c:\rano.bergerac

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by sparks

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/173326.html)

“Oh, yes,” I said into the headset, “fuck my pussy. That’s right, fuck me right in my tight cunt. God, I love your big fat cock. Stick your big cock in me, you big man. Yes, yes, harder, yes. I want you to come all over my tits and face, baby. Yeah, baby, all over my tits. That’s so good. I want to taste that fat dick, you big stud.”

That was the main benefit of initiating the cocksucking subroutine: I got to shut up for a while.

On the screen, a blonde woman with impossibly large, impossibly buoyant breasts opened her pink-frosted lips wide and took in the softening cock of the naked, red-faced man in front of her. He was bald and small-dicked, so of course all he wanted was to be told how big of a tool he was wielding and what a big man he was. I stifled a yawn, then reached over and tapped a few familiar keystrokes, causing the blonde woman to rub the semen into her breasts like it was lotion. “Oh, you’re good,” I heard him say through my earpiece, “you’re so good, you fucking slut. Gag on my big fat dick.”

Only my being on the clock kept me from pointing out that his equipment wasn’t what I’d consider a choking hazard. I kept the same repetitive sucking motion going, and wasn’t surprised when less than a minute later, the screen went dark; he’d only had seven minutes left on his hour reservation, after all, and most guys couldn’t get enough done in that time to make staying worth it. I shrugged and took off my headset, then stood, careful not to knock everything off my desk as I took my feet off it, and stretched my arms above my head. Another satisfied customer.

Marni walked by on her way to her cubicle, holding a pair of coffee mugs; she gave the one that read Excelsior University Drama Department to me. “Busy night, hm?”

“Must be a full moon.” I took a sip — three sugar substitutes, three amaretto creamers, pure delicious — and smiled. “You’re a coffee angel.”

She beamed. “We’re having pot roast tomorrow, would you like the leftovers?” Most of my middle-aged matronly co-workers — so, really, all but about two of my co-workers — had taken it upon themselves to collectively ensure my continued care and well-being. As I was nearly half their average age, childless, partnerless, roommateless, living in a studio apartment the size of a matchbox, and paying off student loans, much of this concern was centered around making sure I never went hungry. Thus my refrigerator was almost always playing host to someone else’s Tupperware, most of which I even remembered to wash before I gave back.

And a beef angel. Bless you.” I gave her a wink and she patted the back of my hand, then turned and walked down to her station. She had two dieting daughters and a son off at college, so I could always count on at least three meals from whatever of her cooking her family didn’t finish, and I’m not a small eater.

I glanced at the queue at the side of my screen and sighed. Full moon or not, all dozen operators were booked pretty solid tonight, and I was no exception; all five remaining hours of my shift were filled, each block filled with a program’s name and a client ID code. Keeping busy was preferable to being bored, of course — I got paid for being there whether I was scheduled to be running a session or not, since even though the company discouraged walk-ins, they still made up at least 25% of the revenue — but eight solid hours was ridiculous. Nights like these, the only respite to hope for was a cancellation.

I scanned the list to see what was being asked of me: 12-1 was Barbara, your garden-variety English dominatrix; 1-2 was Candi, the naughty Catholic schoolgirl; 2-3 was Rodrigo, the very heterosexual Latin Lover (I liked operating the men best, of course, though was mostly ambivalent about doing so for female client); and 3-4 was Kimiko, the sweet submissive Asian flower that I found more than slightly racist in both concept and execution, but what could you do? And then I’d get to stumble my way home on the subway at 4AM, the time of night where you can meet and greet Manhattan’s most exciting inhabitants.

The 11-12 slot was blank on the program’s name, however, and the client ID number was the highest I’d seen that evening, meaning this was probably a first-timer. Well, those tended to be interesting and low-impact, and the first ten minutes was invariably the client’s testing how Global Virtual Intimacy’s big new virtual reality sex simulator really worked. You could always tell the difference between someone who’d never tried VR sex before and someone who’d never tried our VR sex before, because the former would spend those ten minutes flipping out over how real the sensations felt, and the latter would spent those same ten minutes flipping out over how the simulated partner acted and behaved like a real person. With every other virtual brothel franchise, all the media said, the sex was nice but the valley was uncanny; GVI’s computer programs, on the other hand, reacted so fast and with such nuance that you’d swear you were interacting with a real person.

I got paid a handsome salary to keep my mouth shut about how they weren’t wrong.

Instead I took another drink of coffee and settled back into my chair, putting my feet up on the desk right where I’d had them before. Zee, my supervisor, walked by, giving me an inquisitive thumbs-up, and I gave her a nod in the affirmative. Bless her, we were all in for a long night.

A little chime rang from my station — my thirty-second warning — and I glanced over at the roster, which now read SVEN in the upcoming rectangle. Finally, I thought, slipping on my headset, I’d be in my element for at least one hour tonight; Sven was the most popular program in the ‘men for men’ category, a Nordic god with glacier-blue eyes and pectoral muscles that could kill a man. With another sip of coffee to wet my throat, I slipped on my headset and waited for the time to start.

When the monitor came on in the bed-room, I nearly tipped over backward in my chair. If I’d learned one thing in my two years working for GVI, it was that you didn’t have to be ugly to pay for sex; there were some spectacularly fuckable people of all types that came for sessions, and I’m sure they all had spectacular reasons. I had never in my life before, though, seen a man so perfectly my type I’d swear I was the client, and he was my custom fantasy. He was dark-haired and medium-skinned, Middle Eastern of some sort if I’d had to guess, with a neat goatee; silver threaded his facial hair and burst out from his temples, giving some age to his sharp, otherwise youthful features. I watched as he took off his bathrobe, revealing a lean runner’s body dusted with dark hair on his chest and arms, and continued to enjoy the view as he lay back in the reclining chair, clad in only the standard towel around his waist, and put the interface glasses over his eyes.

I would hit that so hard it’d kill all the dinosaurs. Again.

I chose the option on my control panel that would turn off the scrambler, letting my real voice through undistorted, without correcting it for either pitch or inflection. I could do a good vague Scandinavian accent all by myself, and felt like going the extra mile for this incredible hottie. On the bed-room monitor I saw him tap a button with his hand, and the viewscreen before me shimmered to life.

I wasn’t surprised to see before me the location at the top of the ‘most popular’ list — a beachfront hotel room at sunset, all the amenities and a fantastic view beyond the plate glass windows — and figured I’d just met a guy lacking in the imagination department. Sven appeared, wearing only a light linen pair of yoga pants, standing in his customary starting spot by the window. On the other side of the room, the client appeared as though he’d just walked through the door, and I tapped the keystrokes that made Sven turn and give him a warm smile. “Welcome,” I purred, dropping my voice into my chest register and making sure I pronounced the initial consonant more as a v, “I’m so glad you’ve come to spend an hour with me.” As pickup lines went, it was absolute shit, but we all had a basic encounter script to follow, with instructions to improvise without deviating overmuch. “My name is Sven. What should I call you, handsome?”

illustrated by sparks

He held out his hands in front of him, a classic newbie gesture, taking the minute or so needed for his brain to reconcile the sensations he was receiving with the fact that his body was still lying immobile on a table. “My name is Rex,” he said, and his voice was a soft and breathy, his RP vowels slightly off, like a man born somewhere else but educated in a posh British environment. I’d never so much as left the US, except for a few family jaunts into Canada, but I could do accents with the best of them.

“Rex,” I repeated in Sven’s northern clip. “A regal name. I like it.”

“Yes, well.” Rex stepped forward into the room, still looking about, moving with caution until he could gain his bearings. “It’s what most people call me. My friends, that is.”

I had Sven step forward, moving with a slow seductive pace toward but not to where Rex stood. I didn’t have to control every little motion, or the job would have been far more complicated than even three operators could have managed in real time; instead, I told the computer what basic trajectory I wanted, and the computer made the necessary adjustments, running along pre-planned algorithms. It had tickled me from day one that I now knew the input for ‘drop to knees and suck dick’. Most encounters didn’t require anything more complicated than some fairly basic nods and nudges, but I was always at the ready just in case something changed. “I hope we are to be good friends, Rex,” I purred.

“As do I,” said Rex — and then he laughed and sat on the edge of the bed, covering his eyes with his face. “I’m sorry, this is just … very odd. A little awkward. I don’t do this much in real life, but less with computers.” He sighed and tugged at his shirt collar; the rules were that the simulations of clients’ bodies had to match their real bodies, so as not to make the cognitive dissonance too dissonant, but they could wear anything they wanted, and he had chosen a very expensive-looking dark suit and crimson tie. “I’ve no idea what I’m supposed to do or say here. Hi, how are you, read any good books lately?”

Sven walked over to the edge of the bed and sat down, then placed his hands on Rex’s shoulders and began rubbing them lightly, his touch unobtrusive, getting Rex used to how bodies intersected in virtual space. “I could try and make you more comfortable,” I offered.

Rex smiled and shut his eyes. “That’s nice, that … that feels really nice.” He let his head droop forward, and strands of his long-ish hair fell into his eyes. “So, have you?”

I frowned. “Have I what?”

“Read any good books lately?” Rex glanced over his shoulder and gave Sven an inquisitive grin.

This, in the history of my employment with GVI, and perhaps in the entire history of the company, was unprecedented. It was true, many clients came for a kind of companionship that involved getting their rocks off while talking someone else’s ear off, and part of the appeal of virtualness was supposed to be that no matter what you said or did in these sessions, you were just talking to a computer, and thus could be completely honest with fetishes, confessions, and desires from a machine that could respond but wouldn’t judge. The legalese in the NDA section of my contract alone spanned over four megs of raw text.

However, most of that talking was talking at their simulated partner(s), and thus there was nothing in the script that even approached what to say when a client asked about a program’s reading habits. Thus, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to toss in some real-life details. “Don Quixote,” I said, because I’d finished it on the subway to work that very day, and it was still fresh in my mind. “It’s by a man named–”

“Miguel de Cervantes, yes,” Rex nodded, looking a bit surprised. “That’s … one of my favourites, I read it again every few years or so.”

As shots in the dark went, this had been a pretty good one. “In the original language?”

Rex laughed a little at that and leaned back into Sven’s touch, until his back came to rest against Sven’s chest. “Well, not medieval Castilian, no, but modern Spanish.”

I couldn’t help it; I swooned a little. “Still very impressive.” Sven leaned forward to kiss the top of Rex’s ear. “I only read it in,” English, I’d been about to say, except I caught myself at the last moment with how Sven’s accent made that unlikely, “translation.”

That made Rex laugh more, and he turned so he could put his hand on the side of Sven’s cheek, stroking that impossibly chisled jaw. “Into ones and zeroes?” he quipped, giving Sven a smile that I swore could have melted my shoes right through the monitor.

There wasn’t really anything to be said to that — at least, nothing sufficiently clever was coming to mind, and I hate being insufficiently clever — so instead Sven leaned in and kissed him.

I was expecting some sort of hesitation, or at the very least awkwardness, owing to how my current read on Rex was that he was probably a type of man I saw semi-frequently: has a wife at home, would never think of cheating on her in the flesh, would also never think of sharing his same-sex desires with her, trying out the homo experience to see what he’s been missing. Rex, however, wrapped his arms around Sven’s neck and kissed him back with all the enthusiasm and determination of a man who knew exactly how all the parts worked. Sven reached for the knot of his tie and tugged it loose, then tossed it away — the computer erased it from the scenario as an unnecessary variable, though I had the option to bring it back if things got kinky — and went to undoing Rex’s shirt. Instead of helping, Rex raked his fingers through Sven’s thick hair and let him take charge, trusting and pliant even as Sven leaned him back against the bed and began unbuckling his trousers.

