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Story 4

 Christina Keller

Christina Keller has loved SciFi since she was a kid. Currently, she is working on a novel. She lives and works in the Washington, DC metro area.

The story Future Virtual Love started as an idea about how people would interact with loved ones, if they were unable to communicate in typical ways. Even in the future, people still want to connect to each other. What would this connection look like? Mr. Shu shows one possible way. -- Christina Keller



Future Virtual Love



 by Christina Keller



            I move among the Japanese business men, careful not to look them in the eye. Everyone maintains their anonymity here. No one wants to be recognized in this part of town. I keep my eyes forward and my pace quick. It's been twenty hours since I last saw her. Her smile. Her eyes. I might go broke, but I don't care. She's worth it.

     This early in the evening, Xena's won't be crowded. Most people don't show up at the dens until late into the night. Most only feel comfortable shedding their normal lives in the late hours, when they slide among each other. Now, however, there are just a few people rushing. I prefer the streets this way. I don't have a yearning to leave my wife's side in the dead of night. I fear the worst things will happen to her then, so I try not to leave her bedside. If the dens were open during morning hours I would go, but most close at dawn.

     From an open doorway, a hand reaches out and touches me. A short, skinny woman emerges with a heavily made up face. Looking for a date, handsome? She blinks twice at me and even though I understand her, she repeats the question in Cantonese. I pull back, careful not to make any sudden movements, and smile. Under the gaudy, green eyeliner and smeared, red lipstick lurks a once-beautiful woman. Sorry, not tonight, I say in Japanese, and continue walking toward Xena's.

     The hostess, seated at the desk in front of the door, glances at me in surprise. I forget her name, but she wears a tight blue dress, a black jewel at her throat. She uses little make-up, giving her the professional, polished aura, rather than someone who pretends to be sophisticated. Mr. Shu! This is the third time this week.

     I slap a wad of cash down in front of her. My usual room please.

     She shakes her head. Sorry, number ten is taken. The only one available is number twelve.

     I tell her that will be fine, although I really like room ten the best. It has good lighting and a wide bench instead of a single chair. The hostess gestures for me to go inside.

     From the outside, Xena's looks like any other virtual-reality den: a dark, dirty building with blacked-out windows. Only the sign, in bright, neon blue, distinguishes it from any other place in the neighborhood. Inside, however, there is a whole other world. Harsh florescent light greets you in the main hallway. Everything from the walls, to the banister, to the fixtures is white. There is a cool, clinical feel to this place, almost like a hospital.

     I enjoy it.

     The room is upstairs. No guards or servers greet me. If you want food or drink, vending machines rest in quiet corners. I almost never see any other customers when I visit. As I pass number eleven, I hear the sound of automatic gunfire. Cheers flood into the hall. Someone won their war. I find twelve and push open the door.

     Unlike the bright hall lights, the room is an average bedroom size. The walls are a soothing beige and, as I suspected, there is only one chair. But it is a nice, comfortable chair, a deep-brown leather. I sink down and I relax, letting the comfort of the chair seep into me. Yes, the room will suffice for the night. Someone even thought to put a small, brown rug on the floor. The place almost feels cozy.

     A large monitor hangs from the wall. I shrug out of my coat and say, Begin program. The screen clicks on, as does the timer, letting me know I get one-hundred-and-twenty minutes in the room. A see-through image of a woman scantily dressed appears. I ignore her and ask for the menu. I switch the language to Cantonese and change the woman's image. The default image lacks any appeal for me. She always looks too young, too innocent, too wide-eyed and dopey. My wife Molly is refined, educated, dignified, and close to my age. A few more tweaks to make her half-Chinese, half-American, to get the small mole on her cheek just right, and to create the one crooked tooth on the bottom right corner of her mouth, and the image will be close to perfect. The computer finishes making my changes, and I'm looking at a projected hologram of my wife. She blinks once and then the image fades.

     The stupid thing is broken.

     Annoyed, I open the door and shout for the hostess. She's still outside and can't hear me. The deserted hallway gives no sign that anyone heard me or cares. My time ticks down, and I realize I might spend most of it trying to get someone into the room. Again I call to the hostess, leaning out of the room as far as I dare, but there is no response. I've spent twenty-five minutes so far. The clock ticks down. I don't want to deal with this mess.

