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The Value of Friendship

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Lady Deirdre Skye places her index finger on the mane of her knight and slides it up and over. Her finger hovers uncertainly. She doesn’t bother looking up into Zakharov’s face; she knows she’ll find no clues there.

She’s already lost, though. It’s twelve moves away, but Zakharov sees it, and there’s no way for Deirdre to salvage the game at this point. But, she’s getting better, he thinks. Next time, she might win. I would not be surprised.

Chess is only one of many reasons why they’re both here in the Virtual World. Amidst the chaos of politics and the struggle to survive on an alien, hostile world where the remnants of Earth live at odds with both the Planet and each other, friendship and companionship are luxuries that few can afford. This is especially true for people like them: the faction leaders, the names and faces at the forefront of it all, each standing for separate fundamental ideals. Even centuries after Planetfall, humans still can’t stop fighting amongst themselves, even when the living ground beneath their feet is trying to wipe them out like the alien infection they are.

Zakharov moves his bishop, and Deirdre stares at the board. After a minute or so of concentration, she topples her king and leans back with a wry smile.

“Good game,” Zakharov says, and tips the top of his wine glass towards her in acknowledgement.

“Yes, it was.” She returns the gesture, and then sets her glass aside and checks the time on her wristcomm.

“Leaving?” Zakharov asks.

“Nearly,” Deirdre says. “A little while longer and I’ll be late for another meeting, and then we’ll never get the rumors to stop.”

Zakharov laughs. “I think that is already a lost cause.” He shrugs, unconcerned. “Once people come to a solution they like, it is very difficult for them to accept an alternate explanation.”

Deirdre hums in agreement. “Speaking of, when did you first know, anyway?”

Zakharov tilts his head to one side. “Oh, a long time ago. In university. A literature course, actually.” At Deirdre’s raised eyebrow, he chuckles. “I am actually well-rounded, regardless of popular view.”

“Fair enough. So, literature?” Deirdre smiles curiously. “What happened?”

“Oh…” Zakharov sets his glass down and leans back in his chair. His fingers lace together loosely atop his crossed knees. “There was a professor sitting in on the class, just because she really loved the material. I admired her insight most of the time, but one day she said something that I found very peculiar.” Zakharov pauses and closes his eyes for a moment, shifting his mind inward and seeking the blurred colors and grainy sounds of a memory centuries old.

“What did she say?”

Zakharov opens his eyes. “We were discussing a novel. I forget which one, but I do remember that what it did best was…connect to the essence of human nature. Experiences, feelings, moments that everyone can remember having at least once in their life. And there was one instance in which a boy develops a…crush, is it?” Deirdre nods, and Zakharov quirks his smile up at one corner, amused with the term. “A crush on his sibling’s older friend. And over the course of the novel, the boy’s crush develops into something more…adult in nature. And the professor used that as an example—not just once, but several times—of something that everyone can relate to. ‘Everyone remembers the first tingling of desire, the first time they look at someone and want them.’” Zakharov clucks his tongue and shakes his head. “I had wanted to speak up and say that no, I had never had that happen to me. I’d never looked at someone and found myself attracted to them in such a manner.”

Deirdre nods, understanding. “Personally, I can’t imagine life without sex,” she says. “I love it too much. But I bet it’s just as difficult for you to imagine the converse.”

“Precisely. And this, Lady Deirdre, is why we are such good friends!”

“Against all odds,” Deirdre replies, grinning.

“We are both open-minded people in a world where such a quality is still rare. On the contrary, the odds were in our favor,” Zakharov says.

Deirdre laughs. She rises fluidly to her feet, more out of habit than necessity, and steps closer to fold Zakharov in a gentle hug, which he returns. “Same time next week?” she asks.

“Same time next week,” Zakharov says.

They step apart and their forms shimmer as they withdraw their minds back into their physical bodies, another dimension away and hundreds of miles apart. They will be surrounded by questions, by assumptions, and by whispers. The questions they might answer, the assumptions might change, and the whispers might dissipate, but even if they don’t, neither of them will mind overly much. In a world where almost everyone is alone, or afraid, or both, they have each other, and every week they will meet again in a space set apart from the world to celebrate that fact.