2

There were still places you could go about your business unnoticed, even in a surveilled society. These places served the needs of the individual whose tastes fell outside those offered by mainstream society as well as the needs of the state by containing the behaviour somewhere out of sight. These places, not connected to the AugNet, had rules of their own. The most important of these was anonymity.

Vanessa found herself in one of these places. The converted dockside warehouse had no security. If you knew how to find your way here, you knew better than to misbehave. There was a code, cultural protocols which made this place run smoothly, and anyone who broke the rules would find themselves kicked out, never to return.

The small door leading inside was made of corrugated iron, rusted around the edges, and it caught the wind as Vanessa turned the stiff handle. She grabbed it, pulling it behind her, and closed it carefully as she stepped inside.

Inside the door was a long corridor lit only by a band of light at ground level, which offered enough of a glow to show the way but not enough to provide any substantial illumination. There were hints of doors along the corridor to the left and right, gaps in the bands of light, but they were blank and anonymous.

She was greeted by an avatar, a white disc of a face, floating in the air in front of her.

‘Hello, Vanessa, welcome back,’ the face said. It had a neutral aspect which stripped it of most of its humanness, the ever-so-slightly feminine voice the only compromise to social expectation.

Vanessa responded with a nod and kept walking. The face moved with her, floating down the corridor, maintaining eye contact the whole time.

‘What can we do for you tonight?’

‘Same as always,’ Vanessa said. ‘Female, fem, slim, sub, casual, in and out in under an hour.’

‘Thank you. This way please.’ The request was logged with the club, along with her details for the night.

Vanessa herself was wearing her long blond hair out, her short, tight black dress matching her nails and lipstick, all expressing an aggressive and confident femininity which always served her well in this place. She was directed to the fourth door on her left, to a room the club determined would meet her needs the best. The avatar stood between her and the door, a payment authorisation flashing before her.

Vanessa made the payment, the funds clearing her secondary account instantly.

All the bars looked the same inside, but the clientele changed, each guest guided to a room where their preferences could be accommodated, increasing the odds that everyone would find some company quickly and easily. It was a numbers game after all, and the club made sure that everyone could find what they needed.

The room itself was small, perhaps forty women standing around high tables and at the bar. There was a soft, neutral illumination coming from every wall which provided enough light to let everyone see each other while eliminating the sharp contrast of shadows.

As she entered, a dozen pairs of eyes fell on her, some in quick appraisals which were instantly eliminated as their profiles were exchanged by the club, others hanging longer, searching out for the subtler attributes, making way for the human side of attraction to assert itself. The combination of instinct and algorithms made short work of the process. Supply and demand, the player as both customer and product, the club a marketplace where transactions could be easily undertaken in good faith and safety.

In Vanessa’s vision, she saw her possible candidates highlighted, four women alone, all matching the parameters she’d fed to the club.

The first, hanging on tightly to a high table, was a petite blonde in a pants suit scanning the room. As Vanessa appraised her their eyes locked before the woman moved on, glancing through others around the room as if in sequence, failing to keep her attention in any one place. Nervous, that’s good, but perhaps a bit flighty. Nice, but perhaps too serious, too much work for the time available.

Vanessa moved on, browsing past the first woman to her next target. This one had found one of the room’s few shadows, deep in a corner, only standing out because of the illuminating targeting halo projected in Vanessa’s vision. This woman was young, pretty enough, and staring nervously at Vanessa from across the room. She was thin, probably only just old enough to be here, deep brown hair falling over her blue eyes, fair skin dotted with freckles but without any makeup. Perfect.

Vanessa gave the slightest smile before moving towards her. The girl dropped hers as she realised what was happening but made no attempt to move, standing up from the against the wall to her true height, slightly taller than Vanessa. When Vanessa reached her, she placed her hand gently on the girl’s arm.

‘Hi, I’m Vanessa,’ she said.

‘Mirella,’ the girl replied.

‘I almost didn’t see you in the corner here, but I’m glad I did.’

‘I don’t like to stand out. To be honest, I don’t do this a lot.’

