It was deep in the rainy season, and the City glowed silver and gold. In the absence of sun, the electric hiss of life reflected off puddle and glass, bending and softening the artificial light. It was a fine date night, a night to huddle up to someone new, and nowhere was this better reflected than on the busy street whereupon resided the small tower owned by the Experience Society, the City’s luxurious experimental dating community, offering sophisticated pleasures to the beautiful and elite.
Outside, the building appeared as an obsidian monolith, unknowable and sleek. The entry room was sparse and Mod, black walls to obscure the shape of the interior, red velvet carpeting. At the center, before a wall of glass, a single mahogany host podium illuminated with gold trim. The center bore golden laurels wreathed about an open eye (a projection, prone to blink) seeping out air infused with gardenia and pine.
“Thank you for joining us this evening, 27-BG.” This was the host, clad in white, to the figure coming in from the rain. “Your partner this evening has already arrived. An Initiate, EV-06.”
The customer called 27-BG nodded. “Thrilling. I’d like to fix myself up beforehand, if you don’t mind.”
“Very good. Room 7. You will find your partner in Room 588, at your leisure.” The customer gave thanks and disappeared down the hall.
Room 588, like all other Primary Rooms, was essentially a wide booth with a large smart table in the center of four walls that gleamed like fish scales in moonlight. Alone in the room was a woman smoking a cigarette of calming herbs over a glass of sparkling water. As she exhaled, she watched the smoke escape her lips and twirl about the room. She had been smoking for some time, but no haze was visible. She wondered if there were vents she could not see, some spot where the flow of air was concentrated. It was as if the shimmering walls themselves could breathe. The thought unnerved her, but the herbs were kicking in and the fixation quickly disappeared.
The door opened again. This time, it was her partner, carrying a glass of liquor for himself. “Good evening!” A gregarious opening. She rose in her seat and extended her hand in greeting.
“Same to you. Please, have a seat.” She took stock of his features. Bold, handsome, lean. Thinning hair, and deep-set features, his eyes were piercing and bright, almost instantly condescending. She felt herself at odds already.
“Welcome to the Society! I’m sure the whole process must seem so unusual at first.”
“Unusual? Perhaps. So far, the terms have been to my liking.”
“Oh?” He smiled. “What do you enjoy so far?”
“The anonymity, to start. But that does seem more a suggestion than an iron rule, as you arrived pre-armed with knowledge of my Status.”
“Ah. An astute observation. My apologies.”
“None needed. No, what I like best so far is the omniscience of our invisible third party, the accountability. Very rare to find this kind of security in the savannahs of love.”
“Too true. All too often do we act without remembering that in life there is always a witness to our actions. I, for one, appreciate the company of the observer, the evaluations and protections. It elevates the whole affair, challenges us towards decency, wouldn’t you say?”
He smirked and raised his glass in cheers. EV-06 paused a moment before clinking her glass of sparkling water to his.
“I should order a drink, as well.”
“Yes, please join me!”
EV took a moment to orient herself with the table’s ordering software. “What a wide selection! Look, this one has footage of how its liquor is distilled. How charming.”
“Another perk of the Society. One never hurts for the simple pleasures here.”
EV raises her gaze to his. “You seem to take advertising the benefits of the Society seriously.”
“Only so much as to match your own enthusiasm. If I seemed unhappy with the service, how comforting could that be for you?”
“Fair enough. But there is a wide gap between dissatisfaction and promotion. I am already a due paying member. No need to recruit me.”
“Again, I embarrass myself. I hope I haven’t left too foolish or overbearing of a first impression.”
“That is still to be decided.”
They met each other’s eyes. After a moment, they shared a laugh. The door lightly chimed before opening. It was the host, who set down two drinks on the edge of the table. “Châteaux.de.Louise, Macardo on the rocks. Per request, prawns and butter are under preparation,” and he was gone.
27-BG studied the wine EV had ordered. “Starting the night off adventurously, I see. A bold modern wine.”
“I’ve heard captivating things, and of a mind to try new things tonight.”
27 smirked and opened a menu on the smart table. She gave him a moment by tasting her pale gold wine. The first sip electrocuted her mouth, bursting with alien luminescent flavor, lighting her up from within. She hid her shock. This is what he had meant by adventurous. When she lowered the glass from her lips, the walls of the room had vanished, and in their place was a vibrant Mediterranean shoreline from the high hill of a Grecian harbor town. She gasped.
“Is this to your liking?” 27 inquired, a warm breeze rustling his hair.
“It feels so… real,” EV whispered, watching from her seat in a cozy café patio overlooking the town. Distant figures meandered up and down the coast half a mile away, visible from their elevation on the hill.
