5

I’m on my way over, Karen texted.

Ok babe, see you soon.

‘Gotta run,’ Harry said to Vic. He downed the last of his beer.

‘All good. See you whenever.’

Harry bolted for the door.

After five beers his stride was still steady, his head moving fairly normally, and his augmentor decided that despite his four hours in the pub he was only mildly intoxicated. It sent its report back to the telco as it was programmed to do.

Harry didn’t feel drunk, in fact he felt like his weekend was off to a great start. Beers with friends, Karen was coming over and they were heading out to the opening of the new exhibition tomorrow night. He was uninhibited enough to not notice the change in what was being fed to him.

‘What are you doing when you get home, Harry?’ A tall blond woman wearing a tiny green bikini and high heels began walking beside him. Harry glanced at her, right up and down, but kept moving forward. ‘There are real girls behind all our dancers, Harry, and you can watch from right inside your own home. And I can bring a friend.’ At that moment another woman, this one shorter and with darker hair, appeared by his side.

‘Nah, not tonight, got a date,’ Harry said. He didn’t mind the mature stuff and kept his filters off but thought it better to keep from distractions so that he could get home quickly. That bit of info, disclosed to the telco, meant he wouldn’t be getting any other offers.

The women waved at him. ‘Maybe next time,’ the blonde said. They both shimmered out of existence.

It was likely that the telco already suspected that he was going to see Karen, but now they had confirmation. They had access to all the metadata, as was allowed by law, but his private communications and conversations were confidential and the contents weren’t allowed to be sent back to the telco. They would have known he had been messaging Karen, which was normal for the night, but now they knew that he was going to see her.

‘Evenin’ ’Arry, I thought I missed you at the bar!’ The man puffing his way up to Harry’s side had come from somewhere behind him. He was dressed in baggy beige pants and a plaid jacket. As he caught Harry’s eye he tipped his hat in clichéd affectation of a Victorian-era vendor, the exaggerated wink suggesting that he was in a similar state to Harry. ‘I got som’ing I need ta show you.’

From under his jacket he pulled a small bowl of water. As he waved his hand over the top a white flower appeared, floating lightly on the surface.

‘It’s pretty plain,’ Harry said. But as the words left his mouth the flower moved, waves of colour flowing outwards from its centre.

‘I told ya it was som’ing.’

‘How much, and how long?’

‘Three bucks for a five-day licence, and it’ll be printed before ya get home.’ A purchase order appeared at the edge of Harry’s vision, the purchase button flashing green.

Harry’s aug drew a red box around the terms and conditions. It had picked something up. Harry moved his eyes over the aug’s alert and the conditions opened in front of him.

There were two items that the aug had highlighted. The first was permission to access the user’s voice and hearing, probably the way to get the image of the flower to move with in time with the conversation. But the second was flashing for his attention. It was permission by the application to log the interactions between the virtual object and the stimuli in its local environment. This was probably how the flower would work inside someone’s home where it needed permission to operated.

‘Implications?’ Harry asked his aug silently.

‘This object could potentially log private conversations within the home and forward them to a third party, ostensibly for quality control, in contravention of privacy laws.’

Harry moved his eyes over a cursor at the edge of the purchase order, silently marking the object as malware. His aug would send it through to Cernet to get someone to check it in more detail.

‘Not tonight, mate,’ Harry said. He waved his hand, force closing the ad in front of him before the salesman could put his hat back on his head. It was rude, but Harry didn’t like scammers.

He made his way more purposefully once again as he realised how much time he was taking. Head down, dodging the foot traffic but otherwise shutting out the world around him. The ads were still there of course, calling out to him as he walked, but they could only be heard above the background noise if he turned his head towards them. He made good time as he powered forward, the telco picking up on his lack of engagement and limiting the premium tailored content it was feeding him. It was unlikely they’d get a hit tonight, and there were plenty more consumers enjoying their Friday night to target.

He made the mistake of looking up as he crossed the road, his eyes locking onto an image of himself plastered on the wall opposite.

Harry was in a clothes store, being helped into a blue sports jacket by a salesman. As the gigantic Harry turned, he saw how flattering the jacket was, its perfect cut broadening his shoulders while slimming his hips, and he walked confidently out of the store.

As the scene moved he saw Karen and Tess sitting at a café table, mouths covered after a shared joke. As Harry approached Karen leapt to her feet, looking Harry up and down before darting forward and wrapping her arms around him. Harry took a step back to arrest her momentum before returning the embrace.

The simulated Tess remained seated at the table. While Karen’s back was turned, her friend looked longingly at the couple, or more specifically at Harry. While simulated Harry was focused on Karen, the real-life Harry found himself looking at Tess.

Text appeared at the bottom of the wall: Robertson’s Menswear Summer Styles.