On the bed-room monitor, I could see a telltale rise in the light towel around Rex’s waist — that was, after all, what the towel was there for. He lay still, except that his hands and feet twitched every so often with the overflow of nerve impulses from the simulator, the way people sometimes move in dreams; his body could almost be convinced that it could be in motion and stationary at the same time, but only ever almost.

Sven stretched their bodies out side by side on the bed and placed his hand on the bare curve of Rex’s side. “Would you like to tell me what you want?” I asked, testing the waters to see if Rex wanted to articulate his desires. Most bossy clients made their bossiness known early; the shy ones could take a long time to stop being anxious about asking for things, even from something they thought was nothing more than a computer program. Sven looked at Rex with what I knew were amazingly effective ice-blue bedroom eyes.

Rex meet Sven’s gaze for a minute, then looked down again, bashful in a way so adorable that I nearly choked on it. “It’s … been a long time for me, I guess … I guess anything’s fine.” He laughed a little, embarrassed.

“Of course anything’s fine.” Sven curled his fingers of his free hand beneath Rex’s chin, tilting his face up so they could see one another and giving him a quick peck on the lips. “I just wanted to know if I could do anything special for you, handsome.”

That made Rex laugh again, the same self-conscious noise. “Handsome,” he echoed. “Thank you for saying so, but I’m hardly–”

“I’m serious!” I was so emphatic with the truth of my statement that I nearly dropped the accent, which on a faux pas scale of one to ten would have ranked around an eighteen. “God, you’re gorgeous. The most handsome man I’ve ever met. You’re exactly my type.”

It wasn’t until he shook his head, still smiling, that I realized I’d again been perilously human; fortunately, though, Rex took this as nothing more than evidence of superior digital management. “I bet you’re programmed to say that to all the boys,” he said, but his smile looked less fraught now, and he brushed his fingertips along Sven’s shoulder and bicep with the same kind of curious ease he’d shown with the kiss.

Sven shook his head. “Only the handsome ones,” I responded, because I figured that was enough of a computer-like response to keep up the necessary layer of artifice. Since it didn’t appear that Rex was going to surprise me with being the demanding type, I decided to put forth some suggestions. “Rex, would you like me to suck your cock?” I purred, letting Sven’s fingertips circle his navel with the promise of moving lower.

Rex’s dark eyes widened into perfect circles, and he swallowed so forcefully that I could hear it through my headset. “Yes,” he gasped after a moment’s pulling himself together, “yes, that would be … yes, please.”

“Oh, ‘please’, he’s handsome and polite.” Sven leaned closer until his lips just brushed Rex’s, not quite a kiss, not yet. “I like that in a man.” With a wicked smirk I personally had designed for several of the male modules, Sven lifted himself back up on his hands, giving Rex a good once-over before going for his trousers. He pushed them off Rex’s hips, leaving him in nothing but his open shirt, and teased at the dark hair trailing down from Rex’s navel. Rex’s cock, which hovered just a few inches below Sven’s mouth, was narrow and uncut, crooked gently to one side near the round head and redder than the rest of his dusky skin. I wasn’t a monk, but I was a busy man, and it’d been a couple months at least since I’d gone down on a man — and I caught myself licking my lips as I adjusted my screen for a better view.

Instead, I opened Sven’s mouth, and he took the head of Rex’s cock between his lips, suckling lightly. Rex emptied his lungs in an amazing sigh and fell back against the pillows, covering his mouth with his hand. Sven reached up and took Rex’s wrist. “Oh, no, baby,” I said, “I want to hear you.” I turned Sven’s body so that his cock was in easy range of Rex’s arm, and Sven guided Rex’s fingers until they were wrapped around his own dauntingly large penis; Rex’s hands weren’t small, but his fingertips barely met around its impressive girth. “There you go, just like that.”

Rex grabbed one from the mountain of pillows behind him and propped it up beneath his head, first watching as he slowly stroked Sven’s rock-hard cock, then turning his attention to the sight of the beautiful cupid’s-bow mouth descending on his own erection. He gasped as Sven flicked his tongue across the slit of his cock before lowering his mouth inch by careful inch all the way from head to root.

The disconnect between VR input and real-world signals meant that most clients, especially men, tended to experience during their sessions a kind of staying power that they never could have managed in real life. This wasn’t something specific to GVI — every virtual sex center, including the uncanny valley places where all the hosts really were computer-controlled, boasted that virtual sex could prolong romantic encounters, advertising it as a feature when it was really a fortuitous bug in the imperfect interface. The benefit for me as an operator was that there was usually a point I could pretty much put the session on autopilot and let the client ride out the extra twenty or thirty minutes it took him to get off.

This time, however, I was glued to the screen. Sven was doing his thing, his tireless jaw locked open wide as he gave perfect head, and Rex just sat back and watched, his dark eyes alternating between wide and half-shut, his hand working absently throughout at the business of stroking Sven off. He didn’t make much noise, certainly nothing approaching words, but every gasp and grunt out of his mouth was music to my ears. Sessions hardly ever got a rise out of me — you work long enough in a job that’s pretty much just watching porn and, believe me, you get desensitized real quick — but this one might be nice to think about later, when I returned to my otherwise empty studio apartment, it I wasn’t too tired after work to rub one off.

At long last, Rex’s body began to shake, and I had Sven go down deep, until the head of Rex’s cock was at the back of Sven’s throat; when Rex came shortly after, Sven swallowed every virtual drop, looking pleased as anything to do so. When Rex slumped back against the pillows, looking pleased with himself, I glanced at the clock and saw eleven minutes left in the session. Time enough for more, to be sure, but most first-time clients that got off early tended to think the safeword code that ended the session and leave soon after, satisfied with an accomplished mission.

Rex, however, proved as different about this as he’d been about everything else. Instead of slumping back, he rolled on his side toward Sven, gave a sweet smile, and took Sven’s cock expertly into his mouth.

I sat bolt upright in my chair, hard enough to bump my elbow against the edge of the desk, and was grateful that the surprised grunt I made was perfectly in character. Hoping he was too distracted to notice the delayed reaction, I entered the commands as quickly as I could, and a few seconds later, Sven was lying on his back, propped up on his elbows, and grinning as the handsomest man I’d ever seen sucked him off. It was all I could do to remember to make sounds with the appropriate accent as I moaned sentences that were mostly variations on fuck and yes. Zee walked by again, giving me a slight frown as she heard me actually playing the part, but she’d heard me putting my theatre degree to use before, and I was hardly the only operator who got bored enough to turn off the scrambler from time to time; I gave her another thumbs-up as I told Rex what a fucking fantastic mouth he had, something I couldn’t prove but hoped in my heart to be true.

Once, I saw an old Japanese movie about people who die and get to see one last happy memory of their choice before they go off into the beyond, and if I’d died right then and been asked to pick what I wanted to see, I would have said, right there, the image on my monitor, with the handsome man with the dick in his mouth, that there, that’s what I’d want to go out having burned on the insides of my eyelids.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the rest of eternity — I had five minutes by the time I got my shit together and realized that something needed to happen or the clock would run down on what might be a very unsatisfying note. “I’m going to come, Rex, your mouth is going to make me come,” I breathed in Sven’s thundery rumble, and instead of pulling away, Rex doubled up on his efforts. I entered the appropriate commands, and Sven came deep in his throat, while Rex smiled and swallowed him clean.

That settled, Rex wiped his mouth on the sheet and pulled himself over to where Sven lay, until they were both debauched and mostly undressed and lying the wrong way on the bed. Sven extended his arm and Rex pillowed his head against Sven’s shoulder, draping an arm across his handsome washboard stomach. “…So,” he chuckled, his words mostly breath, “are your tastes exclusive to medieval poetry, or do you have broader interests?”

“I…?” I’d known cocksucker clients and talkative clients alike, and I begrudged neither of them their enjoyments — but I’d never met a single client who’d tried to engage the AI in either after getting off. Rex had now done both. “I like the classics best, but I’ll read anything.” I swallowed, realizing that my mouth was dry, and took a sip of my now-tepid coffee. “If you have any recommendations…?”

That made Rex smile, and he kissed Sven’s shoulder. “Well, Chaucer comes after Cervantes in that section of my library, so the Canterbury Tales is the first thing that comes to mind.”

“Oh, I love the Tales!” I chirped, then remembered not to speak too loudly; the operator center was designed to be as acoustically dead as possible, for obvious reasons, but it was still good to keep your voice down. “I haven’t read them since high school, but–”

Rex laughed again, and I couldn’t say I blamed him for being amused at the idea of a computer program’s going to high school. “Well, then, how about the other side of the world? The Tale of Genji, perhaps?”

I’d heard the name before, of course, but as with so many things, I hadn’t yet found the time. “I’ll have to go find a copy,” I said, though my last two words were overshadowed by a shimmer in the appearance of the program: the program’s two-minute warning, to let all the clients who didn’t eject prematurely know that their time was nearly at a close. A sudden panic gripped me, and I had Sven turn so Rex could see his face clearly. “I’ll read it and I’ll discuss it with you when you come back next time, all right?”

Rex nodded and nuzzled Sven’s lips with his own. “I suppose it’s a date?”

It was the most date-like thing I’d encountered in my life in months — so what if we didn’t touch, we couldn’t go back to my place afterward, and he didn’t even know I existed? “Please come back, Rex,” I said, and Sven leaned in to kiss him. Rex wrapped his arms around Sven’s neck, pulling him close, and they kissed and held one another like real lovers. And then the clock struck midnight and the screen went blank.

I didn’t have an instant to recover; I was tossed face-first into Barbara, strutting around in high heels and leather and smacking my hand with a whip while the gagged, naked man stretched spread-eagle before me in four-point restraints. I barely remembered to turn the scrambler on again. The bed-room monitor had switched to the current client’s body, so I couldn’t even see Rex, what he was doing, if he was smiling, if he looked less tense, if he was thinking of me — Sven — at all.

I may have been a little heavy-handed with the whip that next hour, but not a jury in the world would convict me.

~*~

I was very surely not supposed to do that.

I didn’t, however, make a thing of it that evening. Instead, I finished my shift, went home, jerked off, fell asleep, woke up, jerked off, got in the shower, jerked off in there, and went down to the Strand to see if I could find a paper copy of the Tale of Genji; as luck would have it, I got the last well-worn paperback, and got so caught up reading it on a bench in Union Square Park that I was nearly late to work.

My luck was still holding, it seemed, because when I dashed into the center five minutes before the hour, I saw that I had no one scheduled in the first slot. Freed from having to make a sex slave of myself for at least a little while, I popped my head into Zee’s office. “Got a minute?”

She waved me in, and I took a seat, leaving the door open behind me so it looked like I didn’t think this was a big deal. “What’s on your mind?”

“It’s a client I had last night,” I said, and she leaned forward with the sigh she got when she was afraid she’d have to jump through the awful legal hoops required when a client confessed illegal activity during a session. “No, no, not like that. Nothing bad. We just … talked about books a little bit.”

“About books?” Zee frowned and drummed her long, LCD-painted fingernails on the desk. She was a heavy, gorgeous woman with plum-dark skin, and the reason she was the supervisor was that she could put out both metaphorical and literal fires like nobody’s business.

