Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Virtually Yours by Nina Munteanu


In keeping with the theme of AI, here is a love story that blurs the realms of virtual and real. This variant of "Beauty and the Beast" strays into the area of disturbing intrusiveness...one plausible scenario of a brain implant. "Virtually Yours" was first published in Hadrosaur Tales and later reprinted in Neo-Opsis Science Fiction Magazine. It was translated and published in Nowa Fantastika in Poland and Bli Panika in Israel. Virtually Yours was nominated for the Aurora Award and the SLF Fountain Award.





Virtually Yours

Vincent yanked the V-set off his head and found himself back in his apartment, lying alone and spent on his king-size bed. The cozy cabin with the fireplace had vanished. Katherine was gone.
He stared at the V-set. His vehicle to paradise. To Katherine.

Her scent of lilac lingered in his mind as he summoned her beautiful face, smiling just for him. No, he reminded himself. Not for me. For Jake, my carrier. It was Jake she smiled at. Jake she had just made love to. Jake, who smelled her desire, felt the tender stroke of her slender legs. Vincent was just along for the ride.

His eyes swept down his deformed and gnarled body. Angry boils and scars encrusted his livid hairless skin. He remembered colliding two days ago with her in a Samson Corporation hallway and her hand had unintentionally brushed his thigh. She’d jerked back, blushing with the shame of not knowing how to avoid staring at him in revulsion. Then she’d rushed off before he had a chance to speak. Probably to wash her hand. I’m just another anonymous Corporation Overseer, he thought. A nameless ugly gnome. She doesn’t know that I’m Vincent, her Overseer, with whom she shares beautiful thoughts of life and poetry over the V-screen.
Two weeks ago she’d boldly begun to offer a few friendly comments at the end of her progress memo. He’d responded with his own and found himself looking forward to her messages more than anything else during the workday. When he opened them, he clicked straight to her post-script, leaving her formal report for later. He recalled the message she’d sent him last week that had started everything:

“Do you like poetry, Overseer? It is one of my passions. I’ve read a lot of Milton lately. Granted his writing is over 400 years old; yet he evokes in my soul a yearning for Eden. Do you think Eden can exist on Earth? Perhaps it is our destiny to long for it.”

Up to then she’d used her worker code-name as salutation: “Cheers, V-screen USER 134872”. This time she’d signed, “Virtually yours, Katherine.”

It was as he reread her signature over and over, that he’d come up with his ingenious scheme to track her down among the hundred roaming workers in the Samson Corporation research lab by assigning a carrier to work with her. It had started out innocently enough. He’d only wanted to know what she looked like. It was Sen Tech’s fault.

His SenTech holo program and the V-set’s link to a sensor embedded in Jake’s forehead gave Vincent the next best thing to having Katherine. Thanks to Jake, who didn’t even know he was providing Vincent this service, SenTech permitted Vincent to see, hear, feel and taste Katherine using Jake’s senses. Jake had no idea of Vincent’s access to the implant or that Overseers typically used them to spy on their carriers. Jake only knew that the implant provided him with enhanced cognitive abilities. Being connected directly to the central computer database was a great advantage to him in his work as Vincent’s data manager.

Hoping to make the meeting pleasant for her, as well as for himself, he’d selected Jake as his carrier based on what he’d ascertained of Katherine’s physical tastes in men. But once he saw her blush with desire at Jake’s perfect physique, smelled her hunger and felt Jake’s heart throb, he knew that he’d wanted more all along. This would be a good ride, he’d thought, and immediately prepared his AIs for full surveillance. Jake moved fast. Following their initial inflamed encounter at Samson Corp, Jake enticed her to his secluded cabin, where he seduced her. Vincent was unprepared for the sweetness of it and how it inflamed his own forgotten desires. Through Jake, Vincent felt like a consumate lover, drawing her out patiently, using gentle, tender strokes at first then matching her escalating rhythm. She was shy though not coy and wonderfully responsive. When the lovemaking had ended, Vincent felt strange, as though he’d betrayed himself. Moved by the experience, he’d wrenched off his V-set and wrote her an E-note as her anonymous Overseer. He’d heavily quoted Milton.
“She’d never look at me the way she looks at Jake,” Vincent said, glancing down at his mishapen body. Mildred, his model 20 AI droid, glided to the bed and touched his shoulder. It said in a tinny voice, “She does not know you are her Overseer, Vincent? Perhaps you should tell her, she might like you—”

“No, Mildred,” he snapped. He imagined compassion in Mildred’s round green eyes and let his voice soften, “She might like communicating with me as her anonymous Overseer, but I’m afraid this is the only way she’ll ever look at me that way.” He placed the V-set on the nightstand. “She could never love me.” Vincent let out a long breath and stroked the V-set. “But I’m content with what I have.” A wry smile crossed his lips as he wrestled with a pleasure edged in guilt. His creative use of SenTech’s surveillance capabilities definitely stretched its intended use. “Does that make me some sort of pimp?” He eyed the folds in the sheets then stroked the sheet. Resting his gaze on the leopard-skin of his hand, he murmered, “So be it. At least I’m a harmless one.”