The ad was interrupted by a call from Karen.

‘I’m here, can you let me in?’

‘Yep, head upstairs.’ The aug opened the front door remotely. ‘I’m two blocks away, see you in a few minutes.’

‘Ok,’ she said. ‘See you soon.’

Harry started jogging, remembering what waited for him back at his apartment. He made the final two blocks in three minutes.

‘You didn’t have to run,’ Karen said as she greeted him at the door.

‘Oh but I did,’ he said, closing on her quickly and wrapping her up in his arms. He kissed her on the lips, and then started at her neck, drawing squeals from Karen.

‘Stop,’ she screamed between laughs. She pushed him back, grinning. ‘You’re drunk, aren’t you.’

Harry pulled back and became serious.

‘Darling, how could you say that? Honestly, five beers in four hours, and I rushed back as soon as I heard you were coming.’ She stood there with her arms crossed. ‘I tell you what, aug, prep video of my time at the pub, fifty times speed, and send through to Karen.’

Karen’s eyes began scanning as the video arrived.

‘See?’ Harry said, but Karen held up a finger. She was going to watch the whole thing, all three minutes of it.

‘She’s cute.’

‘Who?’

‘The girl Adam took home.’

‘Oh, I don’t know about that,’ Harry said, but Karen motioned for silence again.

‘Ok, you’re off the hook. Wine?’ She skipped over to the pantry and grabbed a bottle from the shelf.

‘You’re not trying to take advantage of me, are you?’ Harry said.

‘Maybe.’ She looked over her shoulder and smiled, opening the bottle with a twist.

‘What are we having?’

‘I downloaded the profile of a Bordeaux red from 1970. My aug recommended aging it twenty years, apparently that’s when it was at its best.’

‘Sounds great.’

‘Only the best for you.’ She carried over the two glasses and motioned for the couch.

Harry plonked himself in the corner of the seat. Karen walked over and passed him a glass before settling in close to him. She squirmed and then sat up, reaching for two pillows in the other corner, slapping one down on top of Harry’s thigh and the other on top in front of his ribs, before settling herself back in.

‘Comfortable?’

‘Very,’ she said, forcing her head up from horizontal as she took a sip of her wine. ‘So how was work?’

‘Same as normal, boring data stuff. Oh, I found a whacko who got off on being chased by angels today.’

‘Well that sounds interesting.’

‘Yeah, kinda. More than most days at least, got to do some real analysis. How about you?’

‘Flat out,’ she said. ‘Yuri’s show is tomorrow. Oh, how did you like the tux I sent?’

‘I look smashing, but you’re going to have to wait until tomorrow to see me in it.’

‘I’ve seen a simulation darling, I know how you look. So, most of the work for the opening itself is being done by the Ministry for the Arts but the mayor is hosting the main afterparty so I’ve been frantically making sure everything is set. I think we’re good to go, mainly because I’ve been on it from the start, but it doesn’t help when people try to complicate things at the last minute.’

‘I can imagine.’

‘Yeah. I’ve got councillors insisting on last-minute invites for their donors, and friend’s and niece’s boyfriends and everyone, and they just expect me to put my plans aside to meet their whims. I mean, I’ve made a few compromises, there is one group of gifted art students who got an invite to the event and we were able to find space for them but I figure that’ll be a good photo opportunity for her.’

‘You see, that’s why I haven’t asked for any tickets for my friends, I wouldn’t dare.’

‘And I’d know better than to let your friends near anything official. Except Adam maybe, at least he knows how to dress properly.’ She took another drink. ‘It’s been a lot of work you know, lots of late nights, but as of midday today we realised we were ready and I spent the last half of the afternoon just double checking and making sure everyone knew what I need them to do. Mark’s the go-to if there’s an issue tonight, he’ll only call if something major goes wrong.’

‘So you freed your night up? I’m flattered. Actually, I thought you were catching up with Tess.’

‘I cancelled. Figured I would have more fun with you.’

‘You should have brought her along, we could have had even more fun.’

Karen jabbed her elbow into his ribs. She looked up at Harry and narrowed her eyes. ‘Anyhow,’ she said, settling back into her original position, ‘I’m relieved, relaxed and ready for tomorrow.’

‘And tonight you’re all mine.’

‘If you change your attitude, maybe.’

‘I know you better than that. And I know what you need.’

‘What do I need?’

Harry took her hand and placed it on his crotch.

‘Romantic,’ she said, removing her hand and picking up her glass. ‘This is more what I need.’ She took another sip. ‘Besides, you were being mean, trying to make me jealous. You need to make it up to me now.’

Harry laughed. ‘That’s probably fair enough.’

They sat in silence for a time, drinking and thinking, before the augs noticed the break in conversation and started feeding information to them both.

It was Karen who broke the silence. ‘Do you ever think of other girls?’

