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Green Star Lounge, Los Angeles, California, Pacifica
Carina awakens with a gasp and bites down a curse.
An alarm bleeps in the Zeal lounge. The clock on the flickering wallscreen tells her she’s woken two hours earlier than she should have. The room is small and close, a little grimy. All it contains is a Chair, the Zeal machine, and its body monitors. Carina paid extra for a private room with money she doesn’t have to spare.
An orderly buzzes the door and steps in, his white lab coat stained about the cuffs. “700628,” he says, confused. “Why are you awake?”
“Your guess is as good as mine,” Carina replies. “Put me back in.”
The orderly shakes his head. His hair is short and buzzed, and he’s thin enough that she can see the shape of his skull beneath his skin. “If you’ve been booted out early, there’s a reason. Something’s off. It’ll need to reset, and you should stay out of the Zealscape for at least twelve hours.”
Carina knows something is wrong—that last dream of the girl on the table wasn’t hers, and couldn’t have been. It felt … unfinished, somehow. Like there should be more. Between that and not getting her proper fix, she wants—needs—to go right back in.
She gives the orderly a look that makes him pause. “Reach in my left pocket,” she says. Her wrists are still restrained to stop her from lashing out in the dreams and hurting herself.
The orderly reaches into her pocket, his hand grazing her hip bone. He takes out a handful of credit chips. Enough to buy himself a very nice vat-grown steak dinner at a restaurant downtown.
“Put me back in,” she says, her voice low. The white-clad orderly only knows Carina as 700628. He doesn’t know her name, who she used to be, what she used to do before she lost it all to Zeal. He knows enough about what she does in her dreams that his eyes skitter away from hers.
He knows Carina wouldn’t mind killing him. Slowly.
The orderly shrugs. “Your call, I guess.” He preps another syringe.
Carina has to be reminded of her body while she waits. She lies back on the Chair, its plastic covering crinkling. She smells and hasn’t showered in almost a week, hasn’t eaten in two days, and lost her third tooth yesterday (was it yesterday?), spitting it out into the sink. She can’t remember if she washed it away or if it’s still there.
Zeal addiction is not for the faint-hearted.
She stares at the top of the orderly’s head. Quicker, quicker.
He restarts the machine, the air filling with the comforting whirs and clicks she knows so well. He plunges the needle into the crook of her arm, one more mark out of many. She’ll have to get a vein port put in soon. As the Zeal takes hold, her eyes roll up into her head.
“Sweet dreams,” the orderly says, voice flat, already turning away.
Though she yearns for her own personal heaven and hell in the Zealscape, as she does every time, a little part of her hopes she’ll never wake up.
It’d be so much easier that way.
Copyright © 2017 by Laura Lam