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.
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.
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.
I say in Japanese, and continue walking toward Xena's.
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.
Shu! This is the third time this week.”
I slap a wad
of cash down in front of her.
usual room please.”
her head. “Sorry,
number ten is taken. The only one available is number
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.
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.
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
monitor hangs from the wall. I shrug out of my coat and
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.
thing is broken.
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.
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.
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
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.
My voice squeaks, and I urge myself to say more.
can you hear me?”
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.
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
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.
you enjoy yourself, Mr. Shu?”
I say. As I disappear into the anonymous crowd on the
street, I call over my shoulder,
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