“And … he told me one he wanted me to read so we could talk about it next time, now, wait a minute,” I raised my hand before she could voice the reprimand I could see poised on her tongue, “it was his idea, you can play back the session, and I don’t mind, it’s a good book, I’ve got it already, I’m not asking the company to pay for it or anything.” I lifted the paperback so she could see the bargain bin sticker on the front, about the price of two good cups of coffee.

Zee folded her arms across her amazing breasts and gave me the long-suffering sigh of the mother whose child had better be ready to lie in the bed he’d made. Operators weren’t forbidden from establishing continuity, but we were strongly discouraged for three (fairly strong, I felt) reasons: one, it tended to mess with the illusion that these were safe encounters where clients could be free to do anything without fear of leaving a record; two, sessions were assigned at random by operator availability, meaning that anyone needed to be able to control any module at any time without having to read up on client history first; and three, GVI couldn’t precisely tell clients that their regular fantasy was unavailable because it was the human operator’s day off. “As long as you’re ready to be on call whenever he makes a reservation….”

“Perfectly ready. Hundred and ten percent.” I tucked the book under my arm so I could show her both of my thumbs pointed up.

“You loon,” she said, but she was smiling as she used her fingernails to draw down a terminal window in front of her. “Which one was it?”

“ZX3283,” I said, trying not to sound too creepy for having memorized his client ID — but really, how else was I going to identify him to her, ‘that sexy older guy who likes to suck hot Teutonic dick’? In our business, that wasn’t precisely descriptive.

After a few taps, Zee nodded. “There, you’re tied in to him. You know you don’t get paid extra for this, right?”

I did not tell her that I considered a galaxy of masturbatory fantasties a sufficient tip. “Thanks, boss. I owe you one.”

“Get out of here and stop causing me problems.” She threw a wrapped peppermint at my head, but affectionately.

~*~

Fortunately for me, Rex wasn’t the drop-in type, and I got the alert three days in advance that he’d be back in the 11:00 slot that next Monday night. I was giddy; I felt like the guy I liked had just called me for a second date, and stubbornly refused to acknowledge that it wasn’t like that at all. I finished the book twice in the interim, just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. By the time I put my headset back on at 10:58, I was vibrating with excitement and caffeine alike.

The scenario snapped into place in a posh club that looked like something out of a gangster movie, with everyone in tuxes and evening gowns, and a big band playing soft jazz as couples twirled around the dance floor. Sven looked a little silly in his white tux and top hat, I thought, but the second Rex saw him, he rushed across the crowded room, threw his arms around Sven’s neck, and kissed him hard on the mouth. “You look amazing,” he said as he pulled away at last.

“So do you,” I said, stepping Sven back so that he could get an appreciative look from a better angle I didn’t need. Rex’s tuxedo was classic black, though his vest and tie were both silver and he wore a long white scarf beneath his lapels. “You wear a tuxedo very, very well.”

“I’ve been wearing them since I was small, so I should hope I look at least all right in one.” Rex took Sven’s hand and tugged him toward the floor. “Shall we dance?”

I couldn’t help it — I swooned. Sven’s ballroom dance subroutine was complicated, but could for the most part run on its own once I figured whether he needed to lead or follow. Rex placed his right hand on the small of Sven’s back, despite the half-foot height advantage Sven had over him, and I put Sven’s left hand on Rex’s right shoulder: follow it was, then. The band struck up a slow waltz, and Rex nudged Sven backward, setting the steps in motion. I was glad Rex appeared to have nothing more difficult in mind than a simple waltz step, and even that only enough to keep moving in time with the music while he pressed their bodies together. “You dance divinely,” I said, and Sven smiled.

“I go to a lot of parties like this,” Rex said, then he looked around at the old-fashioned ballroom for a moment and amended, “well, not exactly like this. But the same, black tie, dancing, good food, expensive alcohol.”

Sven led them past the computer-generated background couples, who were entirely automated and thus would interact with the client no more than to bump into us if we mis-stepped. “So you like them?”

“I hate them.” Rex shook his his head, and Sven and I laughed. “No, they’re … full of uninteresting conversations with terribly conventional people, and everyone’s trying to impress everyone else, and there’s never enough madeira to make the evening worth it. And never,” he added, pulling Sven closer, “anyone worth dancing with.”

“Oh, I’d come to any fancy party with you if you dressed like that.” Sven glanced down at Rex’s tuxedo. “We could tear up the dance floor.”

Rex smiled and brought his cheek to rest against Sven’s shoulder; there, Sven couldn’t see his expression any more, but I could, and I watched as any mirth was replaced by a shallow sadness. “I’m sure my father would love that,” he sighed.

“Fuck him,” I said far too automatically, and I started to sputter an apology as I saw Rex’s eyes go wide, only to have it drowned out seconds later by the sound of his deep, uproarious laughter. “That is, I didn’t–”

“No, no.” Rex stopped dancing and took Sven’s face in his hands, bringing him close for a kiss right there in the middle of everyone. “I wish I were half as bold as you,” he said, drawing back and resuming the dance, only this time with his arms around Sven’s neck; I clasped Sven’s hands behind the small of Rex’s back and struck up a gentle sway more in the style of a middle-school semi-formal. The band slowed down accordingly, and I told the computer to thin out the dance floor so that no algorithm in the middle of an aggressive foxtrot would mow us down.

I supposed I wasn’t surprised: a lot of rich men and women alike came from conservative families, and rich was the order of the day among GVI clientele; an hour-long session cost more than I made in a week. I’d announced to my family that I was gay at the tender age of eleven, and the news had been met with a resounding ‘that’s nice, dear’, so I supposed I didn’t quite understand the problem. But we were middle-class Chicago suburbanites, not multi-bazillionaires managing family fortunes in the eye of the press, and if there was one thing I’d learned from being both a Manhattan waiter and a computerized sex worker, it was that money made you weird.

“If I were half as amazing as you,” I said, as Sven eased Rex into a gentle turn, “I think I’d be ten times as bold.”

Rex blushed again and drew Sven back for a brief kiss, which I then turned into a longer kiss, and presently Rex and Sven were full-on making out on the dance floor as the party spun on around them, regular as clockwork. All the worry had evaporated from Rex’s features; instead, he smiled into the kiss, grabbing at the back of Sven’s jacket with one hand and Sven’s lush hair with his other. At last, he reached for Sven’s bowtie and pulled it loose with a well-placed tug. “Take me somewhere I can touch you,” he whispered into Sven’s mouth.

Even if he hadn’t been paying, there’d have been no arguing with that. The only scenario Rex had specified before the session had begun had been the ballroom, so I did a quick location shuffle and melted the background into another classy hotel room, this one with a high nighttime view of the circa-1930 Paris skyline out the window. Rex barely acknowledged the transition, instead continuing to kiss Sven with the same fierce determination, a man set before a feast after years of starvation. I wondered how long it had been since he’d been able to do something as simple as kiss another real, live human being, and the likeliest answer made me sad.

Clothes came off next, and by the time they hit the bed, Sven and Rex were both naked, Sven’s beefy bronzed limbs tangled with Rex’s slender darker ones. I supposed that Sven was an attractive enough guy, if you liked that sort of thing — and apparently Rex did like that sort of thing, I tried not to think as I glanced down at my own chubby middle — but I couldn’t stop looking at Rex. I’ve always had a thing for older men, not in much of a practical way, and certainly not in a way that kept me from doing guys my own age, but it was still something I acknowledged and accepted about myself. Now that he had all his clothes off, I could see better than the dark hair that furred his chest and trailed down from his navel toward his cock was sprinkled through with the same silver that dusted his temples and goatee, and I wanted so bad to bury my face in it and kiss the skin beneath that I made Sven do exactly that, a playful gesture that made Rex laugh while he gave Sven’s head a half-hearted push away. “What on earth are you doing?” he asked, but the grin on his lips stretched wide.

“Appreciating you,” I said, and Sven nuzzled his way down to the skin of Rex’s belly. “You’re really handsome. Just amazing.”

“Flatterer.” Rex rolled his eyes as he sat up a little, getting a better view.

Sven shook his head. “I’ve been … thinking about you this past week,” I said, putting the final nail in the coffin of the illusion that a client’s time here went unrecorded. “When I was alone.”

Rex’s dark eyes went wide, and then he laughed again, I guess in the same way I would have if a computer program had told me it’d been jerking off over me in my absence. “Oh, really?” He reached down and brushed Sven’s cheek. “Well, I guess that’s only fair that I’ve been doing the same thing.”

I hoped that he interpreted the pause following his confession as a lag in the system, because my brain shorted out at the thought of Rex with his cock in his hand, and I had to take a deep breath before I could pull myself together again. When I did, though, Sven descended on Rex’s cock with all the blowjob enthusiasm a virtual simulation could muster. This time didn’t take nearly as long, and it wasn’t ten minutes before Rex was coming into Sven’s mouth, lifting his hips off the bed, biting his fingers to silence himself even though there was no one who could hear. At last, he collapsed against the sheets, but lay there for only a minute before spreading his knees and wrapping his legs around Sven’s hips. “I want you to fuck me, please,” he begged, panting for breath.

There was an entire army of different thoughts marching through my head, but the one that really stuck out, for no good reason, was the adorable way he’d had the presence of mind to ask politely. Sven nodded and settled himself between Rex’s hips, taking a moment to stroke the skin of Rex’s inner thighs and ass before shoving his dick in. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about virtual anal sex is that disembodied sensation covers a multitude of sins: no lubing up, no stretching, no fingers, no mess afterward, just the representation of the act and the sensation of being fucked by a hard, bare cock. While I personally can’t imagine anything better than real skin on skin, the convenience factor is nothing to sneeze at. And thus, within seconds of being asked, Sven was inside Rex, thrusting his hips and riding him hard.

It didn’t take long before both Rex’s virtual and real bodies were hard again, and I watched the hotel scene as his cock became red and flushed again without even having to be touched. He lay back and gasped, eyes shut, hands clenched in the sheets; every thrust made him grunt as though he were in agony, but I knew from personal experience that sound wasn’t pain. He never moved nor indicated he wanted to change positions, just lay there as Sven pounded into him. He seemed like such a gentle guy, but even gentle guys needed all the hard fucking they could get, especially if it’d been a long time.

At last I wrapped Sven’s hand around Rex’s cock, and Rex came hard, shooting semen so far some landed on the pillow beside his head. I didn’t know quite how the computer determined comeshot velocity, though I suspected it had at least some correlation with experienced intensity. Not one to miss an opportunity, I had Sven climax at the same time, jerking his hips against Rex’s body before he pulled out, leaving that distinct just-been-come-in feel in his wake. With anyone else, I would have expected the client to kill the program, but instead Rex just lay there, and I cuddled Sven’s body up next to his so that they were spooning. “That sounded good,” I purred, and Sven kissed the back of Rex’s neck.

“That was amazing,” Rex sighed out in a giddy post-orgasmic laugh. He took another deep breath, held it, and released it in a noisy rush. “God, I haven’t been … well, it’s been forever since … since I was….”

“Fucked like that?” I supplied, making it sound as dirty as I could in Sven’s accent.

“Yes, exactly, fucked,” Rex echoed, and something about the way he said ‘fucked’ made my brain hang again. “Dear God, I want you to do that again, but I don’t think I’d survive.”

I wanted to do that again, and was about to suggest that he seemed spry enough to survive a second round … when I looked at the clock and saw 11:57. How the hell had all the time gotten away so fast? With a sigh I hoped he didn’t hear, I had Sven nuzzle his hair. “You’ll just have to come back.”

Rex hugged Sven’s arm tight around his waist. “I will, I … well, we’ve got books to discuss as well, don’t we?”