“The library inquires as to whether you wish to save this SenTech scenario as Katherine 1 for later use?” Mildred rasped.

“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. He brought the sheet to his face, wanting to savor her scent, knowing he would smell nothing, and clenched the fabric into a ball. With a cursory glance down at his gnarled body, he jerked to his feet. “Save it.”

~~~~
“He’s so damn ugly. Like some monster from a bad movie,” Fanny whispered to Katherine as they looked for free workstations two weeks later. Fanny stared through the transparent panel to a hunched figure in the office perched above them. He was one of twenty Overseers in the Research Department of Samson Corporation, but Katherine knew which one Fanny meant. There was only one ugly Overseer.

She stole a glance up to where he paced like a feral cat, eyes flashing at them. She felt her face heat. Embarrassed for him, she quickly looked away. Of course he hadn’t heard Fanny. But surely he knew what they all said about him. Could read it in their churlish glances and smirks. The glabrous skin of his face and head looked like melted wax. Its smooth surface was blemished with islands of angry bubbles and crevasses that resembled burning lava. She couldn’t help thinking of the rumor that he’d actually caused the fire, which had nearly taken his life and killed several people. They’d been experimenting with a new product at the lab. The explosion took his three colleagues, including his fiancée.

“You wonder why he doesn’t get some major surgery done,” Fanny continued as they claimed two unoccupied workstations. “In this day and age, when nano-reconstruction’s so attainable, it’s as if he wants to look that way, to scare us all.”

Punishing himself, Katherine thought, and felt her eyes sting. If Fanny could only look beyond his ugly shell into those eyes of gentle sadness and vulnerability. She remembered when they’d bumped into one another three weeks ago in the hallway and her hand had accidentally touched his thigh. He smelled of smoke and metal. Their eyes met and she blushed like a teenager. He had the eyes of a poet. She’d turned away without a word and fled. He’d probably thought her rude.

“Fanny, he’s probably a G-type,” Katherine said, glaring into space. She yanked at her chair and let herself drop into it. “G-types can’t handle the side effects of nano-construction.” Her fingers slid furiously along the alpha console, activating her virtual support and accessing the network with her code. Instantly, her station housed itself with a set of files, a virtual bookshelf filled with books, and a vase with flowers.

“Okay,” Fanny said, settling into the chair next to her. She activated her virtual support: stacks of files with documents and papers and a poster of a naked man. “You don’t have to get snippy about it. You’d think you liked him or something.” She gazed into the distance. “I’m glad we don’t know who our Overseers are — or they us. I’d die if he turned out to be mine. Imagine if he was your Overseer, Katherine! How awful! What irony: beauty and the beast. It’s like he knows it too, knows how absurd that would be — never looks at you.”

Katherine felt her face crimson. Or was it that he detested physical beauty? Found her reprehensible.

“Fanny leaned into her and cocked her head. “He might as well be an AI20, alone up there in his ivory tower, anonymously giving orders to some of us peons. Ugly as sin and cold as metal.”
Katherine recoiled. “Fanny!” She focused on her computer screen, surprised at the yearning that stirred inside her. He wasn’t a machine. More like a wounded animal. No one knew the name much less the identity of his or her Overseer. But when she’d defied protocol two weeks ago and signed with her name, Katherine, he’d followed suit with his: Vincent. She knew Vincent was the beast. Felt it in her heart. Vincent’s “voice” and the beast’s eyes spoke the same truth. But where the ignoble beast howled baleful regrets to the moon, this beast quoted poetry to her.
