“Here’s your room-card, sir. I trust you will enjoy your night. If there are any problems at all, do not hesitate to call us here in the office. Oh, and one last thing,” The proprietor smiled, a little too widely for my liking, his beady green eyes twinkling beneath a pair of anachronistic bifocals. Tufts of white hair bobbled on his skull as he made his way around the counter and approached me. He leaned closer and whispered in my ear conspiratorially. “Since you’re a first timer, make sure you go easy on the extras. Too much stimulation isn’t good for anybody, if you get my meaning,” He grinned again. Again I felt slightly disturbed. “Just stick to the program and you’ll be just fine. Or more than fine,” He gave me a firm pat on the back and returned to his post.
I mumbled a perfunctory thank-you and set about finding my room. The place was bigger than I had expected. It was only a single level but stretched far into the distance, identical black doors facing each other, a low light-filtered roof providing an eerie illumination. Outside I could hear the pitter-patter of rain, and a distant growl of thunder. There was an artificial peach-like fragrance hanging in the air which, when I had first entered the establishment, had been cloying and unpleasant, but was now just the opposite. I felt in surprisingly good spirits as I paced down the red-carpeted corridor, eager to see just what all the fuss was about.
Almost everybody I knew had experienced at least one night in a Holo-Tel. Whilst they had popped into existence just two years ago, they had been an immediate success, glowing testimonials of incredible life-like companions spreading like wildfire. There had been a smattering of negative press as well, mainly regarding a lack of self-regulation, but not enough to dissuade the masses from seeking pleasures previously confined to the realm of science fiction.
I came to my room, number twenty six. I slid the card into the magnetic lock, opened the door and stepped into what looked like a plain hotel room, a single bed in one corner, a 3d-vision set in the other.
The only striking feature was a large blue swathe of cloth that adorned the wall facing the bed. It appeared to be fabric, but on closer inspection, it was nothing of the sort. As I touched it gingerly with my forefinger, it rippled languorously, almost sensually. Small white charges danced on the surface then disappeared. It was only then that I saw the plaque affixed directly above this blue mystery: Do Not Touch.
Hearing the rain outside strengthen into a steady, quick-time march, I sat on the edge of the white-sheeted bed. Although I was excited and smiling despite myself, part of me wished I hadn’t come here alone, that Beth could be sitting next to me right now. She had been gone for six months, but mentally I hadn’t been able to unhook myself from her, nor fully process her death. If only I had been there to make sure she had stuck to her prescription, to-
“Welcome to Illusion Eyes Holo-Tel.”
The sonorous, yet inviting female voice snapped me back into the moment. Looking around for speakers or any other kind of gadgetry, I saw only smooth walls and empty corners. This place was certainly adept at hiding its tricks.
“Steven, I am Alicia, and I will be your hostess for the night. It is my duty to ensure you have the most complete and memorable experience possible while you are under my care.”
“Um, ok, sounds good,” I stammered, not sure where to look. I didn’t have to wonder much longer as the blue cloth before me shimmered and then, in a furious flurry of pixels, transformed into a wholly convincing landscape scene, replete with clear blue sky, rolling hills and farmhouses. The entire image seemed to stretch for a moment, and then expand towards me, until I was not only seeing it, I was within it. I could barely breathe as I marvelled at the sheer believability of the illusion – I could smell the fresh grass, I could feel the sun on my pale skin, I could hear birds chirping in the background.
I was so dumbfounded by the spectacle that it took me a minute to realise this was Beth’s family farm where we had shared our first real kiss, many moons ago. I almost expected to see her materialise but was strangely relieved when a woman very unlike Beth appeared.
“Pleased to meet you in person, Steven,” she said sweetly. I chuckled at the conceit, too enchanted to care.
She had long black hair, perfect features and very little clothing on, just enough to conceal her curvy body and retain a modicum of class. “I hope I’m all that you expected.” She smiled – an intoxicating, girlish grin – and took my hand, guiding me towards the farmhouse. “What you see around you is a synthesis of the pre-session evaluations we undertook. Your fondest memory, your favourite time and place. And I am what you described as your perfect woman. Do you think I fit the bill?”
I nodded dumbly as she opened the farmhouse door and led me inside. It was just as I remembered it, down to the finest detail. How such a thing was possible I didn’t dare contemplate. My mind was dislocated enough as it was. And it felt just fine.
