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Ignoring the other three or four women in the room—none of them older than their early twenties—Jemma slipped out of her skinny jeans and low-necked shirt, folding them conscientiously and placing them into her assigned small metal locker, along with her high heels and designer purse. She slipped on the loose, soft white robe that she'd been handed at the front desk, tying the cord of it tightly around her tiny waist. She glanced into one of the mirrors hung from the wall, meeting her own blue-eyed gaze and automatically running a hand over her bronze-brown locks to smooth them down. Then, barefoot, she headed towards the door on the far side of the room of the one she'd entered by.
Now in a narrow, brightly-lit corridor, the eighteen-year-old shivered slightly in the too-cold air. The tile floor was far too chilled to be comfortable, but she kept walking, heading for the stainless steel door at the end of the blank hallway. Once she was through the door, a blankly-smiling attendant dressed in an immaculate white uniform led her to one of the dozen half-globes on the floor; most of them were unoccupied and powerless, but the two to the right of the one Jemma was led to glowed brightly from within, and through the glass front she could see the still forms of the women within them, seemingly asleep.
The attendant stopped at the end of the third pod in the row, fingers darting momentarily over the keypad on a stand protruding from the organized mess of black and silver wires leading from the hemisphere to the wall. The chrome-framed glass lid lifted soundlessly, lights on the sides of the interior turning on as it did. Jemma stepped daintily over the edge and down to the floor of the pod, laying down on the white mat with her arms at her sides. She stared calmly upwards as the lid slid closed over her, encapsulating her in a tiny, pristine world of chrome and white. The permanent mechanical humming of the entire building suddenly seemed much closer and louder, growing faster every moment. Cold metal bands extended from the floor beneath her, circling each of her wrists, her waist, and her forehead with a mechanized hum. She closed her eyes...
...and opened them somewhere else. She was no longer laying down and looking up at the distant white ceiling, but was standing in the middle of a broad, circular field of waist-high grass that shone like gold. Her hair was being tossed into her eyes by a frisky breeze, but it was now chin-length and pale blonde, and, she knew, her eyes were now a dark blue-grey rather than their natural aquamarine. She was wearing a long white tunic, breeches, and soft leather boots, not the plain white robe she'd been wrapped in. A wide woven belt cinched her waist, from which hung a sheath of tooled leather holding a katana, a curved, flat-bladed sword with a handle of wrapped cord. A dark cloak was around her shoulders, secured with a plain silver clasp. Her lips, now much less full and flawless, curved into a small smile.
Her head turned at the sound of her name—the name reserved for this form, in this world—being called, and her smile widened. A dark-haired young man of about nineteen was waving to her as he strode towards her from the fringe of the forest that surrounded the field they were in. She walked towards him, feeling a now-familiar pleasure surge through her with a feeling almost like electricity. The man was grinning as the two of them met about fifty yards from the edge of the woods. He was dressed similarly to her, in boots, breeches, and a tunic of dark green, with a hooded cloak that billowed slightly in the wind. Jemma had to tilt her head back to look up at him; she was now much shorter than her former 5'8".
"Eryll," she greeted him happily, embracing him briefly. He was broad-shouldered and muscular, but lean rather than bulky. Her head rested comfortably on his chest for a moment before she stepped away, her blue eyes meeting his hazel orbs. His grin mirrored hers, his hazel-green eyes shining happily. Customarily, she fell into step beside him, matching strides as they walked together towards the faint path that disappeared into the forest, the trees' canopy above them turning the path into a green-lit tunnel. "What shall we do today?" Jemma asked, looking up at him. Eryll shrugged carelessly, walking close enough beside her that his arm brushed against hers occasionally.
"What do you want to do?" he asked in reply. She thought for a moment, and then shrugged. He laughed lightly. "Well, that's helpful. Shall we go to see Titan and Kohl?"
"Yes!" she replied instantly, her face lightening up. He laughed again, leading her down a path that broke away from the one they were on and led north, towards the distant mountain peaks. The walk, which should have taken at least a full day, lasted only minutes, and they soon found themselves climbing the steep mountain slope of the tallest of the peaks, Mount Lidra. Pine trees and ferns were the only vegetation that claimed the rocky ground, and many times Jemma had to catch a slender trunk to keep herself from slipping all the way down to the rolling foothills. Eryll was more sure-footed, and sometimes took her hand to assist her. When he did, she would meet his eyes with a shy smile, and he would quickly blush and look away.
After a time—though still not as long as would have been expected, from the distance—the two of them reached a more gently-sloped trail that wound up the side of the mountain, disappearing into a cleft in the stone a couple hundred yards away. The path was wide enough that the two of them could walk side by side. Jemma smiled to herself, well aware that Eryll's fingers were still entwined with hers after her last almost-fall. The wind was stronger this high above the ground, and toyed with her short blonde hair, tossing it into her eyes and then out of them. The young man's dark brown hair was also being disarrayed, but he paid it no heed. As they neared the deep fissure, a black scar against the soft grey granite of the mountain, she felt her heartbeat speed up with excitement, and quickened her pace.
Eryll looked down at her, noticing her expression of eager impatience, and laughed. "Come on, then," he urged, breaking into a run and pulling her along. She grinned, speeding up to keep pace with him. Disregarding the abrupt edge of the path only a yard or two away, they raced up the mountain, both of them laughing and out of breath by the time they reached the cave. With a last burst of speed, Jemma passed him, entering the cavern first and then almost collapsing to the ground with breathless giggles. Eryll leaned against the wall beside her, trying to catch his breath and joining in her merriment. After a few minutes, he reached down his hand to help her stand up and leading her towards the dark depths of the cave that no sunlight reached.
