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Doug Tierney is the alter ego of an SF writer from Boston. This story appeared in the Best American Erotics 1996 anthology by Simon & Schuster in August and was originally published in Circlet Press' 1995 anthology Selling Venus.

Title graphic by Lucy A. Snyder.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1997 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

The Portable Girlfriend by Doug Tierney

     "Hey, wirehead, wake up." Jack Bolander felt the vibrations through the floor as his roommate pounded on the bedroom door. The sunrise coming through his window turned the yellow painted-over wallpaper a sick orange color, the color inside his head when he wired in without any software in the 'Face. Ron pounded the door harder. "You're going to be late for work again, asshole. If you get fired, I'm kicking you out in the street."
     "Yeah, yeah, I'm up." Bo had been lying awake for a while on his bare mattress, just staring at the water-damaged ceiling, drawing pictures with the rusty brown splotches, and trying to forget his dreams. Unconsciously, he stroked the inside of his left thigh, but he stopped when Ron kicked the door again. "I'll be out in a minute."
     "I'm leaving in two minutes, with or without you."
     "I said I'm coming." He dressed without looking down at his body, without glancing down at the lacework of shrapnel scars that ran from his right leg, across his crotch, to his left hip. He stuffed the 'Face and wires into his rucksack along with a couple disks before he pulled on his boots and his field jacket. He didn't bother to tie the boots; he'd do that in the car. Stepping out of his room felt like stepping into someone else's house. Ron had furniture and houseplants and cats. Bo had a mattress on the floor, piles of clothes, and milk crates of software. Sometimes he slept in the closet when he couldn't stop dreaming about the war
     In the car, Bo pulled out the 'Face and wired the first disk he pulled from his bag without looking at the title.
     Do you want me? The woman, a brunette with huge conical breasts that defied gravity, appeared where the dashboard had been a moment before. She gave Bo a heavy-lidded look of lust with her wide brown eyes. Through her left nipple, Bo saw the hubcap of a passing truck. He popped out the disk and saw that it was a piece of AIC barterware he'd picked up in trade a few days before. Cheap, low format, look-but-no-touch kind of thing, even slightly transparent. Masturbation material, if you kept the lights down low.
     For the second disk, he made sure he picked his only MASIC tri-disk. Full-sensory including tactile, capable of carrying on a conversation, it remembered you from one session to the next. The sim--called "Carson", for Kit, not Johnny--lived on a thick black-and-green MASIC wafer chip sandwiched between magneto-optical disks. The startup reminded him of the prairie, the sound of wind in the grass and the smell of rich black coffee and dirt. Across the bottom of his vision, the 'Face captioned in bright red script:
     Warning: License period expired. Three (3) days remaining in renewal window. Procede at your own risk? [n]

     He chose to go ahead. Bo had gotten the Kit Carson sim free with the 'Face, but like everything, it's only free until you're hooked. The renewal would cost most of his savings, and he'd planned something else for the money.
     Hey, pardner. You got an upgrade code for me? Kit shimmered into existence in the back seat of the Saab, dressed in red plaid and dusty chaps. He smelled of gunpowder and horse, chewing tobacco and leather. Kit slapped Bo on the shoulder, a warm, friendly gesture they'd both grown accustomed to.
     "No, I guess not. I just thought you might want to bullshit for a while," Bo offered. Ron sat in the driver seat, oblivious to the silent conversation taking place beside him. Bo turned to see Kit better, and the sim shuddered when Bo jerked the power cord between the 'Face and the battery pack. "Heading to work, and the yup's not speaking again."
     Well, ol' pal, I'd like to stay and talk. Kit flickered, and suddenly he wore a business suit and tie. But as you know, it's against the law to access unlicensed MASIC media. He blinked back into his chaps and cowboy hat. So until you get off your cheap ass and pay the renewal fee, I've got nothing to say to you, low-down, software-rustling loser. He flicked Bo's ear with his finger, an electric shock that ran down his neck to the shoulder. Cheapskate son of a bitch, pay for your software. Kit's fist almost connected with Bo's jaw before he popped the sim out without powering down. The cowboy dissolved with a squeal, and Bo tossed the disk out the window.
     "What was that?" Ron snapped, looking back.
