Skating Without Streetlights
By Tina Connolly
“I’m home!” called Mila. She closed the door with her foot and tossed her bike helmet onto the living room couch, even as her mom’s regular admonition to pick up her stuff echoed in her memory. She was headed straight out again to do something, anything. Just as soon as she dragged her sister away from that digital cubbyhole she called a life. “Layana?”
No answer. Mila took the stairs two at a time and burst through her sister’s door. “No argument this time, sis, I’m dying to get out and see real people—are you okay?”
Instead of her sister’s usual place within her VR sphere, hands whirling to touch a million invisible screens, Layana was huddled in bed, lights off. “Migraine,” she whispered from her huddle. “No talk loud.”
“Aah, I’m sorry,” Mila whispered back. She tiptoed to her sister’s bedside, scooped up a pile of VR glasses and gloves from a chair, and sat down. “Can I get you anything? Water? Ibuprofen?”
“Had it,” Layana said. Then: “Oh, crud, you’re home. What time is it?”
“Almost four. Why?”
“Hospital volunteering,” whispered Layana. “I have to sit up….” A finger twitched. “How far did I get?”
“You are not getting up. I’ll text in sick for you.”
“Some of those kids are in there for weeks. Months. The least I can do is read to them. They tell me how much they look forward to it.”
“Looking like that?”
“My avatar won’t look sick,” retorted Layana. She twitched a whole hand this time before letting it rest.
“No amount of software can turn you into a functional human being right now, you stubborn pile of stubbornness,” said Mila, gesturing with the glasses to make her point. “You’d have to be a human, and not a mule—”
Layana’s eyes flew open, brown eyes meeting brown, as the same thought presumably occurred to both of them. “Yes,” she said.
“You’re not only a human, you’re my sister. We’re a similar build, have similar voices. The software will work fine. You can read to my kids.”
“I don’t like VR meets, Layana! You know that.” After the pandemics, followed by the oil restrictions, most stuff had shifted permanently online. It was great for someone like Layana, who thrived online. But Mila wanted to see people. Talk to them face to face. It was why she biked an hour across town to attend one of their city’s last physical high schools.
“Give me…the glasses…then.” Layana said in her most pitiful voice, closing her eyes again.
“OMG drama queen,” said Mila. She nerved herself, even though everything told her to run screaming back to her bike. “I’ll do it. But you have to promise to come out with me next time. As yourself, not, like, sending a drone with your face or something.”
“Deal,” said Layana. She waved a finger at Mila. “Now go.”
A few minutes later, Mila was all set up. Layana had fingerprinted her in, and now she was on her own bed with Layana’s equipment. “Here goes nothing,” she said, and only winced a little bit when she heard her sister’s voice in the feedback loop through her earbud, saying her words.
Mila was familiar with the interface, but she’d never done it as someone else. It took some getting used to, seeing her sister’s face in the feedback tab, walking and talking in sync with her motions. She adjusted the controls to project extra empathy, so the avatar would smile more, open her arms more often, even if she forgot and huddled into a tense grimacing ball on the bed.
The hospital’s virtual meetup room was a nice space—an open meadow, soft and green. Kids popped onto the virtual lawn with their chosen avatars—their own faces and bodies, but dressed in whatever outlandish costumes they’d dreamed up.
The old panic filled her chest. All these unfamiliar avatars, and she didn’t know what they expected.
“It’s Layana time!” hollered a small wizard.
“Layay, read the flamingo book!” shouted a fluffy birb.
Mila breathed. Okay. She could do this. These kids already loved Layana, and she could relax into her sister’s image, her sister’s voice, her sister’s adoring fans.
Mila followed Layana’s notes and read twenty minutes of picture books to the littles, then twenty minutes of adventure books to the bigger kids. Layana was right—the kids were bouncy and happy to see her, though her body remained tense. Still. She was helping her sister.
She pulled up a side tab as the second session wound down. The final stop was a one-on-one with a patient named Avery, pronouns she/her.
Layana’s only note about Avery was “mad.”
At exactly 4:40, the kids popped out, waving their byes, and a solitary figure popped into view.
A teenage girl in a hospital bed.
Avery had apparently chosen to make her avatar look exactly like her hospital self. And, judging by her avatar, she was in traction.
Mila’s body clenched. No rapport to fall back on this time.
“So, uh,” said Mila. “Not a fan of Dashing Darlene and the Space Squids from Saturn, are we?”
“I am, actually,” retorted the girl. “But no one invited me to the read-along.”
“I’ll, uh, let them know for next time,” said Mila. This was off to a great start.
She moved closer to Avery’s virtual bed, all her muscles tense. More than ever, she wished she was actually at the hospital. How could she assess what Avery might be feeling when it was cloaked behind a layer of software subterfuge? For all she knew, this girl might have set her controls to project extra anger, or detachment, or anything. Heck, she might not even be in traction at all.