I laughed even as the two-minute warning made the scene pulse. “Oh, I loved it, it was amazing, I can’t believe I completely forgot to tell you.”

“Well, good.” Rex turned in Sven’s arms and put a hand against his cheek, looking him in the eye. “You’re the amazing thing,” he said, and when I took a breath so Sven could respond, he put a shushing finger over Sven’s lips. “There’s nobody else in the world I can be myself around. Nobody else understands, or wants to understand. Everyone else wants something from me or expects something from me, and you … don’t. So thank you.”

Sven kissed his finger. “I love you just the way you are,” I said, surprised at my own boldness; a second not-date, and already I was telling the guy how hard I’d fallen for him. Maybe this anonymity thing worked both ways.

Rex smiled and kissed him, though I could see that sadness come creeping back into his expression. There were the kind of clients who were lonely because they never left their houses and had repulsive personal traits, but Rex didn’t seem like that — instead, I thought back to what he’d said earlier about parties and realized he was the kind of man who’d spent his life being alone in a crowd. That seemed at once less outwardly tragic and more fucking heartbreaking. “You’re so sweet.” He buried his face in the crook of Sven’s shoulder, hugging him tight, and Sven stroked his bare back. “My handsome prince.”

Before I could get myself together enough to point out that he was decidedly the handsome prince in this scenario, the session clock ticked shut, and our time was done.

The infinite mercy of the universe had decided not to schedule me a midnight session, and so I pushed back from the desk as calmly as I could, strolled across the office, waved to a few people along the way, ducked into the single-stall bathroom, and jerked off so hard and fast I thought I might have pulled something. Sessions were famous for being un-arousing, I considered as I dropped the used wad of toilet paper into the bowl and flushed, and yet I figured if I could stay here and masturbate until my dick chafed just thinking about what had just happened.

The rational part of my brain told me that what was happening was ten thousand kinds of a bad idea, and that I should put a stop to it before it got out of hand. But both my penis and my heart disagreed, and I decided on the spot that my body was a democracy, to be ruled by a two-thirds majority, and therefore good sense could go to hell.

~*~

Rex’s third and fourth sessions were much the same as the first two: a stock romantic scenario (snowbound mountain cabin and pillow-laden opium den, respectively) where small talk gave way quickly to hands and mouths and the pleasures of unreal bodies. In each afterglow, however, Rex curled his body next to Sven’s and we spent the rest of the hour in pillow talk about books and music and theatre. At one point, at his request, I delivered some of King Lear’s better lines, and Rex applauded and kissed Sven with honest delight, and I swelled with such pride I cried a little, something I was glad no one saw.

He always booked the same time slot, and came back every six to ten days, frequent enough that I’d only ever just stopped thinking about his last session when he appeared on my schedule again, setting me forth into another fit of anticipatory daydreaming. It was absurd, I knew, to let myself get so caught up in what was at best a one-sided romance and at worst a psychopathic delusion on my part, but every time I rationalized the problem away, citing my ability to tell fantasy from reality, and every time I saw him I fell a little harder.

The fifth session, however, was a date, an honest-to-hamburgers date, where nice suits were once again the order of the day, but the early-twentieth-century chic had been replaced with a far more modern restaurant, and the hamburgers were instead foods I’d only ever read about before, like black truffles and Almas caviar. As odd as it might seem for a VR center specializing in sex work, scenarios with rare dishes were actually pretty popular; after all, real-life meals like the one Sven and Rex were having could cost as much as a session itself, and there was no guarantee of getting laid afterwards. More than once, Rex remarked on what an amazing simulation the taste was, not as good as the real thing, but a very impressive facsimile. I, of course, had neither a point of comparison nor any way to taste what was going on in the computer, so I just had Sven nod and smile and hold Rex’s hand with the one of his that wasn’t managing his fork.

And between bites, Rex talked. He’d mentioned some time before that he wasn’t a gregarious man in public or private — something I’d gathered from the first time we’d been together — but the freedom of the simulation seemed to crack him wide, and once he could start, he didn’t stop. We started the date discussing Candide, his most recent recommendation, but this time talk of his own history with great works of fiction turned after a fashion into talk of how he’d studied many of them in college, and that gave way with a short push into talk of his father had disapproved of wasting what should have been a solid business education on frivolities like literature.

He wasn’t a cruel man, Rex protested, though his eyes remained downcast as he spoke, watching as he swirled a glass of wine that would never get him drunk, the technology wasn’t that good; he was simply a strict man who had expectations. He expected from his children only what he expected from himself: hard work, dilligence, dedication to the financial empire he’d built, and strict adherence to authority. The authority in question, of course, was the old man himself, and while Rex’s older brother and sister both had performed up to expectations, Rex himself had always fallen short. “I’m something of a disappointment,” was in fact how he put it, with the bitter little twist at the corner of his mouth that screwed up a smile to mask hurt.

“I can’t imagine how,” I said. I had the computer erase some of Sven’s food when Rex wasn’t looking; part of the problem with a dinner scenario was remembering to make Sven eat, and I ended up resorting to the digital version of feeding my mom’s boiled cabbage to the dog.

“Oh, everything, really.” Rex shrugged and took a bite of caviar, humming thoughtfully to himself as he chewed. “If I attend a social event where I’d rather not be, I’m a poor guest whose lack of enthusiasm is an embarrassment to the family’s public face. If I give my regrets to an invitation, I’m a boorish recluse who’ll get nowhere in the world being rude to the People Who Matter. If I spend time with anyone outside of work, I’m a wastrel who’s going to run the business into the ground by my lack of attentiveness. If I work sixteen-hour days, it’s the reason I have a terrible marriage and no children — which,” Rex pointed his fork at Sven, “may I point out, has nothing to do with the hours I work.”

That last bit knocked me for a loop, and I was glad not for the first time that Sven’s expression never went much of anywhere unless I told it to. “So you’re … married?” I asked, trying to sound casual and, I was sure, failing.

“For nearly thirty years,” Rex nodded, and for the first time I took a hard look at the bed-room camera, focusing it until I could see his left hand at rest on the arm of the reclining chair, a broad gold band around his fourth finger that didn’t appear on his VR self. “Though I haven’t spoken to her in … ten, at least.”

“Indeed.” I didn’t know why that information sat so wrong with me — after all, I’d serviced many married clients, some who even came in with the permission of their spouses and partners on the mutual assumption that VR sex isn’t really cheating — but it did. I decided this was a good time for the personality-less blond server to bring over the next course, small salads of seared tuna and fresh greens, and had Sven take a quick bite of his to excuse me from talking.

If any of this bothered Rex, though, none of it rose to the surface where I could see; instead, he gave the waiter a nod of sincere thanks, then waited until he was out of earshot to speak again. “Of course, I suppose wanting to fuck men was the initial insurmountable disappointment,” he said, and then laughed, covering his mouth with his hand. “I’m sorry, I oughtn’t put it like that.”

“Put it any way you like,” I said in the dirtiest, most innuendo-laden tone I could manage, and my heart thrilled to see him laugh at that. “Really, though, I don’t care. So you like to fuck men! I like to fuck men. You’re not going to offend me by saying it.”

“Yes, but did your father threaten to disown you when he found out?”

“No, I….” This was ridiculous, something no programmer would ever put into even the most complex personality matrix; computers just didn’t have coming-out stories. I glanced around to make sure no one, especially Zee, was coming by, and then decided to damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. “He said he’d always wanted a son-in-law, and then he and my brother changed the wallpaper on all my devices to be pictures of male bodybuilders.”

Rex’s eyes went wide for a moment, and then he burst out laughing, rocking back from his seat with a force that might have tipped over his wine glass, had it not been specifically programmed not to upset. “You’re kidding!”

“Honest truth!” I had Sven hold up his hand, pledge-style. “And then he gave me a talk about condoms and being safe, but my brother’d gotten that when he started going with his first girlfriend, so it was fair. Wasn’t anything I didn’t know already, but … I don’t know, my dad’s just like that.”

Rex brought his napkin to his cheek, weeping away tears of laughter. “Oh, my. Sounds like they love you very much.”

I realized I hadn’t called home in weeks and resolved to do so the next day — though not to tell them that I’d been having imaginary dinner with a rich man who’d hired me for sex work when I remembered. “They do, they … they don’t always understand me, they’re kind of boring — accountants, all of them, even my brother’s wife — but they put up with me, which is a lot more than I deserve sometimes.”

“I’d say you deserve a lot.” Rex reached for Sven’s hand and twined their fingers together, stroking the back of Sven’s massive paw with his thumb. “So you’re the black sheep of your family too?”

“More the rainbow sheep,” I said, and that made Rex laugh more. I’d been a funny guy growing up, the class clown who could do impressions of anyone, but I’d never felt how important it was to bring a smile to someone’s face until I’d seen Rex’s eyes light up and known I was the cause. “So they’ve always let me do my own thing and figured I’d have to learn to sink or swim sometime.”

“That….” Rex’s expression grew a little distant. “That sounds amazing. Very … just….” He let his gaze fall out the window, onto a scene that I assumed was Venice at nighttime, with the canals and all, though I’d never been there so I couldn’t be sure. I sat quiet, having Sven pick politely at his meal, until Rex gathered himself and began to speak again: “I was engaged at seventeen and married at twenty-two to a woman I barely knew and didn’t love, the daughter of one of my father’s best Indonesian business partner, because my father had caught me, at seventeen, in the bed of his best — male — Brazilian business partner.”

It was as though I’d been hearing a strange joke all along, one dependent on some obscure pun, and when the words’ double meaning finally clicked into place, the punch line wasn’t funny, it was horrible. “Rex,” I whispered, not knowing what, if there was anything, to say to that.

He waved his hand, clearing the suggestion from the air. “The initial insurmountable disappointment,” he repeated, letting every word fall from his mouth like stones into a river.

I let silence follow after that, watching as he stared out the window, examining his sharp, handsome features in the dancing light reflected back from the water just beyond the pane of glass. I wondered if he’d ever told that to anyone before, or if he’d kept it to himself all these years, letting the world be divided into two groups: the people who’d seen it all unfold before their eyes, and the people who would never know. I wanted to tell him how he didn’t have to be afraid with me, he could trust me, there didn’t have to be any secrets between us — but of course, I was lying to him every time Sven opened his mouth, and I couldn’t promise him honesty if I couldn’t offer any in return. He couldn’t trust me, and telling him he could would be an even bigger abuse of that trust.

So instead I had Sven reach for both of Rex’s hands, clasping them between his own. “Fuck him,” I said as Sven looked Rex in the eye. “I want you to say it: fuck him.”

Rex blushed and mumbled something bashful, but Sven held strong, and after a minute of inarticulate protest, Rex gave in: “Fuck him.”

“Like you mean it.” Sven leaned forward across the small table, which I made a little smaller to facilitate their contact; it no longer afforded much space in the way of holding dishes, but that had ceased to be the point.

Rex took another deep breath and actually glanced around the restaurant before saying in a much more confident voice, “Fuck him!”

“You don’t need his approval,” I said, and when Rex didn’t answer, I sighed. “Say it….”

“I … suppose I don’t need his approval.”

“Don’t suppose! You don’t!” Sven held Rex’s hands tighter, and I wrote his features into his most sincere, determined face. “Look at you, you’re an adult, you’re amazing, you work hard, you’re obviously successful … and if that’s not good enough for him, then probably nothing will ever be. And if nothing’s ever going to be good enough, why hurt yourself trying? What do you think he wants from you, anyway?”