     "Bad disk," Bo said and rolled the window back up. He considered throwing the AIC vixen after the MASIC hombre. Then he thought about how short he was on licensed softsoft, and decided against it. He knew where he could get a black box to defeat license protection, but if he had that kind of money, he'd go ahead and buy the house and the Ferrari instead.
     Ron dropped him off at the gate of the auto plant, where he worked for just above the minimum outrage, running a robot welder. His workstation sat like a slick green throne in the middle of a scrubbed concrete assembly line floor. The whole building echoed with its own between-shifts silence while Bo inserted the manipulator probe like an IV into the socket in his right arm and keyed the machine to life with the magnetic tattoo on his thumb. The work was on the level of autonomic, barely a conscious effort in the whole process, just a well-practiced dance of fingers flexing, pointing, gripping, rolling, until all the parts were fixed together. Unable to read or wire up while working, he'd once tried masturbating and had arcwelded the trunk lids shut on three sedans by mistake. He could only sit and doze and wait out the shift, gripping a soft rubber ball in the working hand.
     They passed out paychecks at the end of the shift, and Bo wired up to check his bank balance. With the paycheck, and minus his rent, he finally had enough. Jack Bolander went downtown to find himself a date. Not just any woman, though. He had someone special in mind.
     He'd saved up his money for months, socking away spare change, skipping meals whenever the gnawing in his gut let up enough that the cigarettes would get him through. The last several weeks, she was all he'd lived for. He rode the bus into the growing Boston gloom, knowing he'd finally have her soon. The excitement of it was an electric pulse down the inside of his thigh all the way to the knee. When he noticed he was tapping his foot constantly, he tried to stop, tried to be cool, but it didn't last.
     The dark seemed to flow up around the windows of the sick yellow and stained white bus as the driver pushed his way through traffic to the core of the city. The dark seeped up from the sewers, slicking the sides of the glass and concrete towers, turning the streets into a sodium-lamplit tunnel. The bus hit a pothole so hard the windows jarred, and Bo nearly fell off his seat.
     "Fuckin' streets," the driver muttered. "As much money as this city makes offa' parking tickets, you'd think they could repave this place once in a while." He hit another crater, so hard it could only have been intentional. "Like fuckin' Beirut."
     "It's more like Goradze." A suit next to Bo spoke, a comment meant to open a conversation.
     "Before or after the Ukes carpet bombed it?" he asked. The other man either missed or ignored his sarcasm. Bo checked the guy over. Between the euro-styled hair and the entrepenurial smile, he didn't know which he hated more. Bo decided he hated the smile.
     "During," he said. The man pulled back his mop of blond hair and revealed a teardrop-shaped scar running from the corner of his left eye back up over his ear. He'd had an ocular enhancement removed. Another wired up vet. "Forward observer."
     "Three-thirty-second mobile artillery," Bo replied. He peeled back his sleeve, a ritual showing of scars. "Gunner. Still wired. You probably called in fire for us."
     "Many times. That was the shit, wasn't it?" He shook his head. The bus's brakes squealed a drunked scream Bo felt in the base of his spine. The man pulled out a business card and passed it to him. "I'm Scott Dostoli. Listen, I'm starting up a consulting firm with a couple other wired vets. The pay isn't great, but it's better than that workfare bullshit the VA keeps pushing."
     "It beats jacking off a robot all day."
     "Without a doubt," he said and stood up. "I get off here. Give me a call, okay?"
     "You got it." Bo smiled and threw him a lazy salute. When the suit stepped off the bus, Bo threw the card on the floor and went back to watching out the windows. "Fuckin' Spyglass Johnnies," he muttered. Several minutes later, the bus turned onto Essex Street.
     "This is my stop," Bo said. When the bus didn't slow down, he yelled, "Hey, asshole, this is my stop." He stood up, catching himself on the worn aluminum pole as the bus swerved to the curb. The brakes sounded even worse up front, grinding metal on metal. Bo shouldered his green canvas rucksack and brushed his greasy brown hair from his face.
     "Ring the fuckin' bell next time." The driver cranked the door open and yelled, "Essex Street! Change here for the Orange line."
     Essex stank of rotting fish and urine in the gutters. Bo had forgotten how bad it could be in July. The summer heat blew up the alleys from the South End to mingle with the thick brown smell of the Chinatown dumpsters, the bready reek of stale beer, and the Combat Zone's scent of lust and cigarette ash. Bolander breathed in short, tight breaths through his mouth as he shuffled down the street, trying to look as if he were going somewhere else, shoulders hunched, weaving between refuse, trying without success not to make eye contact with the dealers and junkies haunting the corners.
