Having said previously to quite a number of people that I wouldn't write a sequel to AFK, last year I wrote a sequel to AFK. I enjoyed doing this way more than I expected and so this year I'm going to write during NaNoWriMo a third novel in the series. It's pure indulgence on my part, but then what is writing if indulgence doesn't figure anywhere?
Here is the opening section.
“Got you,” said Inch Sideways, as she left.
In a way, you could say that it was Inch who turned me into a murderer in the first place. I mean, it’s not like I’d even contemplated killing anyone before I met her, aside from the occasional (and entirely understandable) desire to slaughter in cold blood the odd politician here and there. And it’s hardly the case that, having done the deed once, I would go on to murder again. I like to think that I’m no more likely to kill a second person than anyone I pass on the street is likely to kill their first.
So I fell in love with her. I fell in love with her after a single night. Can I be blamed for that? Last time I checked, falling in love wasn’t exactly a cognitive decision-making process. When someone like Inch comes along – someone who upturns the table and everything on it – you either recoil from the emotional shock and run as fast as you can in the opposite direction, or your curiosity gets the better of you and you make the fatal error of pausing to look more closely for a moment; next thing you know, your eyes are doing that swirly, hypnotised thing and it feels like they’re being pulled out of your soul. What I’m saying is it’s an involuntary reaction. Some part of one person snaps into place with some part of the other and, from that point on, it’s not about whether you’re in love with them, it’s entirely about what you’re going to do about the fact that you are.
Can I be blamed any more than a bee can be blamed for its attraction to flowers that I saw that night in Inch Sideways everything I wanted and everything I’d always imagined had to exist somewhere in a single human being? There she was, my very own Higgs-Boson, realised in the prims and pixels of Second Life®. Finding that your hypothetical ideal somebody really does exist is more than a moment of happiness, more even than a moment of love: it is, quite simply, the moment of ratification, the sigh of relief that you don’t have to discard the way you have personally constructed happiness all these years, that the wait was worth it, that you were right to think all those well-meaning nudgers towards John from IT or Mary from finance could go fuck themselves.
A single night. “Forget me,” she said at the end of it, “and you go straight to hell, ok?” There was no possible way I could ever have forgotten Inch Sideways. It was almost a year before I saw or heard anything from her again, and I pretty much spent all of that time trying somehow or another to cope with what she’d awoken in me. I tried everything I could think of, including breaking the heart of a beautiful person along the way in the futile hope that I might transpose my love for Inch onto her, but Inch had somehow hard-wired herself into me and all I could ultimately do was get used to how it felt to be alive with a little bit missing.
Then, out of the blue, she appeared again, tapping me on the virtual shoulder at some Egyptian-themed club and asking me for a dance. It was like the restoration of air to my lungs. I still remember how deliriously happy I felt that evening, even when I turned down that dance to go to work in RL. She was back and she had sought me out, and that tiny little piece of happenstance information danced in my head all night and meant more to me than any other fact I had possession of.
I didn’t know at that point why it was she’d spent fifty weeks out of SL. To be honest, I didn’t really care. But that night, whilst I served pizzas with an inanely cheerful grin to customers I’d ordinarily have considered scowling at a wasted facial effort, she talked about her year to my SL business partner, Step Stransky, the decision-making half of the Step Stransky Second Life Detective Agency. She told him about the death of her husband and little boy on the day following my encounter with her, and Step, supposedly because he’d suffered his own personal loss a few years earlier, knew exactly how to listen to her. The next day, I logged on to discover that the two of them had become partnered in the intervening twelve hours, and that was the moment when my world collapsed around me.
Did Inch turn me into a murderer? No sane person would ever consider unrequited love a justification for killing someone; of course they wouldn’t. But even now it staggers me that she didn’t think for one moment that partnering Stransky within hours of meeting him might have some sort of emotional impact on me. I’m not saying she should or could have guessed that I was in love with her – if the situation had been reversed, I wouldn’t have supposed that for a second (frankly, I’d have laughed at the very idea); but come on: the last time we’d met, we’d fucked; didn’t that earn me even the littlest of pauses? Was I really so far out of her mind that it never even occurred to her that jumping into the arms of my so-called best friend was lacking just a little in tact?
Of course I was. The night Inch Sideways met Step Stransky was her first night back in the metaverse; her recollection of the previous one was likely to be less anything to do with me and more that it was the very last time her man and her baby had been alive and safe and nearby. But I didn’t know that at the time. In fact, it was months before she finally told me what had happened to her during that absence.
I have to ask myself – still – what it was about Step’s listening skills that was so unbelievably amazing that she submitted to him so completely by the end of a single night. I have to keep on reminding myself that, at the start of the evening, he was a total stranger to her. And I have to ask myself what it was about my own presentation that – clearly – put me somehow in a whole league below him. I’d be the first to admit that the rather amateur edge to my role playing skills was on full display during my night with Inch, but has anyone ever judged someone’s ability to listen and console based solely on their ability to communicate in fictional paragraphs – and an ability previously experienced nearly a year ago at that? Did I really come across that badly that it was inconceivable she could share her pain with me? And if I did, why did she bother with that tap on the shoulder when she could have just turned around and left? Why speak to me at all if I’d left such a hopeless impression?
It never occurred to me until now to be angry at Inch for any of this. Actually, that’s not true – all of these points occurred to me before, but it was abstract information then, like the knowledge that I’m moving all the time at over sixty thousand miles per hour due to the Earth’s orbit around the sun. I knew these things, but they affected me no more than I become dizzy from the Earth’s rotation: I just didn’t feel them.
But I feel them now.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yes…
“Got you,” said Inch Sideways, as she left.