He braced for the usual expression of surprise. Unlike many of his peers, Drow made no effort to avoid looking his age. His toon wore a smartly cut suit, but it was drawn over a sim that closely resembled his fleshly vessel, which meant thinning white hair, time-damaged skin, and a look to his face that was conventionally tagged #sunken.
Drow bore hexagonal scars on his temples, stigmata of a generation that had transitioned from external goggles and audio headsets to the first surgically implanted uplinks and biocybernetic augments. The scars were thick, upraised skin, almost a trademark. Many of Drow's Setback generation peers spent precious social capital getting their gogg scars removed. But even if Drow had wanted to pay someone to shoot him full of Superhoomin or give him nanotech skin grafts, it wasn't really on #brand.
He asked, "Do you feel up to telling me your name?"
"Pox. Luce Pox. He-him-his."
"You were referred by Cherubim Whiting?"
"Rubi-advocate-lawyer, she-her pronouns. Also notorious, though less so."
"Uh-huh. You understand we have a familial relationship as well as a collegial one?"
"I should care about that?" Pox cringed, raising both hands as if he expected to be hit.
"You don't have to care; I'm simply disclosing." Pox cracked the shield of fingers. "Truth?"
"Want to tell me why you're here, Mer Pox?"
"Luce. I'm being attacked."
A crawl of gooseflesh, rising on Drow's arms and back.
One of the successes of the Sensorium's often-creepy all-eyes culture was the elimination of interpersonal violence. Tranq drones deployed to the scene of any assault within minutes. Arrest, trial, and conviction—if you hurt someone maliciously—were a same-day service. The destruction of your reputation, as people shared abuse footage, was instantaneous.
Being attacked. The phrase implied repeated incidents.
'So, he's delusional'. "Tell me about that."
"Creeping horror, pain, noise, and I get..." Luce knuckled his temples. "I wake up, afterwards, in one of these...'fausses boItes'?"
'Fausse...what? Oh.' "In a sim?"
"I've been...how to say? Conked out? My datacache riffled."
"You lose consciousness and you wake in Sensorium. On someone's estate?"
"Yes. No. A public lecture theater."
"Where?" Drow asked.
Groaning, Luce produced his datacache, a banged-up safecracker's toolkit. Fists clenched, he stared at it, presumably waiting out an advertisement.
Social cap in the toilet. Typical of Rubi's pet maladjusts.
After fifteen seconds, Luce popped the lid, extracting an iron hoop jangling with keys, and handed one over. "They're free," he apologized.
"It's okay. I've been on Cloudsight's bad side myself." Drow made for the consulting room's door. "You okay to revisit this site?"
Convulsive swallow. "It's a classroom, not an abattoir."
"Glad to hear it." Drow slid the key into the door and opened it. Luce followed, slamming and locking the consulting space behind them as they crossed a metaphorical hallway and walked into a bland, functional room. Plaster slabs the color of sand, ed by unassuming pillars, surrounded a small stage—a speaker's podium, facing row after row of red chairs. The air carried a scent Drow found cloying: citrus and something floral.
"Classroom, huh?" He raised a hand and a textbook dropped into it. 'History of the Sensorium, Level I'.
"It stinks of flowers."
"Orange blossom," Drow agreed. "Stupid, stenchy, choke."
"You can mute smells, you know."
"I didn't." Luce sounded surprised. "Thanks."
A speaker strode to the podium. Her toon was photorealistic but rendered in grayscale. Visual cues for a recording with limited interactivity.
"Lemme see if I've got this," Drow said. "You're having episodes, losing consciousness."
"When you wake up, you're logged into this lecture?"
This excerpt ends on page 19 of the hardcover edition.