‘Not really. A second girlfriend would be too much work. Do you think of other girls?’

‘I’m being serious.’ She sat up and looked at him. ‘I mean it, do you think of other girls?’

‘Honestly? I notice other girls, I suppose. You see someone attractive, think about them for a moment, at least in the primitive parts of the brain, but never seriously, and never for very long.’ He looked at her earnestly. ‘I know what I have here. You’re amazing, the best I’ve ever had, in bed and in the world. And I love you.’ He leant in and kissed her. As he closed his eyes the memory of Mr Huang appeared in his mind’s eye, a product of his imagination, not his aug.

‘I love you too,’ she said quietly before looking up. ‘And I’m not going to share you with anyone.’

‘Ha, yeah alright. But I’m not sharing you, either.’

‘You don’t have to, I’m yours. Always.’ This time she pushed herself on top of him, kissing him, her arms reaching around his neck. She clumsily reached for the coffee table with her wine hand, Harry intercepting the glass before it toppled over. He reached out and placed both their glasses safely away.

Then he reached up, stroking her face softly as he positioned himself underneath her. She straddled him, his hands resting on her hips under the shirt she was wearing. As she leant down to kiss him he raised his hands higher, slowly pulling up her top and exposing the flesh underneath. She sat up again as it passed her head, her hands then reaching behind her back to undo her bra. She set to work at Harry’s shirt.

Harry’s aug detected the kissing, the change in his pulse and temperature, the stirrings of arousal. As Karen came close to kiss him once again, Harry closed his eyes and the aug opened two prompts in his vision.

The first simply said Play Video? Harry launched the application. Three videos opened up, simple miniature 3D recordings, each set in a corner of his peripheral vision.

The first was a recording made of him and Karen, early in their relationship, when she’d let him set up record and re-create a session from both their perspectives. It was simple enough, vanilla even by their standards, but sometimes he liked to have it playing when he was having sex with her. He closed it, it wasn’t that sort of night.

The second was always Vanessa and one of her encounters, randomly selected from the library of recordings in his head. This time it was outdoors, from about two years ago, where a large group of women were mixing naked in an open clearing in a forest. There was a fire in the centre, and Vanessa and her companion, a young brunette whose body was painted with butterflies and leaves, were sitting atop a tree stump, cautiously stroking each other in the warm sunlight. After what had happened last night he wanted Vanessa gone, and he quickly closed it as well, leaving only one open in his vision.

The last was a simulation, one he’d made himself, on some software he’d obtained as part of his work making ads. It was of Karen, sitting in a spa bath, with her friends Tess and Amy. The three women were naked, drinking champagne, laughing and talking. Gradually, the tension between them built, until the other two were kissing Karen, her resistance to their advances, her insistence on her unavailability, evaporating as she surrendered to pleasure.

As the video continued, Harry’s hands continued their motions, grabbing and groping and pulling clothing away, the video only stopping when he opened his eyes. It was just to get him going, to get him up, and to keep him focused on her. He could do it without the videos and sometimes did, but it was easier this way. Once the main event started, he would normally get the aug to stop the video altogether.

The second prompt launched by the aug simply said Remove Mask? Harry blinked again and the command launched. He got a response a moment later, a yes from Karen, and the couple both removed their outward faces.

Harry opened his eyes, relishing the chance to look on Karen as she really was. She was still beautiful, and behind the mask her eyes had returned to her natural olive colour. Other things, things only seen by him, started to come to his attention as his eyes washed over her. There was the faint fuzz on her upper lip, the left ear that stuck out more than the other, the dimples and creases that played on her cheeks when she smiled. As his eyes moved lower he saw her pert but mismatched breasts, the left smaller and slightly higher, and he ran both hands down until they rested on them, feeling them, reinforcing what his eyes were telling him. Lower still there was the birthmark, bright red, the size of his thumb, just left of her belly button. And then the marks on her thighs, from high school, when she was larger, barely visible to the naked eye but hidden from the world under her mask just the same.

This true nakedness was one that many people never reached. When Karen first told him about the app he was shocked that she would want to see him like that and was terrified of what she would think when she did. Beyond that it was unauthorised, some sort of grey market purchase, and his aug had warned him that it couldn’t guarantee his safety. But slowly he came around, opening himself to her gaze, putting aside the carefully crafted face and body built for the world and sharing his real self, his authentic self, with the woman he loved.

Harry had more to hide than Karen. His mask hid more lines, and the face beneath was rougher than the one projected to the world. But Karen delighted in the strands of grey hair and seemed to relish the novelty of his rugged appearance. It was a look that affronted fashion, but ultimately it was the real him.

Karen closed her eyes as he pulled down the last of her clothes and rolled on top of her. He double blinked, turning off the video feed in his vision.