     "Hey, my man, you look like you're after a date." The pimp stood a head shorter than Bolander, but his arms were thicker, his chest broader. Muscle didn't mean much on the streets anymore, not when any punk or junkie could afford a gat or a taser, but it never hurt to look the part of the tough. He wore a tight black Bruins T-shirt and a black Raiders cap, and he smelled like cheap musk cologne. "Got a nice Asian girl, big ol' tits, just waiting for you. Guarantee you'll like her."
     "Not interested." He tried to push past the pimp or to outpace him, but the man stayed with him, shouldering him toward the plate glass door of a cheap hotel with red and gold Chinese screens in the lobby. The sign over the desk advertised hourly rates.
     "You like a white girl, izat it? Stick to yo' own kind?" He angled so he was chest-to-chest with Bo, backing him toward the doors once again. As Bolander spun right, away from the hotel, away from the pimp, the greasy yellow light of the streetlamp glinted orange off the metal stud on the back of his head, between his brown hair and the gray collar of his fatigue shirt. The pimp saw the wire port, and Bo saw the pimp seeing him. "Oh, so that's how you play. Hey, I can set you up with some softsoft, good shit, straight from Japan."
     "Not interested. Back off." Something in Bo's voice, a hot edge, like bile in the back of the throat, made the pimp take several steps back, hands raised, his pale palms ghostly and disembodied in the shadows and uncertain light.
     "Hey, wirehead. You just gotta say so." He stepped back a few more paces before turning his back to Bolander. "You a wire freak," he muttered, still loud enough to hear. "Don't fuck wit' no wire freaks."
     Bo pulled his collar up over his port and covered the rest of the distance to the shop he wanted in strides lengthened both by adrenaline and by anticipation. He only glanced around once to make sure no one was watching when he ducked through the door of Abbe's Cellar.
     As far as it went, the Cellar was about the norm for the Zone, the usual stacks of porno movies and erotic magazines in their stiff shrink-wrapped bags, glass display cases of adult toys of every improbable shape and size, a lot of B&D leather and masks, as the store's name would imply. Unlike the other places on the street, though, it was a little darker, quieter. It had more atmosphere, and their prices kept the lowlifes out. Instead of being a poorly lit supermarket for human lusts, they catered to the desires, the fantasies. Their clientele were businessmen on their way home to someone, picking up a gadget or a piece of silk that would repaint the faded colors of a lover's smile and restore the sharp-edged, naughty gleam in a wife's eyes, the look that used to say, "my parents are going to be out all night...I'm so glad you stopped by." Abbe's also took pride in being on the cutting edge of sex. Softsoft, ROMdolls, network services.
     Bo didn't bother to sift through the collections of paraphernalia in the front. He didn't even consider the bulletin board where swingers posted their parties. What he wanted--who he wanted-- was in the back room, waiting, sleeping, ready to wake up to his gently insistent kiss on the back of her neck. Maybe she'd been waiting as long for him as he had been for her. The further back he went, the less the Cellar looked like a shop. It came to resemble a basement or a lonesome middle class attic full of boxed history and old thoughts, faded and threadbare as the clothes that hang in the back of a closet. The leather harnesses and silk bonds didn't glare with the orange and blue scanner-coded tags like they did up front. Some didn't even have tags at all, hanging like personal mementos in the owner's den.
     It was hotter in the back, where the air conditioner didn't quite reach. Bo shifted his pack from one shoulder to the other as he shrugged out of his mottled gray and black field jacket. He knotted the sleeves around his waist, feeling self-conscious of the hardware and of his small tank-gunner's frame. He felt bigger with the jacket on.
     "Help you find something?" Abbe came out of the store room, a can of diet something in his hand. He was a bit shorter than Bo, about five and a half feet, close to two hundred pounds, give or take, balding on top but he made up for it with facial hair. He wore a white silk bowling shirt with red trim and sweat stains under the arms. His name was embroidered in red over the pocket, and somehow, he smelled clean. Not clean like showered, or clean like the Boston air after a summer thunderstorm when the sun finally comes out. It was clean like skinny-dipping in an icy spring-fed pond in the hills. His smell made Bo comfortable and took the nervous edge off their conversation.
