SHE WAS SO VIRTUAL, I COULD ALMOST feel the hum of the universe in our embrace as we tumbled, weightlessly, in endless ecstasy around the flaring sun. Nikola, eyes of starfire, skin like shimmering nebulae... so precise, so astoundingly complete, how could you be an illusion? You must be real, I must believe this is more than an arcade game, that we're really here, locked, in stellar orbit. <<How can you doubt me now>> she sighs, and as we climax the sun explodes and blows into a million tingling pieces.

But when I wake, druggy and disoriented, I'm lying in a cold plastic vat... alone.

The reality of Interface.

A BIT ABOUT ME, I GUESS: I WORK AS a conceptual engineer for Utopian Fabrications (Un)Limited, designing accommodation nodules for the lower orbit colonies, and have a nice office floating over Hokkaido. The pay's as good as can be expected these days but the work can get boring, except during Tuesday afternoon groupmind that is, when everyone to harness the collective ingenuity of UFU's 9000 employees everyone connects their brains to the central computer and interacts their ideas for increased productivity, dream marketing - sort of like a staff conference in cyberspace. Actually even this can get boring but afterwards, to repair brain cells possibly damaged by think-tank, smart drinks are served on the rainforest terrace and everyone gets the rest of the afternoon off.

<<I had the greatest VR last night>> I confessed to the boys during the recovery. <<I was piloting the space cruiser Yamato, transporting rare metals to the galatic rim. We were attacked by Romulans somewhere near the walls of Orion, and my ship was struck by a torpedo. The Yamato's hull was pierced, and I was sucked into space. I was floating there in the darkness, gasping and waiting to die, when... you should have seen her! the most beautiful girl I have ever seen came drifting past me. We embraced. It was so realistic, almost better than the real thing... I didn't want to come back.>>

<<You don't know what the real thing is like!>> Leiji said, and the others started to laugh. <<All this cybersex shit is weird. Come out with me and I'll show you real women, and I promise it will be better than a machine pulling you off!>>

It was easy for him: he was tall, muscled, rich. He did not know the pain of rejection. He went on to describe a recent weekend business trip to Hanoi, tropical lust flowering in a technician's wardrope. <<The best thing about real sex>> head backcocked, leaning boastfully <<the best thing about real sex is that when you up your pants and leave you know there is one more woman thinking about you... you've made an impression on her heart. What impact can you make on a machine?>>

SO I WENT OUT WITH LEIJI TO THE sleaziest club in town, looking for that elusive ``real thing''. Outer space was back in style again, after the long back to nature fad, and the club was full of 1950s spacesuits and alien costumes, Russian orbital dogs dancing in awkward moon steps to minimalist pulses and drinking fluorescent drinks like Liquid Oxygen (it wasn't really) and Big Bang (it was).

As we walked in we passed a group of girls wearing Martian antennas. <<Isn't that Celestina?>> Leiji said, nudging me.

I'd had a crush on her for years. <<Maybe this isn't the right place...>>

<<And a computer network is?>> He introduced himself to the girls and said: <<Come and see the holograms, they're off the planet!>> Whether it was some Pied Piper word or sleight of hand, he managed to lead all of the girls except Celestina on to the dance floor. He winked as he departed and whispered: <<Don't disappoint me, man.>>

<<So, great place>> I said. I was off to a great start. <<Only since they started Spaced Out night>> she said. Watching the hologram of a rocket cruise through the club she said: <<I haven't seen you here before.>>

<<I don't go out much>> I said. And for how long have I been staring at you?

I was about to tell her I loved her and wanted to spend my life with her when everyone screamed and a new song shimmered into being. <<I'm sorry, I have to dance to this!>> she squealed, and with a kiss on my cheek she ran off to join her friends on the floor. Watching her go I saw Leiji drag one of the Martians into one of the 30 Secs compartments, a stack of booths built into the walls with just enough room for two.

Oh well, maybe I wasn't dressed right.

Besides, she was no Nikola.