No, not to her, she corrected herself. She was just another rude employee who bumped into him once. He didn’t know she was V-screen USER 134872 — now Katherine — who sent him progress memos, and lately shared her personal thoughts with him. She clicked on her saved messages and found the one she was looking for, Vincent’s response three weeks ago to her silly remark about poetry and Milton.

She’d reread it several times and every time her heart flipped when he used her name:
“I admire your passion for poetry, Katherine. Does it not strip prose to the very essence of what drives our soul? If you believe in destiny, then each of us is already a story waiting to be written; mine would be a tragedy. Alas, my burning desire for knowledge destroyed the thing I most loved. I do not expect to find Eden in my lifetime here on this Earth, or elsewhere, for that matter.

“You have made me curious to read Milton. His poetry remains relevant to this day. Perhaps you are right about our longing for Eden: ‘These lull’d by Nightingale embracing slept, and on their naked limbs the flow’ry roof show’r’d roses, which the morn repair’d’.”
Following her lead, he’d signed “Virtually yours, Vincent”.

Three weeks later they were still sharing personal philosophies and always found an opportunity to quote Milton.

“Now, that’s more like it!” Fanny’s strident voice cut into her silent rapture. Katherine jumped in her seat, swept the screen clear and looked up, face burning in anticipation of finding Fanny looking over her shoulder. But Fanny was gazing at a man striding toward them. Katherine sighed and felt a surge of pleasure. Jake. She’d met him just over two weeks ago, when Vincent had assigned them a joint task.

“Now there’s a specimen.” Fanny said. “What a perfect body and face. Bet he’s a great lay.”
Katherine blushed. She appraised Jake’s showman’s eyes, firm jaw that easily supported the loose smile he always wore, and a seamless brow partially hidden beneath thick curls of chestnut hair. Yes, he was a knock out. And exciting.

“You’re a lucky girl.” Fanny sighed.

“Yeah,” Katherine said, sensing her own hesitation. “Lucky.” Although they’d been physically intimate many times already, she still didn’t know Jake. His charm and humor masked a reserve of quiet depth — or nothing? Could he sustain a loving relationship with her or was Jake just lustfully infatuated with her?

“He’s a carrier, isn’t he?”

Katherine nodded. “Carries a piece of the V-net inside him.”

“That’s why he’s so swift and enlightened.”

Katherine nodded. She didn’t consider Jake exactly enlightened. Swift, perhaps. He’d managed to get her in a prone position the first day they met and every day after that.

“You’re so lucky, Katherine. You’ve got it all.”

Katherine swallowed. She’d been considering breaking off. Jake seemed more interested in using his mouth for kissing than for talking. After two weeks of wonderful sex, she began to long for the serenity that came with sharing an ordinary life with another person. She and Jake didn’t seem to have much in common. They’d never conversed like she and Vincent had on the V-screen. Jake was a bored realist. And he took no interest in poetry. She resolved to break off, before he dumped her for another lustful jaunt.

“Hi, girls.” Jake tussled Fanny’s mop then glided to Katherine like a panther. Gathering her long hair back with both hands, he bent to kiss her on the neck. Her decision blurred at his seductive touch. Jake seized her hands and coaxed her up from her seat. “Come.” He grinned like a boy hiding a lizard in his pocket. “I have something to tell you.” He led her away from the workstations toward the lounge.

“What is it, Jake?” Her eyes darted around her and she looked annoyed at him. “People are watching.”

“I can’t tell you here. Tonight. Meet me at Samson Square, Level 2 at 23:00. That’s when my evening shift ends. Promise?”

“Okay.” She looked down, wondering how she was going to break the news to him.