     I slump in the chair. Should I go outside? The problem is that once I leave the room, even if it is only a toe outside, the sensors register that I have gone. Whatever time I have left is rendered unusable. I would have to pay for a new session, and I don't have any more cash.

     I could fix the problem myself.

     The VR programs work much like my video game programs. I hesitate, though, because altering holographics and virtual-reality machines without permission is illegal. No one makes repairs on their own. Messing around with this technology will get me prison time. What would happen to Molly if I left? Only recently Japan allowed the use of these machines at all. Strictly speaking, you're not supposed to use them for illegal purposes either, like prostitution and murder, but dens have found loopholes, such as fighting a war or having a strip-club scenario. Then you are paying for an experience not for actually doing the illegal activity.

     I watch the clock tick down another two minutes before I twist up my fear and fiddle with the controls. I pull out my cell. Earlier, I turned it off, so I wouldn't be disturbed. I turn it on, and search for the access port to the VR machine. I find the port in a panel next to the monitor and open it. The green glow from the sensors inside indicates power in the panel, but for some reason it's not reaching the monitor. Using cable from my charger, I plug my phone into an open USB port and start a program that I run for diagnosing problems with video games.

     The program says that the machine has a bad connection. I see a frayed one leading from the hologram machine to the monitor. I unplug it and swap one of the back-up system wires to use as a replacement. The cell phone screen goes blank, but the hologram comes to life. The image of my wife appears, standing in front of me, but it's not the same.

     She looks whole.

     What I stare at looks like a real person. She isn't a ghost-like, see-through image that looks somewhat like my wife. This image in front of me is her. Solid form and wearing her usual cotton sweater and jeans. The real thing.

     Molly? My voice squeaks, and I urge myself to say more. Molly, can you hear me?

     She turns and smiles. She reacts to me, to the sound of my voice. She's fully interactive. Did the machine read this image off my phone? Did I download a picture into the hologram machine by accident? I don't know what I did. Maybe the broken wire had something to do with it.

      I want to touch her, even as my brain screams at me that she is not real and my hand will pass through her form. My wife, my real wife, lies in a hospital bed in a deep coma. I know the image is fake, but I still want to get closer. I want to see those details close up. How good a job did I accidentally do? Will she answer me in a voice like Molly's? I unplug my phone and close the panel, but I have done something wrong. The image sways and then disappears. I plug in my phone again, but nothing happens. The phone screen remains the same, with the diagnostic program running, but I can't recreate Molly's image. I have lost her.

     Sinking back into the chair, I watch the time tick down. I don't want to have another session in another room. Seeing such a accurate image of Molly scares me, but amplifies my loneliness too. She looked so real in that moment, no other VR session will compare. How could I ever think my clumsy attempts to keep her alive would work? The room's comfort mocks me now. I'm not in the mood for some half-coded version of Molly. I want my wife, or at least the closest thing I can get to her. I came so close and, maybe given enough time, I could figure out what happened.

     I reopen the panel and plug in my phone. In the remaining minutes I have left, I copy as much of the programming as I can store. I dump everything from my phone that I don't need. Games, contacts, pictures, it all goes. With five minutes left, I unplug and, to cover my tracks, I reset the whole system. I relink the broken wire to the old position and close the panel. Now there should be no evidence of what I did.

     I grab my jacket and leave the room. Lucky number twelve.  I exit the building and the hostess smiles at me.

     Did you enjoy yourself, Mr. Shu?

     Oh, yes, thanks, I say. As I disappear into the anonymous crowd on the street, I call over my shoulder, You should have a tech look at the machine in number twelve. The image cut out on me a couple times. Probably needs to be serviced.

     I know I won't return to Xena's. I have no reason to go back. If I hurry, I can get to the hospital before the dinner cycle ends and eat beside Molly. Tomorrow I will start figuring out the program. I have to do this in secret, otherwise I might be looking at prison time, but I think the payoff is worth it.

     I want her back.


The End


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