This story first appeared in the now sadly defunkt Alienskin Magazine and was my first ever sale. It was also read out on the Hugo award winning Starship Sofa podcast...
A FRIEND IN NEED
By R.P.L. Johnson
“Gordon, how wonderful to see you,” I said after a moment’s hesitation, a moment which was perfectly justifiable given the dishevelled appearance of my old school chum. It must have been five years since I had last seen him, and he looked as if he had spent the bulk of that time sleeping in a hedgerow. His clothes were creased, trousers stretched baggy around the knees and freshly stained at one cuff.
He flashed a smile at me, for a second doing a passable impression of the scoundrel I used to know. “Derek,” he said, “I’m in a bit of a jam. May I come in?”
“Of course,” I replied. Gordon cast about the corridor behind him before limping over the threshold.
“Gammy leg, Old Boy?” I asked.
“Prosthetic kneecap, a cheap one,” he replied as if that was the most natural thing in the world. The door slid shut behind him.
He gazed around my reception room with a blank look of incomprehension. I know that I really should decorate, but the bare walls are so easy to keep clean. The room is awfully small anyway, barely big enough for the two transfer chairs; I wouldn't want to clutter it up. He glanced at me quickly as if checking to see what I would do next: a little canine mannerism that I didn’t remember from our university days.
“Take a seat,” I said.
He selected the left chair and I took the seat opposite him. I’d never seen anyone perch on the edge of my plush leather chairs, but he managed it. “Just relax,” I said. He did, eventually, and I thumbed the armrest control. There was the usual slight discontinuity as the chair's hidden circuitry worked its magic, the merest suggestion of movement, and a couple of seconds later the door by which Gordon had entered slid open to reveal the teak floorboards of my apartment stretching away to the full-height picture window overlooking the bay.
“Come in,” I said as I jumped up. It’s not often that I get to show off my pad to a new guest and I wanted to make him feel welcome. He still looked uncomfortable, but his initial anxiety seemed to have given way to surprise. He extricated himself from the pillowy leather and followed me into the living room with a muffled shuffling of sneaker plastic on timber.
“Drink?” I asked, gesturing westward across the hardwood plain to the bar against the far wall. “I have a rather fine malt that I reserve especially for old school friends.”
His old smile returned and lingered a tad longer this time. “I could certainly use one.”
I crossed to the bar and poured a generous measure from the dusty bottle I kept next to the good tumblers.
“This place is fantastic,” Gordon enthused. “You must be doing pretty well for yourself.”
“Yes, it is rather spesh. Do you like the rug? It’s my own design.”
“It’s splendid.” He paused and sipped his scotch. “Listen, Derek. Would it be all right if I crashed here for a few nights? I’ve got myself into a spot of bother. I can't go back to my apartment, and I need a place to lie low. It will only be for a few nights, I promise.”
“Jealous husband after you, Old Boy?"
"Something like that, yes."
"Stay as long as you like. I get so very few house guests; it would be a pleasure.”
“Is there any other way in apart from the elevator?” he asked.
He pointed at the armchairs in the reception area, still visible through the open doorway. “You know. Any other way to get up here? Fire escapes and so forth.”
I laughed out loud—bad form, I know. “My dear fellow, haven’t you ever been in a virtual apartment before?”
A look of horror fell across his face, as if he’d suddenly remembered a missed appointment.
“You mean this isn’t real?”
“It’s real enough. But not in the sense you’re thinking of. This whole block is virtual: two thousand units, all with penthouse views—marvellous really. If you’re talking about our physical bodies, they never left the transfer chairs. We’d probably better go back and sort out the catheter if you’re going to be here for a while.”
"Is that safe?"
"What the catheter?"
"No, I mean just lying there dead to the world."
"Well, there's the front door, but I never keep it locked. I mean, who would want to burgle a virtual apartment. There's nothing here apart from you and me."
“Shit!” he said, and his eyes darted to something unseen to his left. He scrabbled at thin air for a second and some momentary bug in the graphics engine made his lapels appear twisted as if gripped by unseen hands.
He winked out of existence: very bad manners. He was going to have a headache for days, ripping out of the simulation like that.
Still, it was nice to have seen the old chap. Maybe I should invest in a bigger place with another couple of chairs—then I could have a dinner party—or perhaps some new software. I’ve always fancied a place in the country.