Avery blinked at her.
Even the blinks seemed mad.
“So are you here to tell me that VR life is super great and awesome and I’ll never wanna go back?” Avery said sourly. “That I can do all my tricks online and it’s totally just the same?”
“OMG, tell me about it,” said Mila immediately. She was so thrilled to find common ground that the words just spilled out. “Thank god for my bike. I can just, get out. Be in a crowd of other bikes, going down the same real streets together. I can’t get my sister to see how great it is. And my mom is stuck in the old days when it was scary to bike because of all the cars. She rides more on our home generator bike than on actual streets. She and my sister would be totally happy living their entire lives in VR.”
Avery, who’d been looking at her more and more closely throughout this sudden rant, narrowed her eyes. “You’re…not Layana, are you?”
Mila’s stomach bottomed out. The familiar beats of panic rose in her throat. Was this going to affect her sister’s volunteering? Would the hospital be mad? How mad? “What gave it away?”
“Don’t get me wrong, she’s a good person and all,” said Avery. “But she was all chirpy trying to sell me on VR and I hate that crap. Plus she kept saying she had a sister who was just like me and hated it, like that would make us bond or something. I was just like, bring me the sister then.”
Mila blushed. “She has a migraine and I offered to help. Please don’t tell.”
“Lol, I’m not a narc,” said Avery. She glanced around at her casts. “Wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t been sneaking out to skate at night, when there’s no dudes hogging the ramps.” She glanced at Mila. “Not my fault. The park lights went out. And, er. Also I kept going.”
“You—skate at night? I have a giant lightning bolt scar from biking at night.” She held out Layana’s arm to show, then blushed again as she realized how dumb that was.
Avery, thankfully, ignored the unblemished arm. “It’s a rush,” she said. “Trying something you’ve never done. Know what I mean?”
Her eyes met Mila’s. “I’ve never done this,” Mila said in a rush. “Trading faces, I mean. I never do VR if I don’t have to for school or therapy or whatever.”
“Honestly I have anxiety when I can’t be there in person, picking up on every micro-reaction. The tech has gotten so good, but…it’s not the same. Layana says it’s way better than real life because you can be side-googling people and buffering your social cues that way but dear god I don’t want to always be side-googling.”
“Some people make it an art form,” said Avery.
From there, the conversation picked up speed, careened around corners, took giant leaps into wild topics. Until finally Avery stopped in the middle of a description of the most embarrassing trick she’d ever botched and looked up at Mila. “Do you look like your sister? I’m trying to imagine.”
“Somewhat.” Mila side-googled herself until she found a pic she liked, the one of her biking down the dirt ramp in the park (she looked athletic and marginally cool, she thought, if not as cool as a nighttime skateboarder), and flashed it over.
Avery’s eyes lit up. “Oh, awesome. Wish I were doing that right now. Maybe in six weeks.”
“Yes!” said Mila. “I’ll show you my favorite spot—” she stopped. That was an awful lot of presumption on her part. Would Avery want to spend any more time with a random hospital volunteer?
“What?” The avatar went still, like Avery had pulled back, wary.
“Um. I mean. Where are you located? I didn’t even ask my sister which hospital this was.” Maybe Avery lived on the other side of the continent.
“Yeah, we’re local,” said Avery, and then her avatar was moving again, lively and easy. “I’m by Maple Park.”
Forty minutes the opposite direction from her school. Nice flat bike-only streets the whole way, near a good froyo place. Totally doable.
The timer on the side of her field of vision, which had been blinking insistently for some time now, made the entire world flash red.
“OMG, I went twenty minutes over,” Mila said.
Avery looked up at Mila. “You know, maybe VR hangs aren’t so bad,” she said. “At least for, oh, the next five and a half weeks.”
Mila had been thinking the same thing. Maybe her sister was right. When else would she have met Avery? Somewhere along the way all the tension had drained away, replaced by a new kind of feeling. Something different. Something…nice?
“Would you—could I come back and see you?” said Mila.
“I’ll be mad if you don’t,” said Avery frankly.
Mila grinned. “It’s a plan, then.” She stood. “I’d stay longer, but I need to check on my sister.”
Avery raised a lazy eyebrow. “Do you think she really has a migraine?”
“Of course she—” Mila stopped. “If she doesn’t, I’ll kill her,” she said. “No, wait. The best payback is dragging her out of the house. To see corporeal people.”
Avery laughed. “Oh, and Mila?”
“Come as yourself next time,” she said with a grin. “I want to see that scar.”
Updated June 30, 2020: This story was revised to remove references to the Harry Potter universe.
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books and the Seriously Wicked series from Tor Teen. Her stories and novels have been finalists for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. She is one of the co-hosts of Escape Pod, and runs the Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast Toasted Cake.
Watch Tina Connolly and Baltu Technologies Chief Technology Officer Dennis Bonilla in a virtual conversation about “Skating Without Streetlights”