by Dustin Kennedy
Originally published in Compelling Science Fiction.
Tav grimaced as he pulled the bow tie into a knot, finally, on the third attempt, getting it right. It was all about proportion. He fluffed the ends, straightening them in the reflection of the mirror. It felt like a garrote, the slight pressure invoking a faint gagging sensation that would be with him the rest of the evening. Not that wearing a tuxedo was the only thing that was weighing on him. The whole event was just so much shit.
William and he had been cofounders of a startup whose immersive reality technology had later become the cornerstone of the world’s premier spiritual path, VisionQuestTM. They’d both reaped the rewards when the public offering occurred, and had enjoyed years of affiliation with a hugely successful – and one might now even daresay ubiquitous – brand. But still. It was always William who had shone the brighter of the two.
And so now the career achievement award was going to William, of course. They were holding the gala at his home, an extensive sprawling estate on the outskirts of the city. It would take the car ages to get him there, so he had to leave annoyingly early. It was simply not the type of affair where telepresence sufficed.
Not that Tav would miss the damn thing, by any means. Getting left off the invitation list would have been the one thing worse than hearing the others fawn over William all night. Now that everyone was living the virtual, authentically being was everything.
Why, when Tav himself had been a boy, every moment of life had been distinct, more or less. Sure there was replication of experience. One billion identical burgers sold, and all of that. Laughable to think that people once felt constrained by those early harbingers of the way things were now. The last time he’d checked, their standard VisionQuestTM entry had more unique users than that, per day. Imagine that. Their virtual experience was designed to evoke a sensation of spiritual clarity, of insight. Morons. If that many people liked something, it was defacto revealed to be false, to break the chain of persuasion. It should not be possible to discuss an experience so deeply personal with one’s office circle, family, or neighbors. But that is what life had evolved, or rather devolved, into.
The great bulk of humanity was nothing more than a herd of bland banality.
He glanced at his wristwatch.
“Shelly, are you ready?”
“Yes, dear,” called the voice of his wife, who was dressing in her room on the other side of the house. The audio connection perfectly captured the purr in her voice.
“I’ll meet you downstairs, then.”
Tav gave himself one more glance in the mirror. Despite thirty years of trying, he’d never quite managed to shake the pinched, ferrety quality from his demeanor. Nobody had dared tell him so for a very long time, but he knew it clear as day. He looked like a spiv.
“We’ll be taking the Lux. Bring it around front, please.”
The car pulled in through the gate, having secured the proper security credentials from the invitation. They had ridden in silence, enjoying the ability to be still in one another’s company without awkwardness. It was one of marriage’s finest qualities, and only came with time.
The Lux glided up the drive, pulling to a stop at the portico. It was a grand house, very handsome, especially with the windows lit with dancing LED sprites. The car would know where to park itself, but there was a human butler waiting to greet them. It was an elegant touch, Tav had to admit. He was not against the things that William stood for, and could admire his rival’s taste even as he despised the man himself.
It was frankly a minor relief that there were so many others in attendance, despite his normal aversion to crowd experiences. For security reasons, no one was wearing augmentation, which meant that contrary to a typical experience, everything one saw was present. Literally. It was enough to make the décor passably noteworthy in its abundance.
Shelly briefly departed, returning with two flutes of good quality Champagne. Tav felt his mood lift while he considered the effervescence as it danced on his tongue. If he had to guess, it was a 2012. The last exceptional vintage before the region’s climate had shifted.
For Tav, this was a form of travel more convincing than any of the VR/MR scripts he had ever tried. Of course, one could jaunt, via the virtual, to almost any designated cityscape in the world, find out what it was like to be in Barcelona, for example, right now. But in that case you would be merely one of hundreds of thousands of visitors accessing the feed, inhabiting a far-off city as one of an overwhelming number of ghosts whose presence the real dwellers of that space were hardly conscious of existing. But here, in the reverse, Tav could delight in this artifact of a place that had traveled through time, ultimately destined to come to him, and him alone. No one else would ever drink this flute of wine, and when he had finished it, it would be gone forever.
Here we go, he thought.
“William! Congratulations! Well done.”
Their host was looking his normal self, nothing short of radiant. A youthful energy emanated from his features in some fashion that could not be purchased via the normal cosmetic interventions. In fact, it was William’s ability to age so gracefully, without seemingly investing any effort, that was a large part of his charismatic intensity.
“Thank you Tav. Coming from you, that really means something. You’ve been there from the start. Without you, VisionQuestTM would be just another dead brand on the rubbish heap of human endeavor.”
My god. What an impossibly smug asshole you are, William.
“I hope you’re enjoying yourself tonight, Will,” Tav said, instead. “You’ve certainly earned it.”
William raised his flute, acknowledging the platitude with a somber gesture of salute.