Rex’s brow furrowed in a frown of sincere contemplation, as though no one had ever presented the world to him like this before, and he swallowed twice before speaking again. “A … better son,” he said at last, with all the hesitation of a schoolboy who fears he’ll be punished for offering the wrong answer.

“But he’s got you, and you’re amazing.” I frowned. “I said that earlier. I don’t care. You’re still amazing. You’re the most amazing man I’ve ever met, and if that’s not good enough for him, he’s fucking crazy.”

“He just wants what’s best for me,” said Rex, but it sounded like a stock answer at best, practiced and given until he almost believed it himself. God only knew how many times he’d voiced that exact sentiment, in how many languages, defending how many of his father’s sins because he thought that was what a good son should do — every insane demand, every heartless restriction, every baseless prohibition, all explained away by the assumption that it was all for Rex’s own good, because any other reason would be unthinkable.

Sven shook his head. “No, it sounds to me like what he wants is for him to look good even if you have to suffer for it. If he really wanted what was best for you, he’d want you to be happy.”

Another silence fell, though this one less awkward, and Rex withdrew one of his hands from Sven’s grasp to rake his fingers back through his dark hair, pushing it away from his face. “I’m sorry, I just–”

“Hey, no. No ‘sorry’.” I felt my stomach clench, scared to pieces that I’d overstepped my bounds. “It’s not even my business, I shouldn’t … I mean, I don’t know anything about … I could be wrong about….” I stopped my sputterings and slammed my fist once into my own knee, letting the pain jog me back into something approaching articulateness. “You just seem so sad.”

“No, no, I’m not sad, I’m….” But Rex’s voice trailed off, another fissure in this long, broken conversation, and he frowned. “I am sad. All the time. Not depressed, my doctors would have seen that, but … I am. I can’t tell anyone because I’m not supposed to be, and what would they say, anyway, ‘poor little rich boy’? So I smile and I work, and I tell everyone it’s not so bad. And sometimes it really isn’t. I promise.”

I could see him clearly through the screen, both his real body and his VR projection, and I knew the client rooms were just on the other side of the building and two floors up, but he might as well have been on Mars for how helplessly distant I felt right then. I wanted to grab him and run away with him, and find his father and punch him a million times in the face, and then take Rex somewhere he didn’t have to lie about something as simple as feeling sad. But the best I could do was press a key and send a message to a computer to tell his brain that someone who didn’t exist was holding his hand. That was the extent of my superpowers. I was fucking useless.

And then the scenario shimmered, and I froze: fifty-eight minutes gone, and I’d barely even touched him. “Oh, no,” I said, frantic, as Sven sat there with his perfect, beautiful smile still beaming on as though nothing were wrong. “Look at me, I’ve been a terrible host, this isn’t what you’ve come for–”

“Sven,” said Rex, and he reached across the table to touch Sven’s cheek. “It’s all right. I’m … actually really glad. I needed this. There’s nobody else who … well, when you’re in my position, as terrible as it seems, you’ve got to be careful who you trust. I’ve never met anyone before who I could be sure didn’t like me just because they wanted something from me.” He paused and sighed out a bitter little half-laugh. “Of course, I haven’t exactly now, but….”

Sven leaned across the table, knocking over everything in the process, and took Rex’s face in his hands, kissing him hard. “I don’t want you to go,” I said, hoping against all impossibility that he could hear the sincerity through my voice. It was the honest, painful fact of the matter, and what cut even deeper than its truth was how he’d never know it wasn’t just a programmed response, one in a catalogue of insincere digital reflexes, artificial sentiment from an artificial heart.

Rex sighed, and I could hear his voice catch in his throat. “I want to stay here with you.” He took a deep breath. “You make me feel safe.”

“I want you to know you can always talk to me,” I said, staring at the clock at the corner of my screen, dreading the last minute’s end, trying to keep my voice from rising to a fever pitch, “and I’ll listen. I want to listen. I want to understand. I promise, Rex, I–”

The screen went dark and the session was over.

I pushed away from my desk, tore off my glasses, and scrubbed at my raw red eyes with the heels of my hand. What else could I do? He didn’t know I existed, and if he did, what would he make of me? He was literally the most attractive man I’d ever seen; I was short, round, and nerdy, going prematurely bald at twenty-four, pasty and uncultured, a drama department hopeful who hadn’t had a role in years, whoring out my computer skills and voice to pay off my student loans. I wasn’t Sven, that was for sure. I wasn’t a handsome prince who could make everything better. As far as Rex was concerned, I wasn’t anyone at all.

~*~

Rex must have scheduled his next session on the way out, because by the time I finished up with my last client of the night, I had a message from Zee telling me I’d have to come in that Wednesday as per what she diplomatically called our ‘special arrangement’. I sent her back a long-suffering note in the affirmative, trying not to let on I would have walked barefoot to the moon if it’d meant another hour with Rex.

He was in a melancholy mood when he appeared that evening, and even though venue he’d chosen this time was a warm, cozy suite with a hot tub embedded in the floor, in the simulated world beyond the walls, rain poured down the windows from a summer sunstorm that greyed the sky. Both he and Sven appeared in loose blue robes with nothing beneath, and after greeting Sven wth a deep kiss, Rex shed his garment and sank into the water. I had Sven follow suit, and settled him against the tiled side of the tub so that Rex was between his legs, facing away. I didn’t know what to say to bring him out, so instead I dug Sven’s strong hands into the muscles of his neck and back (and noticed the tensile feedback from the program that told me even his virtual projection of himself had boulder shoulders), ever patient, ready just to listen.

When he finally spoke, his voice was almost a sigh, a deep exhalation of the tension Sven’s mighty thumbs had abused out of his shoulders. “You’re very good at that, you know,” he said, leaning back to smile at Sven.

Sven kissed him on the curve of his ear. “One of my many talents.” Rex laughed at that, but it seemed forced, and he sank back into silence, letting his head loll forward to his chest; I had Sven plant another kiss on the exposed back of his neck, but even that got no response. “Rex, what’s wrong?”

“My father, last night he–” He shook his head, interrupting himself. “It’s nothing. It’s foolish. I’d think I were foolish if I had to listen to me whine.”

“It’s not whining.” Sven stopped his work on Rex’s shoulders and wrapped his arms instead around Rex’s waist, holding him close as the warm, scented water rushed around and between their naked bodies. “It’s whining if you’re complaining just because you want people to feel sorry for you. Talking about your problems is something else.” This was rich, coming from someone who’d been mooning over a man for a month without letting a single other soul know, but it wasn’t as though I was claiming to lead by example. “You can talk to me. I know your life has been difficult.”

Rex snorted, stirring the water that pooled beneath his face. “I don’t think you’re allowed to be one of the hundred wealthiest people in the world and say your life has been difficult.”

“Hey, money can’t buy happiness,” I said, even though I’d been poor enough my whole life to assume that statement was at least half a lie. And maybe it still could, I wasn’t sure, but by now I suspected that Rex’s wounds weren’t the kind that could be papered over by dollar bills. “I mean … if your money were gone, you’d still have the problems with your father, wouldn’t you?”

“Probably,” Rex sighed. “Because he’d blame its being gone on something I did, or something I should have done but didn’t.”

Sven slapped the water with his open palm, as close to expressing my irritation as I could get by proxy. “Then forget the money! Your father is an ass.”

That at least brought a smile to Rex’s face, and he turned in Sven’s arms to face him, letting his legs stretch long behind him in the water as he wrapped his arms around Sven’s shoulders and buried his face in the crook of Sven’s neck. He was so lovely, I didn’t think I’d ever get over it, all lean and strong and browner even than Sven’s bronzed skin. “I think,” he said, nuzzling his nose against Sven’s muscular jaw, “I can tell how your programmer felt about his father.”

My father is a great guy. Very supportive.” Sure, I didn’t exactly keep in close touch with him, and he didn’t always understand what the hell his younger son was up to most of the time, but my whole life long he had been more than willing to pat me on the head and wish me well as I went off to follow my bliss. “So I can tell a good father from a shitty one.”

“He means well,” Rex began, but he paused, letting the sentiment linger — then shook his head, dismissing it as the faulty rationalization it was. “No, he doesn’t. He’s an ass. And he’s punishing me because I’m not him. …No, I’m sorry, this is ridiculous. Listen to me! I haven’t sounded this petty since I was a teenager.”

I made sure Sven gave his best it’s-okay smile. “You’re allowed,” I said, and Sven pet Rex’s hair.

Rex leaned into that touch, and so I turned Sven’s petting hand into a scritching one; having his head rubbed melted Rex, and he slumped utterly boneless against Sven’s body in the water. “I’m not, though,” he protested, though relaxation slurred his speech into a dreamy murmur. “I’m supposed to have become a good son.”

“But you are good. You’re,” I fumbled for words, looking desperately for something that wouldn’t sound generic, “gentle, and you’re kind.”

The bitter little laugh that slipped from Rex’s lips had become an unfortunate familiarity to me over the course of our acquaintance. “Another thing he devalued.”

“An ass!” I couldn’t help it.

“Yes!” Rex laughed and sat up so he was facing Sven, kneeling astride his sturdy thighs. “A complete ass. God, I want to hit him in the face sometimes. Is that terrible?”

Sven placed his hands on either side of Rex’s face, stroking Rex’s lower lip with his thumb. “I’d hold him down while you did it,” I said, which was a total Sven threat, as the only way I would have been able to hold down a full-grown man, even one that must have been at least a septigenarian, would have been to convince him into a prone position and sit on him. But as the saying went, it was the thought that counted.

The joke lifted Rex’s expression for a second, but only for a second, and then his gaze became downcast and he grasped Sven’s wrists to steady himself. “He just … ruined everything. Everything. I still would have gone into his business, I still would have worked as hard as I have — and I have. I have.” His knuckles whitened as he gripped Sven tighter. “I swear I have.”

“I know. Shh, I know you have.” I stumbled against the limitations of the programming, knowing how I wanted to wrap him in my arms, but struggling to find a way to replicate the sensation with Sven’s puppeted body; I settled for leaving one hand against Rex’s face while bringing Sven’s other one behind his back for support, drawing him close until his chest touched Sven’s.

“Every day, my whole life.” Rex shook his head. “I don’t take vacations, I don’t have children, I barely spend time with the one college friend who still talks to me, I don’t do anything except what needs to be done for work. He doesn’t even talk to me. He sends me messages from his assistant to mine, or tells my brother or sister to call me and rake me across the coals for my latest failure. Whatever I do, it can’t be good enough, but I still can’t get away from him. See? He even bothers me when I’m here with you!”

“I,” I said in my strongest voice, cutting through Rex’s ratcheting panic, “think you are wise and wonderful and amazing, and I don’t want you to think about him anymore.” I bent Sven down until his lips brushed Rex’s, a nuzzle that promised more. “I want to take your mind off things.”

“Please,” said Rex, his lips pressing against Sven’s. “That’s all I want.”

Sven pushed Rex off his lap the slightest bit, changing their positions until his thighs were open and Rex was between them. I’d spent what free time I’d had on the job over the past few weeks poring over client ZX3283’s preference profile, the one he’d filled out during his first pre-session assessment: only one sex preference (cis male), ‘no’ to most of the options on what employees informally called the ‘kink list’ (e.g., watersports, bondage, fetish wear), but ‘yes’ to both sides of oral and anal sex. Thus, while I wasn’t certain he would have lobbied for this arrangement on his own, I was fairly certain he wouldn’t refuse the opportunity if presented to him. “I want you to fuck me,” I had Sven murmur in Rex’s ear, letting the words slip through his teeth as he tugged on Rex’s earlobe. I spread Sven’s thighs and had him wrap his legs around Rex’s waist, pulling him close until Rex’s stomach pushed up against Sven’s impressive rock-hard cock.