As they approached, a stream of white flame arced overhead, briefly illuminating the entire cave. A deep, rumbling voice came from the same direction of the flame, saying, "Greetings, Ayana and Eryll. Welcome back."
The two teens bowed in greeting, their eyes becoming gradually accustomed to the gloom. They could make out a large, bulky shape some distance away, and a smaller one away to the left. The flames and the voice had come from the direction of the larger figure.
"Greetings, Titan," said Eryll as they straightened up. "You are well?"
"Oh, get on with you, Eryll. You just want to ride, don't you?" interrupted another voice, coming from the direction of the smaller shape in the darkness. This voice was younger and brighter, speaking eagerly.
Jemma smiled. "Yes, Kohl, we want to ride. Do you mind?" This question was directed towards Titan, the senior of the two.
In answer, the two great figures both rose, coming nearer to the two humans and the brighter mouth of the cave. Eryll and Jemma stepped back to let them pass, both of them craning their necks back to see the scaled, equine heads of the dragons as they walked by, each step seeming to jolt the mountain under their feet. Titan was closer, a giant form in deep green scales that glinted like emeralds even in the very dim light. His eyes were the red of a dying star, and seemed to go on forever, and the thick leathery skin between the ribs of his wings were the thin, crystal green of peridot. Kohl was smaller and daintier, but still almost three times Jemma's height at the shoulder. Her scales were the iridescent black of a raven's wing, her eyes a molten silver, and her wings a dull, flat black.
The two of them stopped at almost the entrance of the cave, and simultaneously turned their long necks to look back at the humans. Jemma and Eryll shared a brief grin before hastening towards the great reptiles, she towards Kohl and he towards Titan. The dragons obligingly knelt so that they could mount, each situating themselves between the spines that ran down their backs where the dragons' necks met their shoulders. Another brief, shared smile of exhilaration, and then the dragons both crouched low and then leapt, throwing themselves into the air.
The first moments that they left the ground were the best, and the most terrifying. First there was a drop, when the ground approached with impossible speed, and then the dragons' wings spread wide, catching themselves and letting them soar outwards, away from the cliff face. Jemma's eyes closed as the wind rushed towards her with tremendous force, whisking each breath away and prickling her skin like static. She could feel Kohl’s muscles moving beneath her scaly skin, flexing and rippling as the dragon effortlessly glided through the air with no more than a couple beats of her heavy wings. There was an absolute freedom this far above the ground, a sheer sense of release that took her breath away.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Eryll and Titan, likewise soaring carelessly. As Kohl drifted closer to the larger dragon, Jemma called, “Enjoying yourself?”
“Immensely,” Eryll called back, grinning. After a pause, he added, “You look very pretty today, Ayana.”
She felt herself blush. “I look the same as I do every day.”
Even from this distance, she could see him wink, and the blush that spread over his cheeks as he answered simply, “Exactly.”
Smiling, she looked away to hide her pleased embarrassment. As usually happened when she and Eryll flirted—as they had often done in the year and a half that she’d begun visiting Virtuo, an international network of virtual reality stimulators that connected users from any city, any country—she found herself wishing ever so desperately that this was real. That she was, in real life, the petite, adventurous blonde who voiced her opinions confidently, rather than the pressured, popular brunette whose opinions were never allowed to differ from the majority’s. That the version of herself Eryll knew was the real her, not just Ayana. And that Eryll was real, as well.
No…there was no doubt that Eryll was anything but himself in real life. He couldn’t be anyone if not the smiling, friendly young man she’d grown so close to. The problem was that he might be on the other side of the country, or of the world. It was even possible that he was an AI, a computer player, a mere simulation. Therefore, it was entirely foolish for her to grow attached to him.
But it was hard to help…
The sun was low on the horizon when the two of them arrived back at the meadow where they’d met for the day. Jemma had mentioned being cold, so Eryll had obligingly wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her against her chest. It had been a fulfilling day, a welcome break from daily life, and she was loathe, as always, to return to the real world.
“Well,” she began reluctantly, “goodbye for now, I suppose.”
“Until tomorrow,” he agreed, likewise disappointed that the day had to end. She looked up, meeting his gaze, and rose suddenly on her toes, planting her lips against his briefly.
“Until tomorrow,” she promised, as she felt the tingling of her skin that meant her hour in a world outside her own was over. Her eyes focused on Eryll’s face for a long moment, trying to keep the image of his warm green eyes and messy brown curls locked in her mind. She blinked…
…and was back.
“Thank you for enjoying Virtuo, the world’s leading virtual stimulator! I hope you’ll come again” Jemma raised her head to see the blankly-smiling attendant standing above her. Groggily, as if she’d just woken up from a nap, the girl got to her feet and stepped out of the stimulation pod. Now the two pods that had been occupied when she’d entered were empty, and four or five of the ones that had been dark were now illuminated. She made her way to the changing rooms, getting dressed in almost a daze.
Once dressed, she walked quickly down the hallway, past the main desk and towards the parking lot outside. As she passed, the door of the men’s changing room opened, and a teenage boy with glasses and lifeless brown hair stepped out. He stared after her as she strode past, but she was used to stares.
Eric stared after the departing girl for a moment before shaking his head and leaving the building. He wasn’t sure what it was about her that had prompted his stares; she was pretty, certainly, but so what? It was just that…for a moment…she’d looked almost like Ayana.