of someone you know. They’ll pop right up.”
I refused to do it, but agreed to watch her. She gave a long blink and a boy materialized in front of us, the same cocky kid from back in the library.
Without hesitation, she pulled a knife from her pocket and stabbed him in the chest with it. “Pussy,” she said. “Us three were supposed to stick together.”
After seeing my widened eyes and unhinged jaw, she added, “Like I said, it’s not real. He’s safe back at home. Look, I could make him come back again.”
She closed her eyes and a new doppelgänger popped up.
I never responded, just ran, hoping it wouldn’t take long to find what I wanted.
I kept up my pace, only stopping to examine the tall, thin females that matched up to the one in my memories. About twenty minutes later, I spotted a woman with blonde hair chopped straight across the center of her neck. She straddled a corpse, spooning out its innards with a knife as tiny as her pale hands.