“You two have made wonderful magic together,” Shelly offered. In truth, she hardly bothered with the nuances of the company, mainly because Tav had decided years ago to spare her the details. Some might find this a mark of distance, and consequently of discord, in their relationship. Nonsense. Shelly shared the belief most central to Tav’s worldview; she, too, had a disdain for anything that was too common. Once any experience was too widely known, it was diluted. That was true whether it was virtual, mixed, or actual reality. When he omitted details from the mundane repetition of his daily existence, it was in deference to this sensibility. She, too, spared him the account of the most mundane elements of her existence. He appreciated that.
“We certainly have,” William conceded, in no way signaling that Shelly’s implied meaning — that Tav himself deserved some considerable element of acknowledgment, publicly — had bothered him in the least. “But I might say the same of you both. To a lovely couple.” Again they toasted, and then Shelly kissed Tav, and meant it.
With that, William patted him on the back and drifted off through the crowd.
When it came time for the award to be formally presented, the gathered assembly drifted toward the far end of the reception hall where a low platform had been erected for the occasion.
The ceremony itself was a forgettable buzz of words, completely typical of the occasion. Tav lost interest almost immediately. His mind reoriented, becoming aware of his immediate surroundings. All around him, the bodies of Seattle’s middle-aged gentry brushed and mingled, the women with bare arms showing the palliative effects of analog skin-tightening treatments, the men looking comparatively cadaverous in their socially-mandated lack of cosmetics. Without MR filters, every blemish and asymmetry of form registered more sharply. Take the other members of the board, for example; most looked older and lumpier than Tav was used to thinking of them.
This observation made him feel more confident. He caught Shelly’s eye, smiled at her. She put her hand on his shoulder, elegantly.
Everyone began to clap, and for social grace Tav joined them. William had arrived at the part of the speech where he thanked individuals for helping him in his achievement, which was patently ridiculous, because while it was true that other people contextualized Will’s accomplishments, they were here feting him precisely because of his unique ability to stand above the rest of their collective anonymity. It was one of the things Tav disliked most about the ritual, that the one who is being recognized feels compelled to denounce their triumph in some small measure by acknowledging the lesser contributions of others. This was even more galling, as William was a critical factor in making a majority of the gathered assemblage extraordinarily wealthy. And here he was thanking them for the opportunity.
I couldn’t have done it without the oxygen required for respiration, the genetic material passed to me by my parents, or the social infrastructure that carries away my fecal outpourings, freeing my time to pursue other occupations.
Tav’s name registered somewhere in the middle of William’s list of people to thank, in no way distinguished from the others.
Later, when the gathering had begun to disperse, reducing the level of ambient noise, William found them again. Shelly and he had circulated for a time, opting finally to withdraw into each other’s company as a prelude to their own departure. William still emitted an aura of jovial pleasantness, showing no sign of tiring under what must have been a steady barrage of admiration throughout the evening.
“Can I borrow Tav for a minute, Shell?”
Once, years ago, there had been a moment when Tavis had suspected them of having an affair. It had been Will’s use of ‘Shell,’ this pet-name shortening that had aroused his suspicions. The private investigator had found nothing. It was only Tav’s own jealousy that had reacted, badly, to a social convention. Tav, Will, Shell. Why not? None of it mattered. He’d once discovered that his own nickname, Tav, was the same as the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Coincidence. His parents might have picked a different name if they’d known.
“I dare say I’ll have to let you, Will, on your big night. Will you two be long? I know how you both are, getting lost in your work.”
“I only need him for a little bit, but it is late. Were you two leaving? It can wait…”
“Tosh. I’m a grown woman. I’ll just mingle a little.”
From the look she passed him, though, Tav knew immediately that she found this turn of fortune burdensome.
Will led him away from where the last remnants of the party were spiraling out from its now distant epicenter through a set of doors that separated the semi-public space of the hall from the more private recesses of the house. Tav obtained a mild enjoyment from speculating how far one might be able to wander before Will’s security intervened. Probably one could have passed through the portrait gallery, perhaps even traversed the overdone rococo drawing room, or the inconsequential and rather brutalist library that followed. All the while one would be observed, certainly, but where was the line at which the mechanisms of surveillance would be compelled to intervene? To reveal themselves?
Certainly it would have happened by the time they reached the elevator. At Will’s command, it began to descend to the lower subterranean levels of the property, whose confines extended beyond the basic exterior footprint of the house as it was visible above ground level. It gave Tav uneasy but distant and fleeting thoughts of internment.
They passed the entrance to a sauna and a full gym facility. The racquetball court. A faint smell of chlorination indicated the existence of a pool, unseen. William had even retained the antiquated movie theater that the previous owner had included, before such things had been completely obsolesced.
The next door they passed through brought them, rather unexpectedly, into a pub. Like the rest of the facility, it felt eerily like being in the space after everyone else went home. Like being staff.
“You can borrow these,” Will said, reaching across the bar to where a pair of glasses had been hidden. “My spares. It’s an amazing inconvenience if you forget them all the way up in the study.” Which of course was a serious statement. When he spoke, it resounded eerily in the humming quiet of the space. It was always distasteful, donning someone else’s wearable, feeling how they’d been shaped to the contours of another face. And frankly, Tav was annoyed that he would be asked to resubmerge at the end of a night so willfully spent off-virtual.