     "I've got something particular in mind."
     "Okay, that's a good place to start." Abbe dragged a wobbly barstool from behind the curtain and offered it to Bo. When he declined, Abbe grabbed a magazine from the shelf and tossed it to the floor to prop up the short leg. "What exactly is it you'd like, and we'll see if we can hook you up." He struggled up onto the chair, still not quite on eye level with Bo.
     "I'm looking for a girl." Bo was surprised to realize that he was embarrassed. He'd been chewing his lip, and his voice caught like dust in his throat. "I'm looking for a particular girl."
     "You look like a smart kid," Abbe said. "You go to Tech?"
     "No," Bo said, looking around at the low glass cases that lined the walls. Somewhere, in there, she was waiting for him. "I'm not in school anymore." He wondered if he should really be so nervous. His knees felt warm and weak. "She's on MASIC format."
     "Tri-disk. I figured you for the high-end type. That's Mil-Spec hardware, isn't it. Not that cheap Japanese entertainment-only shit. Hold on, Colonel." Abbe leaned back through the door to the back room and called to someone named Janet. Bo couldn't hear her reply, but her voice was like speaker feedback. "Just get out here and help this boy. When I want your opinion, I'll start paying you for it."
     "You watch your mouth, you old bastard." Janet stepped through the curtain, and the first thing Bo saw was her eyes, huge and brown and slightly bulging. With her combed-up puff of mousy brown hair and her slightly puckered mouth, she had the inquisitive look of a large rat. Her tight blue and tan shirt showed off her small, slightly sagging breasts. "What can we do you for, son?"
     Bo hated it when anyone called him son. Even his own mother had just called him "kid". She waited, and her attention made him sweat, as if she were waiting for him to name some wild and illegal form of perversion, or perhaps waiting for him to run away.
     "She's got long, wavy black hair and blue eyes. Slender. She looks Black Irish, if you know what I mean." Bolander looked around, as if invoking the description might cause the package containing her to stand up of its own volition, call to him, plead to be taken home. "I saw her here once before, but I don't remember her name."
     "I know what you're talking about. There's only three on tri-disk, and the other two are blondes." Janet slipped into the back room before Bo knew she was leaving. There was nothing mousy about the way she moved. She was quick and lithe, and when she returned, she seemed to glide to a stop in front of him, the package in her hand waving under his nose like the bough of a tree in a breeze. "This her?"
     Bo tried to speak, but only managed to mouth the word, "Yes."
     "Cash, or we can debit it discreetly from your personal account?" Abbe finally asked. Bo handed over the tightly rolled wad of large bills he'd picked up at the bank. Abbe unrolled the money and handed it to Janet. "Cash customer. The mark of a real gentleman. Always deals in bills."
     "There's only eight thousand here," Janet said after counting the stack twice. "Perpetual license is fifteen."
     The words made Bo go cold, the way looking into the rearview mirror and seeing police lights turns the flesh to gel. He couldn't wait long enough to save up another seven. Not after coming here and seeing her up close. If he left without her, he'd lose his nerve, probably spend most of the cash on booze, trying to forget about the whole thing.
     "What can I get for that?" he asked, his voice dry and cracked. She thought about it several seconds.
     "One year unlimited usage license, renewable or upgradable at added cost."
     "Whatever. I'll take it." Bo didn't even have to consider the options. He could come up with the other seven in a year's time. What mattered was having her, now. Janet filled in the license agreement and coded the init disk while Abbe bagged the purchase. Somehow, Bo had imagined her coming gift wrapped, not tucked into a brown paper bag. Seeing her face there, shadowed by the coarse, unbleached paper, a touch of reality tickled at the back of Bo's mind. After all, she was just a program...
     "Good call, kid. You'll like her. She learns how to be the lay of your lifetime. Anything you want, she does it. Here you go." Abbe handed him the bag, and the clean smell of him broke the morbid spiral of Bo's thoughts. He took the bag and left, glancing back once to wave, awkwardly, at Janet and Abbe, deep down, perhaps, wondering what they thought of him.