Rex froze for a moment — then began to laugh, not a bitter or cruel sound, but the noise made by a man caught off-guard by delight. “You won’t believe how many years it’s been since I did this,” he said, smiling at Sven. “Thank God you’re programmed not to laugh at me.”

“That’s just criminal.” I shook Sven’s head in a comic show of disapproval. “The most handsome man who ever lived, and the harsh world is cruel enough to keep you out of practice with sex? Truly, we live in a dark age.”

“You,” Rex tapped Sven’s nose with a dripping fingertip, “are ridiculous.”

“I am honest. Thin line, but it’s there.”

Rex stroked the inside of Sven’s thighs, stirring the water of the pool with his motions. “Well, Mr. Honest Sven, tell me: is this how you like it best?”

It was odd to remember right then, after all the absolute violations of protocol I’d committed over the past few months, but we operators did have scripts for that question, and a different answer for every module based on the program’s personality. Sven, the perfect switch, was supposed to say something along the lines of how he liked it both ways, and whichever way worked best for you, the operator, was what would make him happy. Thus, despite my hours of giving personal information far beyond the scope of the program’s address, GVI’s scarce-used quality control would actually have approved of those few seconds when I answered, as honest as could be, “I like it any way I can get it.”

“A man after my own heart.” Rex’s wandering hand came to circle around Sven’s cock, and he stroked it a few times, causing Sven to close his eyes and sprawl wider against the side of the tub. My brain, official sponsor of my troublesome imagination, started wandering off down a tangential path about how good it would no doubt feel to have Rex take me like that, to hold me in his strong, smooth hands and stroke me hard. I’d beg him for it, too, and no matter what kind of show of appreciation Sven was programmed to give, I’d give him more.

I shifted in my chair and realized I was hard, so I grabbed the empty black tray that had held my dinner and balanced it on my lap, hoping that anyone who passed by would just think I’d been catching a late meal. So far I’d been lucky and none of my co-workers had noticed, but I lived in constant fear of my good luck’s running out, not because I knew what would happen, but because I had no clue. I couldn’t imagine there’d be a serious reprimand involved for getting a chub from talking about intimate sex acts, as anyone who’s ever owned genitals knows they don’t always behave the way they should, but I still worried what would happen if someone connected my arousal to my one steady client. What if GVI decided I was a liability? What if they took Rex away from me?

Now was not the time for thinking that, though, not when I had a handsome man to please in front of me. Rex’s hand searched deeper between Sven’s legs, and I shifted Sven’s body down so Rex could have easier access, lifting his hips so that his desire couldn’t be missed. Most of the sexual subroutines were pretty detailed and independent — I would have been exhausted if I’d had to key in every time a module’s penis got harder or vagina got wetter (or both) — but I still felt the need to keep as involved in Sven’s sexual responses as possible; after all, it was the closest I could get to making love to Rex myself.

Rex stopped with his fingertips pressed against Sven’s ass and looked at him with a frown. “Do you … have lube?” he asked, frowning as though trying to remember how this all worked.

“I … could get some for you,” I offered, scrolling through my list of available objects because I could never remember the codes for ones that I didn’t use on a regular basis, “but it’s not really necessary. You’re not going to hurt me.”

With a nod, Rex withdrew his hand and instead brought it back to his own cock, stroking it with the soft dreaminess of moving underwater. “I have to say, it’d be convenient if the real world were like that,” he said, grabbing his cock and guiding its tip to the entrance of Sven’s ass.

Tell me about it, I very barely managed not to say. I’d had both my first boyfriend and my first anal sex when I was sixteen; the former had been well-meaning but poor with the advance planning, and thus the latter had too often lacked sufficient lubrication, and while I’d enjoyed the experience every time, a real-life self-lubricating asshole would probably have cut down on some of my next-day squirming in my high school’s uncomfortable chairs. Instead, I just had Sven stroke Rex’s cheek. “I want to feel you inside me,” I said, and I meant it. I couldn’t remember having wanted anything that badly in my life before, and that included my six-year-old beggings for a birthday bike — which, believe me, was a lot.

Rex gave a shaky groan that told me I’d done something right, then slipped his cock inside Sven’s ass in one slick motion. As he fit in to the root, he stopped, holding there in place. “Is that good?” he asked, his voice breathy with arousal.

“It’s so good,” I told him. I didn’t need much effort to imagine how my voice would sound if I were the one who had Rex’s cock inside him, meaning the only real concentration I had to front was remembering to keep Sven’s accent going. True, the voice mod would have taken care of pitch, tone, influection, and all the other works if I’d let it, but Rex deserved real appreciation. “I love the way you feel,” I continued, trying to avoid the clichés of porn-star dialogue while still keeping up the level of dirty talk that I could see made him weak. “You’re so handsome, I love having you in me. Fuck me, please, Rex, I love the way you fuck me.”

Apparently that was an easy command; once settled, Rex wrapped his arms around Sven’s neck and began pounding into him as fast as the water would allow. He brought his mouth close to Sven’s as though for a kiss, then drew away, letting his forehead fall against Sven’s shoulder as he fucked him with the kind of abandon necessary to take a man’s mind off unpleasant things. He was so beautiful to watch in motion, so handsome and strong, that the steady stream of variations on fuck and please and Rex that came out of my mouth were so automatic, I barely realized I was making them.

Having been here for several sessions now, Rex was more accustomed to the way VR distorted sensation, but even when he was aroused and engaged in vigorous sex, he still took a long time to come. I didn’t mind, though, because he so obviously enjoyed every minute of it; I could read the pleasure written on every muscle of his body and face, the tension of overwhelming effort almost as pleasant as the release toward which it headed. I watched as he thrust his cock into Sven again and again with the carelessness a man like Rex could only achieve when he was certain he could not hurt his partner. That was one of the most freeing things about the VR, I’d noticed: the way it made clients willing to attend to themselves without having to worry their pleasures might come at someone else’s expense. And Rex, ever gentle and concerned, seemed to need it the most.

Still, I didn’t think there was anything that could keep his performance entirely selfish; after a while, he brought his hand around Sven’s cock again and stroked him in time with his thrusts. “I’m going to come,” he breathed against Sven’s neck, panting and gasping. “I’m going to come.”

“Come inside me,” I begged him, which was something I’d said countless times in session, but had never meant before now. “I want to feel you come in me, Rex, fuck me and come in me, I want to make you feel good, I want to be yours, please–”

I wasn’t surprised that was all it took. Rex’s body arched and stilled with the force of his orgasm, while at the same time I brought Sven to climax in Rex’s hand, hot seed into hot water, but with enough of a reaction to make it clear that they’d shared the moment. I wouldn’t have bothered with most clients, but Rex was special on so many levels,and I saw him smile as Sven’s body bucked against his. He turned his face to Sven’s and kissed him at last, a fierce battle of tongues and teeth slowing as Rex’s heart rate slowed, until their mouths were gentle against one another again, lazy and satisfied.

I’d personally had sex in water before, and knew that after the fact, it could be a funky place to be; there was nothing here that a few digital adjustments wouldn’t fix, however, and in no time the water was sparkling clean and bubbling again, rippling against Rex’s bare skin in a way I knew must have felt good. Sven gathered Rex up in his arms, kissing and cuddling him as Rex lay there with his eyes closed and a tired smile on his face. He was so amazing, truly, not that he could go through all the things he had — I was sure Terrible Overbearing Father stories were commonplace among the well-off, more so than even my loving familiarity with the Western canon could ever have conveyed on its pages — but that someone could come out of those experiences neither mean nor brittle, but patient and kind. In that moment I was mad at the world, biting mad on Rex’s behalf. “You handsome man,” I whispered in his ear, stroking his hair as though I might be able to brush his demons away.

Rex curled his fingers underneath Sven’s chin, brushing the line of Sven’s jaw with the backs of his knuckles. “Handsome old man,” he corrected.

I wasn’t going to fight his estimation of his age (especially compared to mine), but I’d be damned if I let him go thinking that somehow disqualified him from being the most attractive man in the world. “The best men don’t get really sexy until they’re at least forty,” I said, bending Sven down to kiss at Rex’s fingers, “so you’ve just had a decade to improve.”

“Flatterer,” Rex said, but I could see from the expression on his face that he was flattered indeed, so much so that I knew his accusations of my insincerity had been greatly exaggerated. “You don’t look forty and you’re handsome just the way you are.”

Sven’s module profile identified him as, among other things, athletic, romantic, and thirty-four years old; he had the sort of face that even if it could have aged, would never age. “I’ll look any way you want as long as I make you happy,” I said, which was technically a true offer.

“You do! God, you make me so happy.” Rex let his hand trail down Sven’s neck to his chest, where he held his hand flat over Sven’s left side; I wondered if the simulation was detailed enough that Rex might be able to feel a tin heart beating in his chest. “I … wish, I so much wish, that I could take you home with me and have you with me all the time. No appointments, no scheduling, no coach turning back into a pumpkin. Just you, in my bed, all the time.”

It was absurd, I knew, an exercise in escapist fantasy, and while my entire paycheck was designed around the idea of facilitating the escapist fantasies of others, surely I was still with it enough to be able to tell the line betwen fact and fiction. The point of GVI’s simulations was that they lasted an hour and nothing more, letting people work out whatever desires they had on a time-managed schedule that afforded them a bit of release before letting them go back to their ‘normal’ lives untroubled by even the remotest chance that one world might ever meet the other. I was in the dream business, and the point of dreams was that when they were done, you woke up.

“I’d stay in your bed all day,” I swore, closing my eyes and — against any and all good judgment I’d ever possessed — let myself imagine what life would be like there, lounging on Rex’s no-doubt-silk sheets, being his face-to-face lover, his boyfriend. “I’d lie around naked and wait for you to come home to me.”

Rex laughed, but even through my headset I could hear a desperate note, the kind people get when a joke that’s been funny starts cutting too close to home. “We could eat dinner in bed and watch old movies. Champagne and Vertigo.”

I hadn’t known he’d been a fan of classic movies as well as classic literature; dear God, could this man get more perfect? “I love Hitchcock!” I’d curl up next to him and put my head on his shoulder, and he’d stroke my hair, and we’d talk through the movie because we’d both seen it a hundred times but loved watching it again anyway. “I like Rope best.”

“Oh, so do I. For … reasons that are no doubt obvious.” He laughed at himself, and I joined in a quiet chuckle. “Of course, sometimes you could put on clothes and we could go out to the theater. There’s always a red-carpet premiere somewhere.”

“A night out on the town? I’d have to get my tuxedo dry-cleaned,” I quipped, then paused. “I’d … have to get a tuxedo in the first place.”

Rex shook his head. “Not a problem. I’ve got a tailor, she does great work. I’ll have her send one of her bots over to get your measurements. Two hours, at the most.” Rex snapped his left hand, making a sharp, efficient crack that sent little droplets of water flying from his swift fingertips.

As someone who hadn’t bought anything since moving to Manhattan that hadn’t been owned by someone else first (except underwear, I had some standards), the idea of getting a bespoke tuxedo in under two hours was right up there with the idea of having elves sneak in at night to make my shoes. “It doesn’t matter what I’d be wearing, though, right?” I asked, and Rex gave Sven a puzzled glance. “Everyone would still be looking at you.”