“I remember my first time. I got up at once from my seat. The spectacle of it enraged me somehow. I had been expecting a gimmick, a toy, but this… my mind could not anticipate how gifted we had become at fabricating lies. I still struggle somewhat with it. I prefer my pleasures to be real. Something to be touched, held, and kept.”
EV sat back down in her seat and sipped her wine, her eyes transfixed on the artificial sun’s slow descent behind the waves. “But so few treasures can be held, and most gorgeous things are lies.”
His mouth twitched. “Yes.”
She could tell she had upset him. Perhaps her coyness had overstepped, leaving his moment of vulnerability exposed to the elements. Perhaps he was obstinate, specific and vain. Perhaps all of it was true, or nothing was. The game was only just beginning.
“Something about this vista has inspired me. What do you say to a game of questions?” EV asked.
The offer struck 27 well. “Intriguing. What would the terms of this game be?”
“Society rules, to start. Keep it general and confidential. That being said, honesty is key. Questions can be silly or harsh, answers brief or involved. Here we are in the Experience Society, after all, a ‘meeting place for the best and brightest’. I would know who you truly are, if such a thing is possible.”
In the distance, rain clouds were gathering off the shoreline. 27 watched with guarded interest as the figures on the shoreline scurried off the sands for shelter. EV waited patiently for a response, humored by his discontent. After a moment of contemplation, he turned back to her.
“Go ahead, then. Ask me anything.”
She smiled. “How long have you been alone?”
“That’s quite the span.”
“It’s been too short, actually,” he replied.
“Odd thing for a dating man to say.”
“I am of two minds about it,”—the rolling sound of thunder— “one, that a life is best spent on its own terms, answering to no one. The second, that death comes for us too soon, and every moment spent in good company is a precious commodity.”
“And neither mind wins out?” EV asked, ashing her cigarette. The sea breeze grew fuller, colder.
“Correct. But that is two questions.”
“Then the floor is yours. But first… this,” motioning to the facade. She was still quite new to the technology. Soon, the confines of the room shimmered into being, dissolving the prior illusion whole-cloth. With a second burst of light, they soon sat in Barichara, Columbia, looking out at verdant hills soaked in the blue of the morning and darkened by the passage of clouds.
“Delicious. Now, do ask away.”
27 pondered for a moment. “What is it you long for most in this world?”
“Your fullest, deepest hunger.”
“I wish it were simple enough to say,” she said, exhaling smoke.
EV rolled her eyes, but gave it thought. “…I wish I had been born somewhere different. In a world unlike this one, in a different body, a different time. But not the past, as we know it, and not the future. I wish I didn’t know the things I know. I wish I didn’t expect the future I expect, or want the things I want. I wish I’d had a bit more say in the universe. In myself. I don’t know. I think that’s what I long for most of all.”
27 held his hands beneath his chin as he listened, unblinking. “But you have money, power, and beauty, ample intellect. The world is in a horrid state, but your own future must be bright. And your body can be changed if you would change it. Why feel so desolate about it all? Does it come from sympathy for others less fortunate? Jealousy for those with more?”
“Ha. I am only jealous of God. I envy his inevitability, his everything-and-nothingness. To be omniscient, incorporeal, safe to create a universe and its laws without intention, beyond criticism or comprehension. He is an obvious lie, but it does sounds like a lovely line of work.”
27 finished his drink, and ordered another on the touchscreen. “What worlds would you create then?”
“You had your questions. My turn.”
“Fair enough, though I admit your answers feel guarded, even now.”
“Do they? I suppose they have been. Lead by example, then. What is it that you want out of a partner?”
A door suddenly appeared beside them on the hilltop like a cut-out of the sky: the host. He nodded briefly to each guest, who reciprocated. He left new drinks and the prawns and butter on the table and left without a word. 27 chuckled, dipping a first prawn into the melted butter before taking a succulent, squishy bite. As good as real.
“I have had many partners. When I was younger, my tastes were more explicit. I wanted redheads. There was something about the way red hair flowed that drove me wild. It didn’t matter who they were, what they did, their name, profession, gender: It was strands of fire coiled around my fingers, until of course the pattern became too familiar and my palette was forced to expand. I sampled an array of lovers, with no reason to care too deeply or linger long. It was a parade of fleeting dreams and little else until I met my first wife. She changed all that, taught me the value of commitment, of a lasting intimacy, its… roots. Gave me my footing in the world.”
“And what happened to your first wife?”
A pause. “She left me.”
“Did you deserve it?”