     Outside, in the fading heat, he turned down the block, avoiding the pressing gauntlet of pimps and pushers. A bus was just pulling into the stop at the corner, and he dashed to make it, slipping through the doors as the old diesel bus groaned away from the curb. He ran his pass through the reader and slipped to the back of the bus. He was alone there except for a small, slightly heavy blonde woman in a business suit and white sneakers, who was reading a self-help guide to AIC interfacing. She didn't even look up when Bo collapsed to the seat across from her.
     It was full dark outside, or as dark as Boston ever gets at night, the humidity like a curtain dimming the streetlights. All the lights were out on the bus, but Bo could still see to read. He pulled her package from the bag and started going over every detail, the specs on the back, the advertisers' pitch on either side. He'd seen it all in the magazine ads. Then , on the front, he stared several long, breathless seconds into her eyes.
     I'm just going to read the documentation, he swore to himself. Just the docs. He slipped the tip of his pocket knife into a crease in the cellophane wrapper, slit it all the way around the bottom, and slid the top slowly off the box. A breath of flowers, gardenias and lilacs, rich but too sweet, drifted up to him from the perfumed papers inside. Bo would have thought it tacky, had he not been so thoroughly enthralled. Wrapped in another cellophane bag, tucked under the curled and creased paperwork, she was there. Not much to look at, just a shiny gold and green ROM disk and a plastic-coated magnetic RAM, sandwiching a thick black MASIC wafer. The plastic mounting piece was the same color as the ROM. Without a second thought, he broke his oath, reached into his canvas bag, and pulled out his 'Face.
     The slim black case was no thicker than a old cassette player, with one slender wire that snaked back to a power cell in Bo's bag and another thicker wire with a gold, brush-shaped probe attached to the end. Bo pulled aside his hair and flipped open the cover of his jack with the same quick, casual ease as someone pops out a contact lens. An electric tingle ran across the base of his scalp as he slid the probe in and secured it with a half-twist.
     Being wired was like being inside the TV looking out, like being the electron, fired toward the phosphor screen and becoming part of the image. Being wired was visual, aural, olfactory, tactile. So wonderfully tactile. Even the startup routine was a caress that ran the length of his body, the light, tender touch of a friend that would have tickled him if it hadn't felt so good. It was the breath of a lover on bare skin, a mother touching the cheek of her sleeping child. All by itself, it was worth the risks of wiring, worth the loneliness of nights lost on the net, the madness, the days when the headaches made his vision turn red.
     Bo ran his imprinted thumb over a hidden sensor, and a panel slid away with a barely audible sigh. He fit the media into the slot, and the gold plastic mounting clip came away in his hand. He fed the thumbnail-sized init disk into another slot and waited. Words in red floated in his lower peripheral vision, seen as if through the lens of tears.
     Configuring to Aminoff-4 interface ...stand by ....
     Then she was beside him, quiet and prim, reading a book of poetry. His eyes wandered over her, soaking in the details of her smooth, pale wrists, the thick tweed of her skirt, the blue-black sheen of her hair. She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and she smiled.
     Hello? Her voice was much lower than he'd imagined, and soft as a down comforter in winter. There was more, though, a depth of understanding and a predisposition to laughter.
     "What are you reading?" He became self-conscious about trying to look over her shoulder and scooted away, putting most of a seat between them. His eyes fixed on a blemish in the blue plastic of the bench where he'd just been sitting.
     It's Rimbaud.
     "Oh." One of the hot bands on the club set was making fistfuls of loot reading Rimbaud's poetry while playing ragged jazz and electric guitar solos. Bo thought they sounded like posers, so he never listened. But he still recognized the name.
     I'm Sarah-Belle. I prefer just Sarah. Her voice drew his eyes up from the seat to her own, and something passed between them, some exchange of trust that Bo knew, deep down, was simply excellent programming. It caught him off guard, and he opened up to her without another thought. He smiled, for the first time in longer than he could remember.
     "My name's Jack, but I go by Bo."
     Voulez-vous etre mon beau? His 'Face subtitled it for him, in yellow, just below her lips.
     "Don't speak French," he said anyway. "I don't like the way it sounds." There was the barest pause, a slight flicker around the edges of her cheeks, a minor realignment of her straight, dark brow. Bo glanced down, and her book was Donne instead.
     "Make love to me." He said it almost before he knew he was going to. The look on her face was a intermingling of amusement, interest, indignation and irritation. He felt somehow he'd broken the rules, and even after he consciously realized the rules were his to make, he still felt uncomfortable under the study of her clear blue-gray eyes.