~~~~
“I love you,” he said, pulling her toward him. “Marry me.”
Her throat swelled. Was that his news? She had come to tell him she didn’t love him, she was in love with another man. A poet.

“I need to tell you something, Jake.”

“Later, later,” he whispered in her hair, pulling her into an alcove of an abandoned shop. “First my conversation.” He caressed her ear with his lips and played them over her neck and face. It sent a shiver through her. She closed her eyes and thought of Vincent: ‘with thee conversing I forget all time’. She let him maneuver her to a dark corner. He kissed her eyelids, her cheeks, her hair. Perhaps she’d been too harsh. He wanted to marry her, after all, to share an ordinary life together.

She helped him shrug out of his clothes and smelled his longing. Let him undress her, pull her down on top of him, taste the hollow of her shoulder, her breasts, her nipples. She imagined Vincent’s trembling hands, his tender glance. His fingers exploring, diving into her dark longing for him. She shuddered, surrendering to her passion. ‘Flesh of flesh, bone of my bone thy art’. Later, she thought. Then thought no longer.

~~~~
Something nudged Vincent awake. “Katherine is with her lover,” said Mildred, peering down at him.

Vincent roused himself, wiped the sleep from his eyes and croaked, “Library, connect with SenTech sensor, subject carrier Jake. On screen.” Katherine’s face appeared on the huge screen on the far wall. She looked straight at him with longing. Her lips parted as she drew closer. Vincent flung off the covers and sat up, naked, ignoring his misshapen leopard-body. He snatched the V-set from the nightstand and pulled it over his head, letting the translucent screen cover his face. “Library, activate SenTech virtual program. Save this scenario as Katherine 17. Remember to voice-over ‘Jake’ with ‘Vincent’.”

The room disappeared, replaced by a dark corridor. He lay on the cold surface of the grimy floor. Her warm body slid over him and he smelled the sweet spice of her desire. Perhaps he could find Eden on Earth after all! He felt himself firm and whispered, “‘Part of my soul I seek thee, Katherine, and claim my other half’.”

She drew back and peered at him with wide eyes. Then she tilted her head, gave him a searching look, and leaned forward. He felt her breath on him. “Vincent?”

His heart soared. “‘How can I live without thee, how forgo thy sweet converse and love so dearly join’d, to live again in these wild woods forlorn’?”

She stared at him in astonishment, then broke into a wonderful smile and kissed him. She whispered into his hair, “‘With that thy gentle hand seiz’d mine, Vincent, I yielded, and from that time see how beauty is excell’d by manly grace and wisdom, which alone is truly fair’.”
Frantic for her, he clasped her and thrust into her moist haven. She gasped. “Oh, Vincent! Vincent!”

His spirit soared like a falcon to her tender loving. When it was over she leaned her cheek against his and murmured, “I love you, Vincent.” He closed his eyes. If this were only true, he thought. It felt so real. When he opened his eyes she was staring at him with intense wonder. “You’re crying. . .”

Vincent wrenched off the V-set and blinked the tears from his eyes. The room returned. He was back on his bed. The screen was dark and she was gone. Vincent glanced down at himself, covered in his own semen. He let his eyes flutter shut and clung to her sweet words of love, ignoring what he knew — that her uttering his name was the computer’s doing — and imagined the sweet perfume of her love mingled in his own.

Then he bowed his head and stared at his shriveled hands. They looked like withered twigs, infested with parasites. His body a hideous monstrosity. It was obvious that she loved Jake. How could he ever think she loved him.

He swallowed down his emotion and stumbled to his feet. Clearing his throat, he said, “Please clean up the bed, Mildred. I’ll be in the shower.”

“Do you wish to save this scenario?” he heard its tinny voice behind him.

“Yes, yes,” he growled. This was the only way he could have her. “Tell the library to flag this one with four stars.”

Vincent caught his own reflection in the hall mirror and stopped. The stretched skin of his face glistened like plastic that had been meddled with, its integrity destroyed. He pulled at the single tuft of hair on his mottled head and, feeling the pain, stared into his own narrowed eyes in challenge.

The crying, the poetry, were surely his feelings and thoughts, not Jake’s? Yet Jake had expressed them to Katherine. Up to now Vincent had been convinced that SenTech provided strictly a one-way conduit from carrier to Overseer. SenTech was designed to help Vincent sense everything that occurred to his carrier, but only as an active spectator. What just happened with Katherine implied that Jake had acted on a subliminal message from Vincent. That he, Vincent, had initiated action. He blinked at the realization and saw his eyes widen with excitement, then guilt and dread.

What have I started?

~~~~
Katherine lay upon Jake, her cheek pressed against his furry chest. She gently stroked his hair. “You were so sweet to quote Milton,” she said. “I had no idea you’d taken an interest.”

Jake brushed his eyes with his hand and looked baffled. “I’m not sure why — how. It just came out of my mouth. I’ve never read Milton. You’re the one who reads that stuff.”

Her lips curled in sudden amusement. She liked seeing him vulnerable. “Perhaps a poetic muse has invaded your mind,” she teased and ran her fingers through his curls. He’d shown that beneath his reserve there lay a depth she’d never suspected.

He thought for a moment. “Perhaps I should start reading it.”

She buried her nose in his hair, inhaling his musky smell. “And, the crying—”

He drew back, embarrassed, and shot her a dark look. “Why did you call me Vincent? Who’s Vincent?”

“Did I?” Katherine swallowed. When they’d made love, she’d lost herself in his eyes, imagined for a brief moment that he really was Vincent. Spirit and flesh mingled into one whole. She bowed her head. “He’s only a character in a virtual game I was playing,” she said casually. Vincent could never be really hers. Uncomfortable with her outer beauty, he’d irrevocably isolated his physical self from her. Didn’t want her. She’d been sharing “love-notes” with a phantom. But Jake was physically here with her. She could touch him. Could feel his warm breath upon her face.

And he loved her. She knew that now: no one had ever wept for her before. He’d even quoted poetry to her. She decided against breaking off. Maybe there was a little of Vincent even in Jake.




Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.

5 comments:

Karen said...

Words escape me.

A consummate achievement, Nina...

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Just beautiful, Nina. A pleasure to read.

Wish I was at Calgary.

WalksFarWoman said...

Oh Nina, you made us love Vincent I so wanted Katherine to overcome the barrier between them. Having said that it's kind of satisfying to realise that the scenario brings her to him whenever he wants. Great story, we can all learn so much from you.

sfgirl said...

Thanks, guys...I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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