‘That’s ok, I do. I can help you.’ Vanessa moved her arm around Mirella’s waist. ‘Why don’t we sit down, that couch is free.’

‘Actually, I don’t have a lot of time. I was wondering if we could just . . . you know.’

Vanessa had been in the bar less than two minutes. A personal best. She suppressed the smile as she replied. ‘Sure, we can do whatever you want.’

Mirella nodded and Vanessa took her hand and guided her back out into the hall.

The floating face was waiting for them outside the bar. As it moved away from them Vanessa and Mirella followed, Vanessa keeping the pace leisurely to show that she was still in control. It guided them to a side corridor and through the first door, opening it automatically as the women approached. Vanessa approved the new transaction sent by the club and the women went inside.

The room opened on three sides to a beachfront vista, waist-high wooden walls demarking the space while allowing an unobstructed view of the bay. Gentle waves breathed rhythmically on the night-time shore, the Milky Way visible on the horizon providing the only illumination. There was no one else in view and no sounds to be heard.

The door closed behind them. Along the other wall was a bed and the door they’d come through, otherwise the room was empty. There were no distractions here, no gadgets, nothing to take the focus of the women away from one another.

Vanessa walked Mirella over to the side wall, perching herself on the banister. ‘Do you like it here?’ she said.

‘Yes, it’s lovely,’ Mirella replied.

‘It’s one of my favourite places in this joint.’

‘You’ve been here before?’

‘Yes, I come here pretty often.’

Mirella’s eyes dropped as Vanessa spoke.

‘That’s ok, isn’t it?’

‘Oh yes, it’s perfect. I mean . . . I don’t . . . I mean, I’ve never been here, but it’s good that you have.’ She smiled gently.

‘It’s ok, just follow me, I’ll look after you.’

Vanessa stood so that she was facing Mirella. Even in the heels she was a few centimetres shorter and had to look up to meet her eyes. Mirella returned the gaze with the intensity of that first look in the club before her eyes slowly moved downwards, first along Vanessa’s neck and then to her breasts, barely contained by the tight dress. Vanessa turned so that her back was to the other woman and took Mirella’s hand, placing it on her own hip, guiding her up her body until it reached the zipper between her shoulder blades. Mirella paused a moment before unzipping the dress. Vanessa slipped her shoulders out, pushing the dress down past her hips, bending over as she did, and moving slowly to allow Mirella to look, to take it all in. She wore nothing underneath, and as she turned to face Mirella once again, she saw the other woman swallow nervously.

Vanessa moved Mirella’s hands back to her hips and took her right hand to the other woman’s face. She leant in slowly and gently kissed her before disengaging, their foreheads touching as they caught one another’s eyes.

‘You doing ok?’ Vanessa asked.

Mirella nodded. She moved a hand up Vanessa’s body until it was cupping her breast. Vanessa smiled and leant in again, this time kissing harder, more aggressively, slipping her tongue past the soft lips until she found Mirella’s own. That triggered something in Mirella and she pushed back, falling with her onto the bed, all the time keeping a firm lock on her lips. Vanessa felt Mirella’s tongue move into her mouth, then lengthen, hardening, and transforming. It pressed against the back of Vanessa’s throat and she gagged.

She pulled back, forcing Mirella off her and the younger woman sprang up. She opened her mouth wide, hissed through sharp teeth, reptilian tongue protruding from where her own should be. She let out a high-pitched laugh before Harry’s aug abruptly closed the simulation.


‘Motherfucker!’ Harry said as his aug pulled him out of the application. He rubbed his eyes and sat up from the couch, the shock of the abrupt change in location gradually fading as he took in the familiar sights of his apartment. His aug displayed his heartbeat and respiration; up, to be sure, but according to the analysis, well below anything that needed intervention. He brought his breathing under control and his vitals faded from view.

His aug brought up a dialogue to lodge a complaint with the club. Harry didn’t bother; anyone who had the software to get in was likely to be anonymising their real ID. The club’s algorithms would pick up the abrupt disconnection and bump the user. She, or more likely he, would be back soon with a new ID and would find another victim.

