Circles.

klein“Jesus Christ, Ned. Doesn’t the privacy lock mean anything anymore?” Otto Bauer was livid.

Ned Ryers glanced at the flashing red Do Not Disturb indicator on his console. The Libidic Energy meter was nearly full scale. “Sorry about that, Otto. Was it Holly again?”

“None of your goddamned business.”

“You know it helps sometimes to talk about it.”

“Not now.”

“I can see you were almost there. It’s just that I thought you’d want to know as soon as it was official.”

“The bastards are pulling the plug, aren’t they?”

“Funding was cut and everything’s being shut down.”

“I go to Iraq and come back with my brain in a bucket. And now they’re taking that.”

“It’s nothing personal, Otto. Money is money. Besides, that’s a pretty fancy bucket you’ve had. The sensory inverters alone were a million apiece. How many guys get to taste and touch and see what they imagine as if it’s really happening?”

Otto’s Mood Indicator shifted toward Contemplative. “How long?”

“A week, a day. Does it really matter?”

Minutes passed before Otto spoke again. “Ned, I know it’s not your fault. You’ve been a good friend. One last favor?”

“Name it.”

“Holly. Just once. I was so close this time.”

“Ned, you know trying to imagine her into existence is impossible. There isn’t room in your neural net for a fully formed second personality.”

“You’re wrong. I know it, I feel it. Holly isn’t just some passing wet dream. I’m sure I can do it.”

“And then?”

“Love. Explosive, consuming, thermo-friggin-nuclear ecstasy. Just once – it’s all I’m asking.”

“How long has it been since you saw her last? How can you possibly remember enough to recreate her?”

“Trust me. There isn’t a hair on her head, a curve to her smile I don’t remember. I can do this.”

“Then why hasn’t it happened?”

“I get so close. Our lips touch, I feel her fingers on the back of my neck, our bodies start moving together – and then something stops us.”

“What?”

“I don’t know. It’s as if there’s a secret – something that keeps us apart.”

“A secret?”

“I can recreate every part of Holly’s body, every thought in her mind. I know every feeling, every fear and desire. All but one dark thing. One thing stands between us.”

“I don’t know how to…” Ned Ryer felt a jolt. “Damnit! Doesn’t the privacy lock mean anything anymore?”

Holly Costa looked at the flashing red light on her console. “I’m sorry, Ned. It’s just that I thought you’d want to know. Otto said they told him to shut everything down today. Lights out.”

Otto Bauer reached for the red handle on the main circuit breaker…

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