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art by Melissa Mead

Virtually Human

Melanie Rees lives in the Australian bush in a house made of straw, which she shares with four cats, three magpies, two frogs, one husband, and no dogs. When she isnít tending to her menagerie of animals, she writes speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Daily Science Fiction, Penumbra and Cosmos online. More information on her work can be found at flexirees.wordpress.com.

The curtains billowed as a cold gust swept through the open window. Unknown voices whispered on the breeze with a metallic tincture, sending chills down Miranda's spine.
"Someone's out there," she said.
"Ignore it." The teenage boy snuggled next to her on the bed, held up one of the pills and popped it into his mouth. "No one's out there. No one is here except you and me." A grin crept across his sculpted cheeks. Orange sculpted cheeks. Cheeks that shone.
Confused, Miranda peered upwards. The fluorescent light flickered with an amber glow. Next to her, the desk-lamp flashed orange. Did that mean something? A nagging sensation lingered in the back of her mind.
"Trust me." His silken voice interrupted her thoughts.
"Um, I don't..." Miranda stumbled over her words. She gazed into his eyes, then at the small bag of pink pills in his outstretched palm. "I can't..."
As she hesitated, he glanced at the teddy bear perched on the pillows. Miranda shuffled over on the bed to conceal her embarrassment and tried to squish her teddy bear under the quilt.
"I do trust you," she began. "It's just that Mum would be angry if she ever found out."
His eyebrow shot up with an accusation of cowardice.
"Is it getting cold in here?" she asked, trying to divert his attention. "It definitely feels colder. Someone must've turned off the heat." Miranda rubbed her arms and wandered to the open window. Across the park, the traffic lights blazed amber. Horns blared as cars banked up at the intersection. "Curious," she mused. "Traffic lights must be broken." Miranda tried to pull the window closed but its surface seemed frictionless and the latch slid through her fingers.
"Don't worry about that." He got up and walked towards her, his rugged frame filling her view. "I'll keep you warm."
More than anything, Miranda wanted him to hold her in his strong arms and keep her warm, but downstairs she knew her mum would be tinkering in the kitchen. Any second now, she would be calling out for Miranda to help set the table.
"Well?" His seductive voice probed her thoughts. He showed her the pink pills again. "These will keep you warm." As he spoke, his body seemed to quiver. Or was it the background that moved? They blurred together.
Miranda rubbed her eyes and tried to refocus. "What does the drug feel like?"
"Like all your memories and emotions flooding back at once. It's invigorating. Come on, you know you want to try it. It's way better than virtual book."
Virtual-book? The phrase triggered something deep down, but he smiled and all she could think of was losing herself in his arms. She stood on tiptoes and gazed into his eyes. Taking a deep breath, she pressed her lips to his and felt nothing but air. She held up her hand to his cheek and it passed through his smooth skin. Virtual book, she thought. And then the pieces fell into place.
Blasted haptic configurations. "Mum!" Miranda raced to the bedroom door and yelled down the stairway. "Mum! What have you done?"
Footsteps thumped up the wooden staircase.
"You gotta go," said Miranda.
He stood unresponsive.
"Blast." Miranda hit the red button on her virtual-book wristband. "End program." He fizzled out of sight just as her mum appeared in the doorway.
Miranda's mum patted down her ginger hair, pulled so taut into a bun that it stretched out her crow's feet. "What are you yapping about, Miranda?"
"You've been interfering with my v-book set up. You disabled the tactile settings."
Her mum sighed. "How long have you been on that infernal machine? And why aren't you doing your homework?" She padded across the room, hands on hips, her floral apron flapping in the breeze from the window. "Why is Mr. Biggles squashed between your pillows?" She fluffed them up and repositioned Miranda's teddy bear in the middle of her bed, his beady-buttoned eyes gazing absently at the ceiling.
"Stop interfering. It's my v-book. Get your own life and stay outta mine." Miranda sat on the bed and folded her arms over her chest, hoping her mum would take the hint and leave.
"You're on that machine far too often. You need sunshine. You need to visit your real friends. And you need to do your homework." Her mum picked up Miranda's textbooks and plonked them on the bed next to her. "You're in too deep," she said.
"Huh? Deep where? He isn't even real and it's not like the drugs would..." The words spilled out of Miranda's mouth before she could stop them.
"Drugs! He! Who is he? Miranda, what have you been doing? Oh dear, Lord. How many times have I warned you--"
"Stop it, mother. He's not real. And besides, it's none of your business."
"None of my business! You're my daughter. As long as you are living under my roof, it is my business."
"Shut up!" Miranda stood. "Get out of my room. You can't control me."