     Here? I don't think that's a good idea.
     "Yes, here." He'd said it, and though he wanted to back down, he couldn't. He wouldn't be chastised by a circuit board, even if it was a Turing chip and probably smarter than he was.
     Here? she asked again, teasing him with the unspoken promise in her voice. She ran one finger down the side of his neck, and with the other hand, she began untying the sleeves of his fatigue shirt. Right here? Are you sure? I've never done anything like this before.
     In the lower left of his vision, a single pale icon appeared, pulsing every several seconds, DaVinci's Balanced Man, an indication from his 'Face that he'd entered a much deeper level of input, directly to the tactile centers of his brain. Everything that happened, while it was lit, would be confined to the spaces of his mind, every spoken word, every touch, every kiss. Like a dream, but a dream that paralyzed his voluntary nervous system. His awareness of the world faded to peripheral. Only a few telltale twitches betrayed the activity taking place in the small black box and in his mind.
     Bo started to speak, but Sarah silenced him with a kiss, and her lips were soft, forgiving. She had the kiss of someone who smiled often, a kiss that gave way under his, that parted for him and drew him in deep, the softest, most passionate kiss he'd ever had. It relaxed him and drove him to the edge of panic all at once. His pulse pounded in his neck, in his temples, but he felt secure, warm, and content. The kiss said she loved him.
     Without breaking the kiss, she slipped onto his lap, wrapped her arms around his neck, ran her fingers though his hair, across his cheek, down his chest. She touched his right thigh, tingling where in reality he had only numb scar tissue. Slowly her fingers walked up the front of his jeans to the zipper, touching lightly, teasing, exploring, finding. She pressed her hand against him, squeezed him through the ragged denim. Bo felt release at last, and he let out a small, whimpering moan.
     Sarah broke the kiss, pulled back enough she could see his eyes. Her smile was sly, but her eyes were delighted. With her fingertips, she stroked him firmly, and he tried to smile before embarrassment got the better of him.
     We're going to have to do something about this, she said, and burst into laughter as he sheepishly rolled his eyes. Her laugh was as light as sunshine after a cloudburst, but at the same time just a bit silly, and still heartfelt. It reassured him, told him she was not laughing at him but because he made her happy. Bo melted into her laughter, closed his eyes and savored the sound as much as the sweet taste of her mouth that lingered on his lips.
     She unzipped his jeans with both hands, took care that nothing caught or snagged. She spread her skirt over his lap and settled onto him, unbuttoned her white blouse, revealed small, round breasts, pale as clouds, and peach nipples. Sarah paused when she saw the expectant, frightened, slightly horrified look on Bo's face. Sarah winked and smiled a slow easy smile.
     Hey there.
     "Hey." He smiled back and knew he was ready. She threw her head back and slid onto him with a pleased moan. A tingle ran down the length of Bo's body, arched his back, tightened every muscle. Microcurrents ran the length of his body, analog touch poured directly into his brain. Her scent drifted up to him, floral and spicy, enticing. She was there, and she was wonderful. Sarah rocked back and forth, smiling, eyes closed. Bo found the pleasure she took from him more erotic, more stimulating, than the feel of her. She made love to his ego, and it drove him over the edge. She collapsed onto him, her head on his shoulder, and kissed his neck. Sarah kept him afterward, squeezing him with quick, tight squeezes that sent a new wave of endorphins flushing through his body.
     Finally, she sat back, let Bo look at her, let his eyes and his mind drink in the woman who had just made love to him. Her hair cascaded around her shoulders like dark silk. For the first time Bo touched her face, found it warm and smooth, her hair soft as cashmere. Sarah turned to kiss his palm before she spoke.
     Isn't your stop soon?
     "I think we passed it."
     Oh. Sarah gave him a quick kiss on the lips and winked out suddenly, reappearing beside him prim and immaculate once again. The thin volume of Donne lay beneath her folded hands, and she looked exactly as she had before except for the sated smile and casually flirtatious wink she gave him. The DaVinci icon faded, and Bo was free to move once more.
     He started to get up and felt the slick, sticky wetness soaking through his jeans. He pulled his rucksack across his lap, blushing a deep scarlet. He hit the bell and yelled for the rear door.