ESCAPISM IS THE BIGGEST INDUSTRY IN THE WORLD TODAY, AND its finest monument in Japan has to be the Interface Institute, the most sophisticated simulated love factory outside of Bangkok. Its giant Atari computer recognised me as a regular. <<Nikki again?>> she asked as I undressed, connected stimulators to all my major sensory and erogenous zones, flinched as I was jabbed with an hallucinogenic batch. <<I must be in love>> I laughed and slipped out of the world of offices and bars, into total interface with the infinite alternate worlds of th network.

When I came to again I was in what looked like a cloudhigh penthouse. Beyond a curved window wall stretched a skyscape of gleaming towers and hanging apartment blocks. Synthetic, vaguely classical music soothed out of the walls. Holograms of fluffy white clouds and yellow suns floated around the ceiling, and below stretched a fluffy white bed. The outline of a girl was squirming under the covers. Nikki! The music was getting louder, pulsier. A leg, brown and slim, hooked up from the fluff, gave me that classic ``Come and get it!'' gesture. I jumped on to the bed, grabbed the leg and yanked Nikola from under the sheets. She squealed and wrapped herself around me.

A wave of blue static rolled across the room, fogging the city view. The words TRANSMISSION BREAKDOWN flashed on and off through the fog.

Before I had time to swear an iconic representation of the Atari master computer appeared before me. <<The Interface Institute extends its sincere regret for this malfunction>> the icon said. <<In compensation, we offer the standard two free packages. Or you could have two girls at once.>>

<<I don't want anyone else>> I said. <<Has my program been modified?>>

<<Let me see.>>

A screen of text shone through the static:


AGE: 21.
BORN: Songjin, Allied Korean Trading Zones.
HISTORY: Mother market analyst, father technocrat; ed. Songjin Institute of High Technology, Korea University, Seoul; conscripted for the Battle of Vladivostok (awarded for valour in liberation of anarchist territories); information processor Delta Corp. Tokyo, Honolulu; ecological economist, Brisbane.

Under the text spun a blueprint of Nikola in all her biological perfection. <<That's her all right>> I said. <<I interfaced with her in the Yamato program last week. She looked the same today, smelt the same, felt the same... but something was wrong. I can't explain it.>>

All of a sudden Nikola came alive, and grabbed me by the hand. <<I'm sorry it didn't work out, honey. Maybe next time.>>

<<Nikola wouldn't say honey>> I said, and I reached for the eject button.

ESCAPISM MIGHT BE A BIG INDUSTRY, BUT THE CULTURE of the brown paper bag still persists. The first Friday of every month was always embarrassing.

As usual I got to work to find my colleagues had ripped open my II catalogue, and were leafing through its graphic contents.

<<Choose your fantasy>> Leiji was saying. <<Gay, straight, group, movie star - it's all available and more. Romp a farmboy in the back of a tractor in Stalinist Ukraine, or for the more romantic, share a racy weekend with two ladies from the court of Queen Victoria.>>

<<What's the problem>> me trying to grab the catalogue from him. <<I mean, if it feels good, what's the problem?>>

<<A hooker can make you feel good>> Leiji said <<but you would have to be desperate to rent one. But wait, there's something interesting here. The Reality Check program. ``Instead of just getting it on with an animated gif, the Reality Check program allows couples and participants to deepen their sexual bliss in the sensual ethers of cyberspace. Perfect for long-distance relationships.'' So, the two of you could jack in together and have sex through the computer! That's my idea of Interface, although I'm not sure I'd trust them synthesisng me - they could decide to keep my double as a permanent attraction at the Institute, or sell copies to bored housewives over the Internet.>>

I felt like interfacing him with my fist. I couldn't handle it any more. Taking an extended lunch, I thought about going back to the Institute and drowning my sorrows in a six-person orgy on some deserted island. I went home instead. Entering my password at the front door of my dreary tower I saw a woman in a black shawl studying my intercom panel.

<<I can't believe it's really you>> she said. I nearly fainted. <<Why didn't you leave your address with Interface? I've been looking all over the city for you!>>

CASSIUS CROON and other characters copyright Robert Sullivan 1996-2001. Contact the author for all your criticisms and feedbacks.