"It's my house and my room. And as long as you're living under my roof you will do as you're told." She walked up to Miranda. "Go downstairs and do your homework." She pointed to the door.
Miranda shook her head. Anger caught in her throat and refused to let her speak.
"No ifs or buts. Just do it. In my day I would have never disobeyed my mother."
Miranda faced her mum head on, staring into her eyes. "In your day! In your day, the fish were growing legs. In your day, monkeys decided to come down from the trees."
"Miranda, stop--"
"In your day, Dad would still be here."
Miranda saw her mum's palm approaching her cheek. And felt nothing. "Wha--why?" asked Miranda.
"Emergency battery power critical." A faint metallic voice echoed from outside.
"Did you say something?" asked Miranda.
Her mum stood motionless with a thin-lipped smile.
Outside, horns flared in an unusually high pitch. Miranda raced to the window. The traffic lights had turned red. Beside her, the desk lamp blazed red as well. The walls glimmered in the light as if the air had started to bleed.
"Mum, what's going on?"
"You're in too deep." Her mum spoke without moving her mouth. Her ginger hair and floral apron seemed to fade and then she fizzled out of existence. Whirring resonated from somewhere outside and everything went dark.
Miranda gasped and opened her eyes to blackness. In front of her, a panel of lights flashed from orange to red.
"Virtual-book backup power critical. Plug in or recharge batteries to continue. Virtual-book backup power..." A metallic voice echoed throughout the room with a continual plea.
Miranda's eyes adjusted to the dark, and she realized she was in the basement. The virtual-book visor hovered over her head. Miranda lifted the visor and felt for the button on her wristband. "End program."
The metallic voice ceased but the room remained dark.
There was no response. Miranda's stomach ached with hunger. Goose bumps prickled her arms.
Giddy, she stood and walked to the staircase. With hands outstretched, she flicked the light switch, but the basement remained dark.
Miranda opened the door to the living room and felt on the sideboard for the torch.
Shadows danced as the circle of light scanned the room. The torch fell upon smoke rising from an ashtray. Behind the mist, her mum looked like a statue.
"Mirry, is 'at you, baby?" Her gaunt cheeks barely moved as she spoke.
"The lights? Have you paid the power bill?"
"Huh?" Her mother's eyes shone wide and bright. She slouched down in the sofa, her tangled web of red hair hung limp and lifeless. "Mirry, ya get me 'nother drink," she slurred, waving an empty bottle of gin.
"Mum, the power?"
Her mother slumped down further into the cushions on the couch and for a second, Miranda thought she might have slipped away.
Miranda stepped closer. "Mum, are you still awake?" Her mum's skin looked pale, insipid in the torchlight. Miranda leaned forward and listened for signs of life. A faint breath cooled her ear and she smelled the stale mix of alcohol and smoke. Miranda prodded her mum's shoulder.
Her mum groaned and then collapsed back down into her drunken stupor.
"Mum!" yelled Miranda.
"Mirry... what's up?" She brushed her red hair from her eyes. "How long ya been 'ere?"
"I'm going out now."
Her mum held up the bottle. "Dere's cash ona sideboard."
Desperate for a response, Miranda tried to think of something to set her off. "I'm going out now--with my boyfriend."
"Dats nice, baby." She lifted the bottle to her lips before realizing it was empty. It slipped from her fingers, landing on the carpet with a thud. Her mum staggered to the kitchen, colliding with the coffee table and bookcase on her way.
"Mum?" The clanking of cupboard doors and glasses in the sink drowned out Miranda's voice.
Despondent, Miranda returned to the basement and started the generator. The panel lights flickered green as the battery recharged and the virtual-book whirred into action. She settled back into the seat and pulled down the visor.
"Reconfigure all tactile, olfactory, and visual settings," she said. The visor ran through neural-stimuli and she felt pinpricks on each of her fingers. Pain never felt so good. "Run program K4," she said, pressing the button on the VB wristband.
The machine responded and hummed melodically.
A second later, the charred smell of Sunday roast wafted into the air. Miranda breathed deep. It smelled so real.
"For goodness sake, Miranda!" She heard her mum complaining, as the surroundings came into focus. Her mum stood by the sink, a lime green apron wrapped around her waist, her hair wrapped neatly in a bun. "How many times do I have to ask you to help with the dishes?" She tilted her head towards the pile of plates by the sink, waving a dishcloth in her hand.
Miranda smiled, savoring her mum's high-pitched chorus of reprimands and lectures.
"It's no laughing matter, Miranda! I've been slaving over the stove while you've been gallivanting around God knows where and--"
"Stop fussing." Miranda reached for the sponge and her fingers rested on her mum's hand--perfectly configured. "I'll do them."
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, September 17th, 2013
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