     "You said it was a bad idea, didn't you."
     It's okay. Sarah caressed his shoulder through the thin cotton of his T-shirt. She broke into a broad, enthusiastic grin and rolled her eyes. Okay? It was great! They both laughed as the bus squealed to a stop several blocks west of Bo's apartment.
     As he bounded down the steps and into the damp, oppressive Boston night, Bo heard the blond woman mutter, "Wire-head freak." Her epithet drove home the reality to him, that Sarah was just a program, that he was a loser stuck in a fantasy. Then Sarah took his hand, and they walked home together, strolling and chatting like long-time lovers. By the time they reached his place, he'd made the unconscious decision that whatever they had together beat the hell out of his reality apart.
     "Gotta turn you off," Bo said when they reached the door. "Ron goes batshit if I wire in the house, and we've been fighting all day." Before she could speak, he thumbed the power stud and unjacked, then stuffed the 'Face back in his rucksack.
     The apartment was nearly empty when he opened the door. A couple pillows on the floor and milk crates used as a table. All of Ron's AV gear was gone, as was his computer and the beatup brown sofa where Bo sometimes fell asleep. Bare hardwood floors littered with empty fast-food drink cups and microwave burrito wrappers greeted Bo and informed him that something was very wrong. He checked the door again to make sure it had been locked. It was.
     "Hey, Ron?" Bo checked his room, found it as he'd left it, then checked Ron's. The futon was still there, but the tangle of silk sheets was gone. The houseplants and bookshelves no longer filled the corners. Bo's footsteps echoed off the bare plaster walls. "That bastard."
     Bo found a note on the refrigerator. "Bo, gotta jam. Moved in with Elisa. Later." He'd emptied the fridge, too. Bo went to his room and curled up in the pile of blankets on his bed. He didn't feel like changing clothes or showering, just sleeping it off and worrying in the morning. Worry refused to wait, and after staring at the water marks on his ceiling for almost an hour, he reached for his ruck, for the comfort of her company.
     Hey, tiger.
     Sarah wore a white silk camisole that reached mid-thigh and fell loosely across her breasts. When she dropped to her hands and knees to kiss him, it dropped away from her, and Bo saw all the way down the pale, tight curve of her belly. Her body stirred something inside him, but instead, he said, "Can we just talk?"
     What's up? She flickered at the edges again before settling down beside him in a half-lotus. She wore an I-Love-NY nightshirt which she pulled down over her knees.
     "Ron moved out. No notice or anything." Bo pulled a pillow into his lap and hugged it tight. "He was a real shit, but at least he was company. And I needed him to pay the rent."
     Well, we can find you another roommate, right?
     "I hope so." For a while, Bo just stared off across the room, realizing after a while he was gazing at the stacks of AIC and MASIC discs piled in a milk crate in his closet. He could sell off most of it and pay for another month, if he got ten cents on the dollar for his original investment. He'd have to find a real sucker to pay those prices for unlicensed disks. He considered selling his 'Face and paying for a half-year, in advance, or taking Sarah back and using the cash to get out of the city, move some place cheaper. He regretted throwing the suit's business card away, even though he could probably find the guy again if he tried.
     I'll help you find something. In the morning, Come to bed with me, Bo? You need rest.
     "Sarah, why are you so good to me?"
     She didn't answer for a while, long enough that Bo wondered if he'd hit a glitch in the softsoft. You make me laugh. I like being with you. I don't exist without you. She took his hand in both of hers, her touch warming and reassuring. She made him feel needed.
     "I guess you don't." Somehow, her need for him felt like a responsibility, a reason to work it out. He knew he'd been smudging the line all evening, and finally physical reality was merging with volative reality somewhere in the wire. He knew better than to lose touch, but in the end, it didn't matter to him all that much. "I'm really screwed."
     We'll come up with something. I'll help you. You have unlimited usage, remember? I'm not just some AIC-format slut. I think. And I'm clever. She kissed his neck, insistent. Come to bed?
     Suddenly, physical and emotional exhaustion pulled at his limbs, insistent. "You're right. I need to sleep."
     He rolled over and reached for the power stud on the 'Face's black box, but Sarah stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. No. I don't like it when you turn me off, she said. She curled up tightly beside him, and the DaVinci icon faded into his vision.
     Leave the power on. I need to think.