It went with the territory—the flexibility the club gave you to have control of your appearance meant that this sort of thing was always a possibility. Harry closed the complaint with a frustrated sweep of his hand.

It was third time this month that he’d found himself in the company of a troll. He had been spending more time at the club lately, so it was a game of probabilities approaching certainty that he’d been encountering more of them. In the world of anonymous online hook-ups, it was common enough to come across those who were there to live out darker fantasies, to get their pleasure out of someone else’s suffering. They would spend a few nights building up a status, playing the role of the passive newcomer, before launching a predatory attack on someone. There were never prosecutions for the harm done because it was nearly impossible to trace any activity back to a real-life person. Besides, his aug always pulled him out when things got hairy, and it wasn’t like a real assault in the real world. It was just a risk you took to get your rocks off and you had to expect a bad encounter occasionally.

Harry thought about bringing some girls up in his vision but he wasn’t in the mood anymore. First Karen working him up before heading home, and now this. Get used to it, Harry. If you get married you can kiss the time in the simulations goodbye. Whether he was going to use Vanessa again didn’t really matter.

He stood with a stretch, getting used to his own body again, taking in the environment of his small apartment. He could see the night-time streetscape out his large window. The city was still alive, flashing lights firing their messages to the citizens far below.

Harry’s apartment was a standard-allocation single-person studio; an open room with a screen dividing off his sleeping space, with a bathroom in a separate room. He’d recently had his floors redone in teak and had replaced his modern white couch with a chesterfield adding what he thought was a sophisticated touch to his living space. The queen bed was simple and solid, dark mahogany posts matching the drawers to its side. He still had the room styled with a sporting theme—large, framed photographs of his favourite athletes hanging from the walls. Signed memorabilia sat on top of every flat surface, the most desirable and most costly set in a glass-and-wood cabinet standing opposite the entry.

Harry walked into the bathroom and his aug cut all augmented sensory information. He saw the world with his own eyes for the first time that day, and in a flash he was out of his dinner clothes and standing in his greys and slippers. Harry caught himself in the mirror and spent some time looking at his real face. He looked tired and needed to shave. His black hair was showing the first speckles of grey, his face was rough, the scar on his chin was still where he’d left it.

‘You’re getting old, Harry,’ he said.

It was a small relief that he couldn’t see his face in the real when he turned away.

‘Keep the feed off, I need to clean.’

‘Yes, Harry,’ his aug replied.

Home was the one place where someone was permitted to turn off the augmented layer that painted the world with colours and smells and tastes and sounds. There were no ads at home anyway, except the ones you could see out the window or the ones that came along with other content you were viewing. Nothing was tracked inside a private home. The respite was gifted by the telcos, a free ride where you could use your hardware without the obligation of exposure to advertising.

Harry had an unaugmented view of his apartment as well. The window and its view were gone, replaced with a blank white wall, and the pictures he’d purchased had similarly disappeared. His memorabilia was still there, albeit in the form of simple blocks of plastic printed into shapes approximating the objects they had been. His floor had returned to functional linoleum and his furniture to the base allocation of printed plastic, foam and fabric cast in the same grey as his underclothes.

He didn’t get to cleaning, instead he walked back over to the couch and lay down. With the aug off there was a silence to be enjoyed, not just of sound, but a silence of sight. Harry stared up at the pattern of the concrete rendering in the bare roof and let his eyes go out of focus, the muscles relaxing, the brain making no attempt to process any of the signals streaming in.

‘Harry, I need you to calm yourself. Breathe a little more deeply, a little more slowly, and slow your mind. I want you to close your eyes, and to breathe in to the count of four, hold for two seconds, and breathe out to the count of four. In two three four, hold two, out two three four.’

In, hold, out. Relaxing into the cushioning, no stimulation, nothing to worry about. Harry closed his eyes and quietened his mind.

A message flashed in his vision. Harry let out a frustrated growl. ‘What is it?’ he said.

‘Karen has posted a video of you. It is trending among your social group.’

‘Ok, let me see it.’