When the display settled on the bridge of his nose, the bar suddenly filled with people, the noise they were making engulfing his auditory perception. Clinking glassware, laughter, the indistinct drone of varied conversation. Beside him a couple was debating the most recent VisionQuestTM offering. It was probably someone’s real response lifted from some corner of the network.
“Fancy a nightcap?”
All Tav could do was nod, not trusting himself to speak for the fear that he’d say something like for the love of Christ yes, and make it a triple. In spite of himself he glanced to the virtual bartender, but she was patently ignoring them as she engaged in lively conversation with illusory patrons at the far end of the bar.
Will lifted open the little portion of the oak surface that was hinged, entered the service area, and pulled two snifters from the rack of glassware hanging above them. Filled them with cognac.
It was a combination that broke the chain of persuasion for Tav, interrupting the otherwise convincing pull of the virtual in creating their artificial surroundings. Firstly, that Will would so casually go behind the bar without eliciting a response from anyone else ‘present’ in the simulation, and, secondly, that in the glint of reflection in a particularly large Burgundy glass hanging above Tav’s head he saw that the tables behind him were empty.
Almost immediately he had found what must have been a statistically unobserved limitation of the pub’s programming. The mirror behind the bar worked perfectly, showing a couple having martinis. The woman was in a ravishing red dress, the man invoking someone tabloid famous who Tav couldn’t quite place. And yes, even the snifter that Will placed on the bar in front of him reflected the image of the blond woman sitting to his right, one stool removed. This was because the governing program had designated it an object of interest, and as such it was being provided with the necessary computing resources to produce the illusion of reflected light on its surface. But in the rack above him, this play of light had been neglected, perhaps because the sheer quantity of glassware and, consequently, the number of reflections to be found there would stress the processing power of what even a fantastically wealthy neuvo-techoligarch such as Will could acquire.
Chain of persuasion.
Avoiding introduced doubt.
The three keys to creating successful mixed or virtual realities.
“You’ll appreciate this, Tavis.” Will’s voice brought his attention back to the moment. “This is from a case of spirits originally provided to the troops at Gradesnica, in Macedonia, during World War I. Artillery shell did the poor bastards in when it caved in their trench, but it also had the unexpectedly fortunate effect that it buried their ration of bravery along with them.” Here he waved the bottle a little.
Will raised his glass in toast. Tav copied the gesture, and when their glassware touched it sent a slight clinking of reality cutting through the simulated noise of their virtual environment.
Tav tipped the glass to his lips, then nodded, appreciating the aftermath on his palate. It was one of the most fantastic things he had ever drunk in his life.
“The older the better, as they say,” William observed.
Tav made a guttural sound in his throat, clearing it.
“I thought you were bringing me down here to show me something about the upcoming brand-pivot, but you surprise me, Will. Is this our candid celebration?”
“You could call it that,” Will conceded, tossing the rest of his drink off in one go. When he poured again, he sloshed a bit on the bar’s polished surface. It was only at this point that Tav realized Will was a bit further gone than he was otherwise letting on.
“But there’s more to it than that. Don’t get me wrong, Tav, I meant it when I said I’d never have been able to do what I’ve done without your help. I appreciate you, but more than that, I trust you.”
“I trust you too, William.”
“Well, a night like tonight makes a man reflect. I can honestly say that I’m a very fulfilled individual, Tav.”
What does a person even say to something like that?
“No, I mean it. I’ve been meditating a lot, dealing with those inner things that drag you down. The feeling like you need more to be happy. I mean, how much more could possibly make a difference to me? Even if I tried to spend my fortune, I couldn’t. Not really. It’s grown beyond me.”
“So, you’re saying you’re happy?”
“I’m saying that I’m content.”
“I make other people happy for a living, Tav. That’s a good thing.”
“I want to share something with you.”
Tav had absolutely no idea where William was going with any of this, so he finished his drink to brace himself, letting the mellow fire dance through his system. William refilled his glass, pouring more than what he should drink if he wanted to avoid a hangover the next morning. A chuckle escaped him, before he could self-censor. He’d gotten the triple after all, but now he didn’t want it.
He waited, but so did William.
“What is it?” Tav asked, finally, annoyed he’d been made to ask.
Will smiled, and nodded, indicating something over his shoulder. Tav turned, feeling absurdly like the person who, in similar situations, looks when they’re not supposed to look. And in feeling that way, he knew, before he had even turned halfway around, that he’d bought in again to the mixed reality’s chain of persuasion at some subconscious level, believing again in the pub atmosphere.
The oddest sensation gripped him, like the blood had drained out of his neck, settling in a pool somewhere in his gut where it began to churn with the cognac.
It was her.
She was scanning the crowd in precisely the way someone does when they first entered a pub. The sense of déjà vu was nauseating. She was wearing the same outfit as the day he’d last seen her alive some fifteen years earlier.
Then she saw them, smiled, and headed in their direction.
“I do. Every day.”
It was all they had time to say before she was there, sliding onto the empty stool next to him….
Read the rest in Compelling Science Fiction.
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