We climbed the splintery ladder to the loft where Beth and I had shared that awkward, yet sacred moment when we had been just sixteen, still groping at the world around us. Alicia began to undress as I felt a wondrous heat overtake my body, filling every part of me with a mixture of lust and giddying sensory confusion. She lay down in front of me, naked as the day she was programmed, and beckoned me to join her.
“I want you to forget everything and just focus on me, Steven. I want this moment to be perfect. One you will remember forever. Now I really think you are quite overdressed. You need some help with that?”
I tore at my clothes with animalistic fury, never so eager to be naked in my entire life. In the back of my mind I knew that nothing around me was real, and I was startled to realise just how little I cared. I now understood just why Holo-Tel’s were so popular – they were the ideal escape, one that could be experienced and believed without doing anymore more than sitting on a hotel bed. I was about to pull my boxer shorts down when Alicia spoke once more, but her voice had a different quality this time, slightly more jagged and intense.
“Can you hurry the fuck up there, Stevey boy?”
Beth called me that-
“Never in a rush, are you? Never on time. No wonder you weren’t there for her. She’s fucking dead because of you.”
This was not part of the program.
“Who’s dead?” I said, genuinely chilled by the words. I still felt the euphoria of the illusion, but it was receding at a sickening rate.
“You know very well. Beth. The girl you said you loved more than anything, the girl you promised to always look out for.”
“Why are you saying this…? I thought we were going to…”
“You thought what? We were going to get down and dirty?”
“How do you know about Beth?” I was shouting now.
“The evaluation, Steven. Background checks. Safety first, right? We need to know the finer details about all our clients and their partners, past and present.”
“I couldn’t be there, the traffic was hellish, I tried, I did,” I pleaded.
“This is my fantasy, why are you doing this?” My confusion and anger had erased any pleasant sensation by now.
“You got too close, Steven. Didn’t you read the sign? I hate when people touch what’s not theirs! I need to make sure you won’t do it again.”
Suddenly, Alicia didn’t seem so appealing. Her skin was no longer glowing and supple, but shrinking in on itself, blackening like it had been set alight. After a string of ghastly moments all that remained was a skeleton, lying in the hay where Beth had given herself to me.
“This is what Beth looks like now, thanks to you,” the thing said in a rasping voice, the obscene jaw synched poorly to the words.
“Why are you doing this…” I felt hot tears stinging the corner of my eyes, furious at myself for being so upheaved by a cheap hologram.
“It’s a lesson you need to learn. And one you will be keeping to yourself, Stevey boy. I think we both know that.”
“Oh, I doubt that. I’ll make sure I’ll tell that guy out front all about this. This is a sick joke! I want my money back. And I’ll tell everyone I know to never come here.”
“Is that so?” the skull said, grinning.
The next thing I felt was rain pelting down on me. I looked around and saw I was outside the Holo-Tel. Bewildered and still burning with rage, I ran to the front door and tried to open it. It was securely locked, a Closed sign was hanging in the window. I thumped on the glass with my sweaty, shaking fists, until the proprietor’s smug, too-small face appeared. This time he wasn’t smiling.
“I hear you had some issues there, Mister Stapleton. My deepest regrets. The plaque is quite clear though, is it not? Do Not Touch. We can’t have the guests damaging our precious Holo-Cloth.”
“How did I get out here? Did you drug me or something?” My head pounded, confusion threatening to overwhelm me completely.
“You were, how do we say, managed,” he said, shouting now to be heard over the rain. “Best you go home and forget about the whole thing.”
“I want my money back!” I demanded. “That was nothing like you promised. I’ll make sure everyone hears about this fucking place.”
“Oh, my apologies,” he said contritely. He opened a small compartment in the door and slid a wad of bills through it. I grabbed them, checked it was all there.
“This isn’t going to shut me up, you know,” I yelled.
“Goodbye, Mister Stapleton. Have a lovely night.”
He vanished, and after spitting on the door and doing my very best to shatter some of the windows, I resigned myself to getting away from this place and to a real bed, and a real woman, even if I had to pay for her. First thing tomorrow I would contact every authority and company I could think of to make sure Illusion Eyes Holo-Tel became nothing more than a hologram itself.
As I unlocked my AeroWing car door and settled behind the myriad blinking lights and dials, I fingered the wad of bills I have been given, still surprised he had at least refunded me in full. It was only then I caught a strong scent of peaches wafting off the cash, and before I knew it I was driving home with a too-wide, contented smile on my face.