A box came into existence and filled his vision half a metre in front of Harry’s face. Inside was a moving diorama of the exterior of Sarah’s restaurant, music penned by some long-dead European pulsing in the background. Harry and Karen walked into view from the left hand in hand, mouths moving in conversation, Karen laughing at some unheard joke, Harry guiding Karen in before they were both greeted by George at the door. They were shown to their table in the window, Harry holding the chair out for Karen and kissing her on the cheek as they sat. She reached up and touched his face.

Harry sat and called George over, confidently ordering their meals immediately. There was thirty seconds of what must have been hilariously charming conversation by Harry followed by Karen self-consciously covering up to hide her hearty open-mouthed laugh. Their starters arrived together, visibly steaming, enthusiastically greeted by both diners. They each took a bite, made motions of approval, before the plates faded from view and the main courses arrived. There was delight at the quality of the food and it was greedily consumed. Once again, the meals faded quickly and George returned, receiving nods of approval from Harry and Karen. George motioned a question with a raised eyebrow and Karen paused, holding her stomach before smiling and nodding again. George produced two pieces of chocolate cake and presented them to the diners. Their faces lit up as they downed the first bite. The cakes faded and they both sat back in their chairs clearly satisfied, laughing and exchanging loving looks before they rose and walked outside, Harry’s arm around Karen’s shoulder this time. The image moved to follow the couple and Harry hailed a taxi. As he guided Karen inside, text appeared prominently in front of the scene:

Sarah’s

Where life happens

The miniature Harry in the diorama flashed a wink at the viewer before climbing into the taxi himself. The scene faded and the box moved to a corner of the room. It replayed in a silent loop.

‘So much for the early night,’ Harry said to himself.

The restaurant would have done most of the work of course, stitching together the night and packaging it up as an endorsement for Karen to fire off into the net, picked up and fed to those who had an interest in their lives. But she had been the one who had taken out the scowls, the long silences, Harry’s disappointed look when he realised that he wasn’t getting any that night. Reality had merely provided the bones of the show.

Comments were flowing in, her friends mainly, faces popping up and floating around the looping story, the replay of one of his cohort’s social highlights of the night attracting plenty of attention.

‘Oh my god you two are perfect together!’ ‘I’ve got to try that place, it looks amazing.’ ‘So that’s where you were tonight ;)’ ‘Meal looked great but by the looks of it we missed the best part at the end!’ ‘You look great Karen, are those new eyes?!’

‘Turn it off,’ Harry said. ‘Actually, no.’ Harry sat up straight and set his face with his best cheeky grin. ‘Comment: Great night tonight, babe. Looking forward to Saturday!’

‘Done, Harry.’

Harry crashed back into the couch. ‘Now you can turn it off.’

But there was more to do. Harry hadn’t checked his feeds all night, the meal with Karen and the aborted attempt in the club had taken all his attention.

‘Show me my feeds, messages first, then social, just the main stuff, nothing too deep. Then local news and sport.’

There was just one message, from his mother, an update on her trip to the coast punctuated with images of her and her new boyfriend frolicking in the waves. Harry gestured to set it to play in the corner of his vision with the audio coming through. His aug brought up a succession of text and video boxes in the rest of his view. He closed most of it immediately with a touch of his finger, it was mostly crap that for some reason his friends thought the rest of the world needed to know about. There were quotes and pictures and issues and ideas and stories which, when passively consumed and actively shared, were meant to make a bold statement about the identity of the sharer. Often a single line comment would anchor the link between the content and the poster.

‘In future, filter out anything with a comment that just says ‘this’ with an exclamation mark. No, scratch that, I might miss something that’ll come back to bite me.’ It felt satisfying for Harry to say it, even if it was only heard by his aug.

There were a few videos of friends’ nights out, some scripted similarly to Karen’s post, others spontaneous examples of tomfoolery and banter, none of it worth much attention. Still, Harry threw out likes and smiles and high fives where appropriate, reinforcing social bonds and handing out attention by the spoonful to those who needed it.