“Merciful God, you are just the most–” Rex began, but whatever he was going to accuse me of being disappeared into Sven’s mouth as Rex sat up in Sven’s arms and kissed him, throwing his arms around Sven’s neck and holding tight. I’d never seen a client so invested in just kissing, especially when they had other activities so close at hand, but then again, I’d never had a client beg to take me home before. I would have been confident putting down all of my salary for the rest of my life betting that there was no one else like him in the world.

I’d pretty much seen them all, and I could swear to it: there was no problem in fantasy. In fact, I’d seen it as pat of many liberating journeys of self-discovery, including my own; at the age of eleven, while figuring out my own sexuality, I’d had a long phase where I’d considered the pinnacle of sexual activity to be being trapped (naked) by the entire (also naked) starting lineup of the Chicago Lions in the middle of their locker room, and that had turned out to be a telling and helpful mental exercise. But I’d never actually snuck my way into the locker room with that express purpose, nor had I ever really wanted to, because I understood even at eleven the difference between an idealized sexual situation and being a terribly underaged boy propositioning a room of football players. It was that line between fantasy and reality that kept sane people from doing stupid things. It was also that line that I felt, as I spent more time with Rex, becoming dangerously thin.

The scene shimmered its ending warning, and I felt my stomach become a rock. I didn’t know how or even if I should have notified Rex that our time together had grown terribly short, but before I could make that decision, Rex pulled back and looked at Sven’s face; he lifted a hand to caress Sven’s muscled jaw and gave him a warm smile. “I want so much to take you home with me.”

“I know,” I said, trying to sound cool but coming off as miserable as I felt at the thought of letting him go. “I’ll see you again soon though, right?”

“Soon.” He nodded, but he looked away as he said it, and instead came back to rest against Sven’s body, resting his head on Sven’s shoulder. “I know we’re nearly out of time, but … could you recite something for me before I have to go?”

“Anything,” I promised. “What would you like?”

“Whatever you like best,” he said, and shut his eyes.

I’d thought about one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, or perhaps one of the comedies’ stirring speeches of love I’d memorized as audition pieces, but when I opened my mouth, what came out was my high school’s drama teacher’s too-ambitious project of my eleventh grade year. The teenaged actors had been unprepared for the task, the school administration had forced a round of cuts for time constraints, my teacher had allowed a second round of cuts when it became clear most of my classmates weren’t up to memorizing volumes of Elizabethan iambic pentameter, and our Caliban had gotten himself disqualified two days before the performance when his GPA fell too low — but I, I had been spectacular, and it was this feeling I summoned, the memory of bringing a quarter-filled cafeteria-turned-auditorium to its feet with earnest applause, as I opened my mouth and began to speak: “Now my charms are all o’erthrown, / And what strength I have’s mine own, / Which is most faint: now, ’tis true, / I must be here confined by you….

At the time, my final soliloquy as Prospero had seemed to take only an instant — all I remembered was I’d opened my mouth and it’d been done — but now as I recited the lines I became aware of how quick a minute is, how close time ever is to catching up with us. Every word I’d burned into my brain seven years previous came back to me as though I’d last seen the script yesterday, and I had no trouble putting myself in that old wizard’s shoes, standing still as the world turned away beneath him, unable to hold anything in place. I’d barely worked the last couplet from my mouth — As you from crimes would pardon’d be, / Let your indulgence set me free — when the merciless clock ticked away to nothing and darkness came over the scene just as finally as a curtain’s fall. This time, no one clapped.

~*~

When it’d been a week and I hadn’t seen him on my schedule again, I began to worry. Still, I told myself there could be a million and three reasons why he was away; he was obviously a rich, important businessman, and even though I didn’t know exactly what he did, I knew guys like that sometimes had to work drop-everything crazy hours that didn’t let them get away. Maybe it was a project, or some big opening of a new … something guys in suits liked to open, I didn’t know. But he’d just been delayed for a bit. He’d come back soon.

When two weeks had passed without a sign of him, worry started to bleed over into panic. What if something had happened? What if there’d been a terrible accident, or someone very dear to him had suffered some catastrophe? What if — God forbid — he’d died?

By the third week, panic had become a constant gnaw in my stomach that meant I wasn’t sleeping more than a few hours each night. I wandered around zombie-like during the day, going to work and coming home, running errands in my free time; I’d cleaned my apartment and re-arranged my books, then forgotten I’d re-arranged them and gotten so mad about their being in a new order that I’d put them back where they’d been in the first place.

There were basically two things GVI employees were never, ever, under penalty of the wrath of the legal gods, supposed to do: we weren’t supposed to tell about the human components behind the VR, and we weren’t supposed to violate client privacy. At last, I opened a search terminal and prepared to flagrantly toss the latter prohibition out the window.

It was then I realized that the only concrete pieces of information I had about him weren’t exactly terms you could use to find someone. I had an idea of his family structure — father, two siblings, Indonesian wife, no kids — and that some parts of them were connected to the business, but I knew searching ‘family business’ wasn’t going to get me anywhere. I knew he had a lot of money and had a job where he had to wear a suit and go to fancy parties, but that, too, was vague and unhelpful. I knew his face, but had no still images of it I could use to compare. I knew his client number, but that was useless outside of GVI’s internal databases, and they were locked down with more security than a lowly operator like myself could navigate. I didn’t even know if ‘Rex’ was his real name. Like they used to say on old TV shows, I had bupkis.

Still, I’d underslept myself into a place where I was just crazy enough not to give up. Assuming he’d have no reason to lie about his identity, I searched for his name with ‘rich’; that, however, returned a set of German queries that assumed I couldn’t spell the word ‘reich’. I tried again, this time adding ‘business’, but was rewarded with information about a wealthy Greek theatre troupe’s production of Sophocles’ works. At last, on a lark, I deleted ‘rich’, added ‘family’, ‘international’, and — based on nothing but a few vague remarks and a shot in the dark at his accent — ‘Iran’.

The man whose face appeared on my terminal screen was unmistakable: a dark-haired gentleman addressing a serious-looking group at something that appeared to be a sustainability conference, though the rest of the copy was in a language I couldn’t identify, much less read. Deciding I could live without a translation, I searched for his image, and was rewarded with the biography of Darius Rex Roshanak, 52; born in Isfahan; graduate of Oriel College, Oxford and the London School of Economics; vice-president of Roshanak International; husband of Dasha Kusuma Widjaja; youngest child of CEO and founder Sadeq Roshanak and Lila Roshanak (dec.); younger brother of vice-presidents Dawuud Roshanak and Zeyneb Roshanak Qabbani; financier and philanthropist; and indeed (along with his family members) on every reputable list of the world’s wealthiest.

It was like dropping a thirsty man into the ocean: I had more than I wanted but still couldn’t do anything with it.

At least I could check obituaries, a three-second search that turned up nothing, and I breathed a sigh of relief — one quickly replaced by the standard jilted lover’s complaint of, if he’s not dead, why hasn’t he called? I checked to see if he’d been in the news recently, brokering some big important deal where he had to be there in person, but found nothing. Whatever was keeping him away, it wasn’t newsworthly.

“Well, now what?” I asked aloud, and I slumped back on the mattress on the floor that served as my bed. It was a fair question since, apart from learning that he was probably still alive, I hadn’t done myself any good. I couldn’t call him: I didn’t have his number, I had no idea how I’d get in touch with him if I could call, and if I did, what on earth could I say? I took a breath and affected Sven’s accent: “Hello, Rex, this is your handsome imaginary lover, and except I’m fat, nearsighted, losing my hair, and not even European.” Yes, that would go over well.

It wasn’t fair, and I picked up my pillow and pitched it across the room in a fit of adolescent pique that made me feel a little better for having indulged it. I’d always been the cool one when it came to romance and relationships, the one who’d never left my heart exposed enough to get it broken, the one’d who poked gentle fun at my high school friends for their dramatic moans about how if they couldn’t get the boy or girl they were after, they’d just die. And now here I was, years out of school, learning firsthand what ‘lovesick’ meant. It was disgusting and self-indulgent and ridiculous, and I needed to snap out of it. And I would, just as soon as I had the strength to eat something; which would probably mean ordering food, considering the bare state of my kitchen; which would mean getting up and doing something with my tired, pathetic lump of a self; and that all seemed so very, very difficult.

So instead I lay back against the pillows I hadn’t tossed away and stared at the face on the screen. It looked as though it had been taken some years back, a company portrait with a neutral suit set against a neutral background. In it, Rex was looking just beyond the camera and smiling, but the pleasant, well-practiced expression began to peter out around his cheekbones and stopped just short of his eyes. I placed my fingers against the cool screen, tracing the curve of his jaw, wondering if anyone could live feeling this way forever.

~*~

A month after his last session, Rex returned, and only by the greatest of all impossible circumstances in the world did I not miss him.

I’d agreed to come in and pick up some shifts for one of my co-workers, Nyna, who’d just had her third baby; the center had been busy lately due to a recent publicity campaign, and at least I could be making money off my insomnia. Nyna was one of the afternoon part-timers who held down the quiet daylight fort, so I’d hauled myself out of bed after maybe four hours total of broken sleep in order to run a fourteen-hour shift that was still better than being left to my own thoughts. I hadn’t bothered to shower or change out of the sweater vest and khakis I’d worn and slept in the night before, and prayed on the way for at least a few down hours when I could doze at my desk.

No such luck: when I got there, I saw the first three hours full, with no break until six and then right back on from seven to close. The only mercy was that all three of the first hours were with familiar programs that only needed the smallest input from me. Thus, I ran on auto-pilot through one hour as Antoinette, the cartoonish French maid who made scandalized noises as her ample bottom was smacked, and another as Colleen, a petite woman who spent most of her time gagged and tied to a chair. The third was slated to be Bobbi, the cheerleader-next-door who’d lost her virginity countless times in the back of a classic Chevrolet, and I was so out of it that I didn’t quite understand what was happening when I tapped the code to initiate the session and Sven’s module loaded instead.

At first, I wasn’t too troubled by this; after all, clients changed their minds all the time, and those that might choose one companion in front of their friends often switched once no one else was watching. The room, however, was a familiar beachfront hotel room at sunset, and the naked man sitting at the foot of the bed — well, he was as unmistakable as ever.

“Rex!” I beamed, my heart caught in my throat. I raced Sven over to embrace him, and without a word, Rex threw his arms around Sven’s neck and let Sven topple him back to the bed, kissing him and wrapping his bare legs around Sven’s waist. “I’ve missed you so much,” I gasped between kisses, and I realized that my own hands were shaking.

“I needed to see you.” Rex grabbed for Sven’s hair and lifted his hips in a way that made what he was asking clear. “I needed to feel you again.”

“I’m right here,” I promised, and with all the leeway that the virtual environment gave, I pushed Sven’s cock deep inside Rex.

I lost track of how long their bodies rocked in relative silence; Rex made the occasional grunt and gasp with sensation, but I said nothing on Sven’s behalf. Instead, I brought my hand to my mouth and gnawed at my fingernails, a habit I thought I’d broken back in middle school, trying to think of how to make it clear how important he’d become to me and not have it sound like a programmed marketing pitch, the sex worker version of ‘Collect them all!’ Of course the computer would promise love, devotion, anything to keep the paying customer coming back time and again. It would mean everything in the world from a real lover and nothing from a collection of corporate subroutines.

