Lightning flickered in the edges of Xiaolou's peripheral vision, remnants of dreamtime. Physical nerves, subverted during the months she'd spent in dreamtime, flared as her brain relinquished the hold of the virtual signals. Pain her top-of-the-line gear–platinum-core neural adapter, bio-salts nutritional system, and muscle maintenance chair–should have eliminated. Her head throbbed. She wanted her money back.
She waited. The lightning cleared, but the room remained dark, no blinking LEDs from her hardware, no sullen light from the eco-bulbs, no photons whatsoever. The darkness was accompanied by a lack of sound as if the virtual gear had burned out her physical senses. But no, that was false. Her hands caressed the faux leather of her chair, the restraining chains falling loose, clacking against the chrome supports. No juice. No electricity.
Muqin, her mother and a member of the moonlight tribe, spared no expense, which explained her gear. But also, explained the lack of energy. Muqin's overspending crimped Xiaolou's style.
She wasn't a helpless invalid in realtime unlike most of her contemporaries. The rubber of the maintenance chair's full-bodysuit snapped as she extricated herself. She felt her way from the parlor where Muqin kept Xiaolou's well-used chair and Muqin's own seldom used chair to the kitchen and public room. She found a candle and matches.
Visual sensory input helped shunt her migraine into a mere annoyance. Their rare-earth teak table drowned beneath a sea of boutique bags, recycled cellophane draped out the tops of each of them like an over-spenders seaweed. She'd never understand why Muqin wasted money on all these goods. Dreamtime provided everything one desired.
It was all good to have fended for oneself in realtime, but Muqin was known for month-long splurges before heading home. Xiaolou could not afford to wait for Muqin to arrive and discover the bounced facilities bill.
No. Xiaolou needed back in dreamtime. She needed to shepherd her realms before the wolves, other participants, detected her absence and acquired her creations, mutating them into their own needs. She'd require months to undo the damage if she didn't get back.
Outside, a full moon filtered through clouds. It didn't have the same effect as it did in virtuality, the moon was small, shriveled, and the light barely enough to provide more than a brighter spot in the clouds. She flicked a wrist at one of the streetlamp kiosks, but the low-power e-ink display blinked that she had no cash. Resigned, she made do with the dim light of the moon and the spill of waste light from people living in outer apartments.
She stopped under the awning of a dreamtime café. Over its white-washed walls, a thick bundle of cables fed up from the ground. The cables were joined by a second pair threaded from the café's roof and satellite feed. Satellites provided a horrible lag when joining national dreamtime networks, but they were the highest bandwidth option for overseas operations. Dreamtime cafés, appealing to the largest clientele possible, usually stocked both types of uplinks.
The door's kiosk blinked red when she tried to enter and refused her credit.
Unlike most of the dream tribe, she knew her history, knew that in the beginning, people had thought all bits should be free. Opensource collectives had provided software for free. Dozens of companies provided free web-based e-mail and storage. But, IP laws changed all of that. Capitalists smelled gold in them thar virtual hills.
She stared at the satellite dish. She sighed. Laggy connections stole the fun from dreamtime. Although she could concoct a raw shunt into her neural cortex from the satellite, without nutritional and muscle maintenance systems she'd really feel the withdrawal next time.
She shrugged and shimmied up the twisted bundle of cables to the roof. She wedged herself into a position where she wouldn't fall and patched herself into dreamtime. A girl had to feed her addiction.