Today's Reading

CHAPTER ONE

The trick is remembering that it's all a game. Somewhere along the way I seem to have forgotten that. I don't even know what the rules are anymore.

"So, the rules are very simple," Travis says, smiling as he shuffles the playing cards. "We each start with ten cards and—" He fumbles, scattering a few of them across the table. He laughs, dragging them back into a pile. "This is harder to do in real life than in mersives."

Travis brushes a lock of auburn hair back from his face, one that is too handsome to be believable in real life. He looks like he should be a nonplayer character in a mersive, the sort a creative director would choose as the dangerous lover in a spy story. Or the romantic lead in some soft porn made for lonely hearts. And I can see how looking that way has made Travis's life easier. How he merely chuckles at his own ineptitude rather than rushing to hide or downplay it.

"Right, let's try that again. Beggar-my-neighbor is a really easy game in which..." He pauses, looking across the table at Carl. "Are you with us, Carl?"

Carl is resting his chin on his hand, eyes glazed over. His black hair, still thick even though he's in his forties, is now peppered with gray.

It's like he's aged ten years in the last six months and lost a stone in weight that he really needed to keep on him. Poor bastard. I've known him for over twenty years now and I've never seen him look this bad. Not even when we were being hot-housed.

He blinks. "Yeah, sorry. Just a bit tired."

"Have you eaten?" Travis asks softly.

Carl just glares at him.

"We're worried about you, Carl," Travis says. "Aren't we, Dee?"

Inwardly, I groan. This is not the way to handle Carl. There 'is' no way to handle Carl when it comes to his hang-ups about printed food. And dragging me into this is not going to help either.

I look at Carl, then back at Travis. "Don't bring me into this."

"Into what?" they both say at exactly the same time.

"Into this"—I wave my hands at them—"intervention."

"Eh?" Travis cocks a perfectly shaped eyebrow at me. "This is just a card game, Dee."

"No, it isn't," Carl says to me. "This is, an intervention, but one for you, not for me."

Carl directs another glare at Travis. "At least, that's what I was told."

Travis sighs, resting the pack of cards in the palm of one hand. "I'm worried about you too, Dee. I just thought that spending some time playing something easy and relaxing together would be good for you."

I fold my arms and sit back. "And there was me thinking you had a sudden hankering to play shitty old games in a state-of-the art spaceship. I thought you might have found it funny or something."

"Well, I did have a 'sudden hankering' to play it," he says with a shrug. "I was playing a mersive and there was this family and they were playing beggar like my gran—" He waves a hand. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that you haven't played mersives with us for...months. You keep canceling plans. And when we finally persuade you to come and join us, you drop out."

"He has a point," Carl says, his voice softer. "We haven't shot the shit out of stuff on Mars since...since a long time ago."

How much is held, left unsaid, in that pause. And the irony is, the thing he won't say, that he is skirting around like an arachnophobe locked in a room with a tarantula, is the reason I don't play games anymore.

But I won't say it either. I can't. So I end up just sitting there, staring at my best friend and his sort-of lover, none of us mentioning the thing that is slowly killing us.

"I just haven't fancied it," I finally say, drenching the words in nonchalance in the hope the two of them will just slide off and we'll talk about something else.
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