27 drank his whiskey with gusto. “I never hit her. I never slept with anyone without telling her, per our arrangement. But yes.”
“You’re well past two questions.”
“Well, you never answered the first question properly. What is it you want from a partner now?”
27 sighed. Above, a flock of egrets squawked, sailing northwards. “At this point, I am well past craving another short-term fling, though they are pleasant. If we are to peel back expectations, to say what is true, I do want a partner again, but one with intelligence and foresight, who is not afraid of the whims of the heart or the attention of others. Someone who understands that fangs are natural, that anger is the shadow of love, that nothing is perfect, nothing is good enough. That nothing could ever be enough.”
They went without speaking for a moment, the rustle of the hill-grass filling the air with waves of soft vibrations. EV sighed as the sound rippled on her forearms, giving her goosebumps. The tactile details of the room were intoxicating.
“I appreciate your honesty,” EV said. “I think that’s a fine thing to want.”
27’s eyebrows furrowed. “Somewhat?”
“I agree that nothing is good enough.”
With a flash, the room went to work again at EV’s behest. In a second, they were dining on the surface of the moon. The air quickly grew cold and a deep rumble rose from the darkness between the distant stars. “What a shame,” EV muttered, “I thought there’d be no oxygen on the moon.”
27 laughed. “We could suffocate each other, commit to the fantasy.”
“No, too much drama in that,” EV muttered in turn. She could not take her eyes off the horizon. It was brilliant, gleaming jewels of cold fire dancing for millenia unending. “…I’m so afraid of what’s coming.”
“You mean the end?” 27 asked, unwillingly.
“They keep pushing back the estimate, but it’s not far now. It’s hard to imagine we’ll get to dine like this for very long. It’s true I wish that I were different, that I was living in an easier time, and there was nothing to think about, nothing to be other than what I dreamed of being. To know, before it was too late, what tools I truly had to work with. But if I can’t have that, then I can have this beautiful, glimmering lie.”
“So few of us get even this, it’s true,” 27 responded. “But while our seats here on the Moon may be lies, we are here and real. It’s all been a performance, sure, but so is everything. A good mime tastes his breakfast, as they say.”
“Come sit beside me.”
He got up to do so. As he did, he tripped and stuck his hand out to catch himself, striking the invisible wall of the Room, sending a ripple of light along its true dimensions. They both shared a laugh at that.
At the Front Desk, the host in white cycled through notifications on their terminal. The interior hallway doors whooshed open. It was 27-BG, moving in a hurry to put his coat on.
“Hello, 27-BG,” the host saluted. “Is everything to your liking? Shall you two be moving into another Room?”
“The date has been lovely, but I’ve been summoned for an emergency at the Institute. I’ll have to cut today’s session short.”
“Very good. Is there enough time for an exit review?”
“Three stars. Great conversationalist for an Initiate, though her manners suggest low birth, a streak of nihilism. Nothing wrong with that, but perhaps not up to my needs. Do share my profile with her, I’d be happy to stay in touch. And bill the Room to my account.”
“Thank you for your feedback. Until your next adventure.”
27 nodded, and headed out into the perpetual darkness and rain of the City. The host registered the feedback in silence before heading upstairs. They found Room 588 in a lush jungle, the air thick with humidity. EV-06 sat alone at the dining table, eyes locked firmly on the skies.
“Hello, EV-06. It has come to my attention that this session has come to an end.”
EV smiled slowly, her gaze unbroken. “Yes, apparently.”
“Would you care to log your review?”
EV thought for a moment. “Fair charisma, low patience. Outdated, self-serving views. Inflated sense of value. Okay-to-good eyes. Little to no sexual or philosophic chemistry. Possibly violent? Has he been flagged before?”
The host shook his head ‘no’. “The rubric provided is a star scale. One to five.”
EV extended her hand out to the host without looking, holding another herbal cigarette out between her fingers. The host, after a moment, understood the gesture, and lit the cigarette for her. She took a drag.
“There it is,” she muttered as the vibrant sky began to redden and pterodactyls cried out from above. “Give him three stars. No. Two.” All about them, dinosaurs sprang to alarm as the shadow of a comet started swallowing the sky, parting the clouds with an ocean of atmospheric fire.
The host, uncomfortable in the heat of the simulation, nodded and motioned to leave. “Until your next adventure.”
“Send in the next one whenever,” EV-06 called out, savoring the instant before impact.
John Chrostek is a writer currently living in Philadelphia, PA. His fiction has appeared in magazines like X-R-A-Y, Blind Corner, HAD, and more. His work can be accessed at www.johnchrostek.com or on Twitter at @yoncrowstack.