One image in his field caught his attention, a cartoon image of a buff, bearded garden gnome, posted by his friend Adam. It had gotten a lot of positive attention despite there being no context provided with the post.

‘What’s this one?’ he asked his aug.

‘It opens an overlay package, sights and sounds only. It is certified as not being harmful but contains adult content.’

‘Ok, open it up.’

A disco ball dropped from Harry’s ceiling and the lights went out. Coloured lamps spun, illuminating the room and atmospheric electronic music faded in from the direction his kitchen. Garden gnomes, half the height of Harry, appeared in the middle of his apartment and started slowly swaying with the beat. They were all shirtless, their bodies streaked with glowing paint, but without exception they were wearing their coloured pointed hats.

Harry stood up from his couch and walked among the gnomes. They gave him grins and thumbs up as he walked past but otherwise made way for him, almost as though they knew that they were guests in his home.

A DJ gnome behind his deck floated up from the floor, hands swaying gently the air as the slow beats increased in volume, headphones styled like ceramic plant pots covering both ears. He wore an oversized chain supporting a gold plate with the words DJ GNOMEY spelled out in diamonds. He was dressed identically to the assembled crowd.

The gnomes danced their way to the front of the DJ before his hands dropped and he made the change. Where there had been the soft sways there were now violent pulses, the music increasing in tempo and volume as the dancers erupted. They shook in unrestrained ecstasy, arms flailing, whistles blowing, thirty sweaty, hairy, shirtless gnomes thrashing and grinding all around Harry.

He found himself the subject of attention of three of the revellers, they were facing him and dancing at him, their movements suggestive but still taking place outside his personal envelope. One was looking up with lustful eyes, his attention firmly fixed on Harry as he moved to the beat, the lip bite visible through the grey beard.

Harry held his hand to his face and started laughing uncontrollably. ‘Come on, dance with me!’ the gnome implored, never once averting his eyes. Harry stood there shaking with laughter, his hand partially covering his face, peeking out at the absurd scene in his living room. It took him two minutes to get control of himself again.

‘Turn it off,’ he said. The music faded out and his apartment returned to the unaugmented mode it had been before he’d launched the application.

‘Play me the vision where I’ve got the gnomes around me, third person view.’ His aug complied, and Harry saw himself, a giant surrounded by gyrating gnomes, coyly avoiding eye contact with his admirer while he struggled to control his laughter. ‘Alright, package the whole thing up, send it to Adam, auto delete after one play.’

‘Do you have a message along with the images?’

‘Yes. Tell him: You’re an idiot, I can’t believe I opened that. Send.’

The reply came quickly.

You can call me names all you want but I know you loved it. Anyhow, still out, catch you tomorrow night.

Harry sank back into the couch. The night hadn’t been a write-off after all. He was hungry though. Maybe there was some sense in what Karen had said about food—his body had taken what looked and tasted like salad and he wasn’t satisfied.

‘Make me a hotdog, cheese and mustard and pickles and onions.’ His prepper started whizzing.

No, it wasn’t not possible. As he mulled over the conversation the absurdity of it all hit him solidly. Sitting across from her, looking at her face, the lines of her body, of course he had wanted to show an open mind just to avoid an argument. But now, sitting in the blankness of his apartment, the argument didn’t make sense. A century of nutritional science was behind what the preppers put out, and a key foundation of the entire system was that if you could afford it you could enjoy it without consequences. It didn’t matter that the idea was popular, it was illogical and idiotic and undermined the freedom that they all enjoyed.

It was just a fad, and Harry knew Karen would get over it. But if they were to marry then he’d need to figure out a better way to counter these arguments. Hell, it was more likely that the algorithm was right than he was, and he had to concede that it was probably going to happen.

The prepper dinged to let Harry know that it was finished. He walked over and opened the door, removing the plate and placing it on the table. In the middle of the plate was a beige hotdog-shaped object smelling slightly of steamed bread, devoid of any colour.

‘Aug, sensory feed on.’ Harry’s apartment was once again clad in teak and leather, the sounds of the outside world below creeping in. The beige blob in front of him transformed into a hotdog and gave and off a rich, fatty smell.