Rex held on to Sven’s body with a desperate clutching grip, his eyes closed, breathing ever louder as the session went on — yet every time I looked at his hips, Rex’s cock lay only half-hard against his belly, stirred but not stiffened. I let Sven defy gravity for a moment and brought his hand between their bodies without changing his basic position, and Sven began to pump Rex’s cock as he thrust into him. That, at least, got a reaction, and Rex went full to hard in only a few strokes. “I’m here, baby,” I whispered in his ear, not even giving myself long enough to chastise myself for how stupid calling him ‘baby’ probably sounded, “I’ve got you, I’m right here, I’m here for you.”

That succeeded where everything before had failed: Rex came in a sharp shuddering gasp, and I made sure Sven held him throughout, stroking his hair, murmuring nonsense endearments at him, letting him know he wasn’t alone. At last he took a deep breath and collapsed into Sven’s arms, shaking, and it wasn’t until he lifted his face that I could see he was crying.

“Rex? Oh, God, what?” Sven pulled away enough that I could see Rex’s face, and I compensated by having Sven put a consoling hand on Rex’s cheek. “Tell me, it can’t be that bad.” Sven bent and kissed his forehead.

“We can’t…. I have to stop coming,” Rex said, his voice as steady as a leaf caught in a hurricane.

This was how it felt, I was sure, in those old cartoons, when there was a guy out on a sidewalk and he got dropped on him a piano and a safe and a table and a flowerpot for good measure, and then maybe even a freight train ran him down. I couldn’t make my lungs work, because I’d misplaced them, because the bottom had dropped out of the world, and here I was in the next drawn reel with the ground below me gone, knowing that the second I looked down I’d fall. “Rex, whatever I did, I’m sorry–”

Rex cut me off with a bitter little laugh, and he shook his head. “It’s not you, it’s me, and that sounds so fake, but it’s true.” He closed his eyes tight and squirmed, as though he were trying to push Sven away and hold on tight at once. “But … I can’t keep doing this to myself. I can’t. I can’t stop thinking about you, and I just want to shut down my entire life and lock myself away in here with you, and it’s stupid and I’m being childish. I’m being ridiculous and I can’t afford to be ridiculous. I’ve got too many things riding on me to give myself over to a fantasy.”

“So that’s,” I said, licking my dry lips, “why you haven’t been here.”

“I tried,” he said, sounding desperate. “I tried just to cut myself off, but … every time I thought of you, and how I’d left you, I couldn’t let it end like that, I … couldn’t just disappear.”

If they gave a Nobel Prize for being the sweetest man on earth, I would have used that moment to submit Rex for consideration: this was a man who thanked imaginary waiters, went out of his way to satisfy his virtual partner’s perceived sexual needs, and was demonstrating now a personal need to come back at great fiscal and emotional expense for the sake of breaking up with a computer. God, I was starting to believe he was the unreal one. “Rex, please,” I began, but the sentiment caught in my throat, and I couldn’t go on.

Rex sighed and sat up in the bed; he leaned back against the pillows and stroked Sven’s hair, and forced a brave smile even as his eyes grew red. “You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met,” he said, and then he laughed, “even if you’re not a person. But you’re an incredible enough fantasy that I’d be willing to give my whole life to you, and I can’t do that. It’s too hard on my heart and I’m too old to spend my life playing make-believe with something that can’t ever be mine.”

“But I’m real.” I heard the words fed back through the earpiece, and I wondered where they’d come from, until I felt my heavy, troubled breath rush past my open lips. It had been my voice, too — not Sven’s, mine.

“I know.” Rex sighed and shook his head. “I mean, I’m sure there’s a real Sven somewhere–”

“No, I’m real.” That ever-present rational part of myself — the part that liked having a paying job and a place to live and food to eat and having the burden of my student loans slowly chipped away — told me to shut the fuck up, had I lost my entire brain, was there a single concrete thing that could be gained from this, did someone have to come in there and slap me. But while it was making its very convincing argument, my mouth was running off two steps ahead of it: “I’m real, I’m really here, Rex, and I … am risking my job to tell you this, but it’s the big industry secret, that someone always controls the VR, a real person, and it’s me.”

Now it was Rex’s turn for the piano-safe-table-flowerpot-train combo attack. He froze, his eyes wide — and then he scrambled back, his features gripped with sheer white terror, so far that he would have fallen off the end of the bed had I not dove by reflex for the keystrokes to fix its width. This, right here, was a major component of why we never told anyone. “No….”

“Just let me explain.” I couldn’t decide if it was worse now to keep manipulating Sven or to let loose his controls completely, and I settled on keeping him in the same fixed reclining position, but wiping the smile off his face. “Please, Rex, you don’t have anything to worry ab–”

The screen clicked dark, and I snapped my head over to the bed-room camera, where I could see that for the first time in his entire client career with GVI, Rex had decided to end a session early. He was moving slowly, though, shaking as the automatic systems on the chair took him from a deep recline to a sitting position. He was already on the move, but he had to get dressed and maybe take a shower first, and then he was going to walk out the door to the GVI center and out of my life. Rex was a great guy, not prone to cruelty or vengeance; most likely, he’d let this incident shame him into silence, never tell my bosses, not sue the company for fraud, and maybe not even get me fired. All I’d have to do is keep my mouth shut and live with how bad I’d betrayed his trust. It was that simple.

I tore off my headset, grabbed my coat and messenger bag from the hook behind my chair, and raced out of the office. Zee and a few others saw me go, and Zee even called after me, but nothing short of divine intervention would have stopped me.

Divine intervention or locked doors, it turned out, as I raced for what I thought was an exit to the stairwell, and cursed as the emergency-system-release-only deadbolt thudded against my futile force. Stupid doors, didn’t they know emergencies when they saw them? I slammed my palm against the metal, hard enough to bruise the heel of my hand, and took off for what I remembered as the operator area’s one entrance to the main building. It was there for appearances, they told us, but only the supervisors ever went out or in there; the rest of us took a private elevator up from the subway station below, the better not to see you with, my dear. This, however, was not the time for stealth. The security on the place was spectacular, but it was all designed to keep people from coming in, and thus the retinal scanner and passcode terminal sat idly by as I blew past them and out into the floor lobby.

A few business-dressed people frowned at me, and I realized that it must be quitting time for most suit professions; that was great, that might slow him down. I dashed for the elevators and hammered on the up button for what seemed like an eternity until the nearest doors slid open. I jammed the button for the GVI offices and used the back wall’s mirror to try and straighten my hat in the second it took me to rise the two floors. When the car settled, I was out the doors before they were fully opened, and I let myself be impressed by GVI’s swanky client interior only long enough for my eyes to find the receptionist, a blue-haired young woman with bright gold makeup. I dashed over to her and leaned over the edge of the counter. “Rex Roshanak, can you tell me where he is?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” she said with all the beautiful unflappable calm of a career troubleshooter, “I’m afraid here at GVI all of our client information is confiden–”

“I’m from downstairs,” I interrupted, and when she frowned, I clarified, “from GVI downstairs. Same machine signs both our paychecks.”

That at least gave her pause, and she flipped to the terminal screen in front of her. “I didn’t hear from anyone….”

“That’s why they sent me up. It’s….” I was too flustered to think of anything clever, and I knew from the way her eyebrows pinched that every word I said landed me deeper and deeper in the territory of the unbelievable. “It’s just very urgent that I find him, can you just tell me if he’s here or if he’s left?”

She looked at me hard then, and I could see her walking the thin line that divided doing a fellow employee a strange favour from doing something in clear violation of her employment agreement. I gave her my best, saddest, most harmless face, trying every weapon in my adorable arsenal, and after a moment, she sighed. “He parks on the third garage level down, and he’s just stepped into the client elevator. If you’re going to catch him, that’s where.”

“Thank you. Bless you.” I pressed my hands together in front of my face and gave a little bow, hoping the awkward gesture would convey the sincerity of my gratitude, and ran back for the elevators. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds’ wait to get a car, but I swore it felt like years, and as I rode the half-crowded elevator down, it took every fiber of my self-control not to scream at everyone to cut it the hell out with all their stops along the way, couldn’t they see I had something important waiting for me?

By the time the elevator hit the lowest level, I was the only person left, and thus I felt unselfconscious in pushing out the opening doors and racing across the concrete tier. The building predated most of the city’s more recent rapid transit upgrades, and thus the parking levels were at best a vestigial organ, an architectural appendix left over from the before-my-time days when anyone drove in Manhattan. A few vehicles still filled the spots, some of which looked like they hadn’t been moved in months — and then there, at the far end of the garage, near the place the private GVI elevator doors opened, was a familiar frame in a neat black suit.

Rex!” I shouted, sprinting for him with the last little burst of energy I could find in my tired limbs, and he turned, startled by the cry of his name as it echoed off the bare concrete walls. “Rex, please!”

I half-expected him to run, but he stayed in place, lingering by the open door to the back seat of his personal automated Rolls-Royce. He was shorter than I’d imagined from seeing him in the monitors, shorter and a bit slighter, but those brown eyes were more amazing in real life than they’d been on any screen. He gave me a cautious look, his muscles tense, waiting.

“Rex, please,” I repeated, staggering as close as I dared before stopping well beyond arm’s reach; I held my hat crooked on my head, feeling the sweat bead beneath it on my scalp. Damn me, I really had to exercise more. “Please, give me a minute to explain, and then you can do whatever you want, I don’t care, I just need to talk to you.”

“Who … are you?” he asked, his eyes narrow. I noticed that his tie was done up crooked and wondered how quickly he must have dressed, how spooked he must have been to let his impeccable self go out into the world, even briefly, looking less than perfect.

“Sven,” I answered, and then I shook my head. “I mean, I’m the guy who was operating Sven. Not really Sven. I’m Sven when Sven talked and….” I waved my hands, feeling like a complete mental patient as I rambled and tried to catch my breath at the same time. “I don’t look like him and I don’t sound like him, but everything he said, I swear it’s true for me.”

I supposed I wouldn’t have blamed him for calling me a liar and calling the police on me then and there, but I could see written on his face how the pieces slowly fell into place for him. Every questionable statement I’d ever made as Sven, every too-human sentiment I’d expressed, every piece of history no programmer would have thought to include — these made my body of evidence, and all I could do now was pray that I’d been unconvincing enough in the past to be convincing now. Everything depended upon my having made the right mistakes.

“So you’re,” he said at last, “the man behind the curtain.”

I was feeling less Great and more Terrible at the moment, but didn’t figure it would do any good to belabour the comparison. “Everything he said, everything about himself, it wasn’t a script. My family, acting, the books, how I feel about you, it’s all me.”

He took a step toward me, looking me up and down, trying to see some hint of Sven in me I knew he wouldn’t find, at least not in the physical. “And … why have you come after me now?” His language was more formal than I’d ever heard before, but I supposed I couldn’t blame him for being cautious; after all, I might easily be poised to blackmail him, to turn all his deep-whispered secrets against him for some horrifying price.

“Because I love you.” Cards on the table, nothing more to hold back, I would only ever get one shot at this so I had to make it count. “My name is Patrick, and I am head-over-heels stupid in love with you. I have fallen so much in love with you, Rex, I … you’re all I think about, and you really are the most handsome man I’ve ever seen, and you’re sweet and kind and you do all sorts of nice things and you’re nice to me and,” I paused just long enough to take a breath, “I want to punch your father in the face too, and I think you’re an incredible dancer who looks great in a tuxedo, and I’ve loved all the books you’ve told me to read, and I want to watch old movies with you in bed, and I am so completely, madly, totally in love with you, and I can’t say good-bye to you now, not like this, not without letting you know.”

illustrated by sparks

No one in history had ever felt so blessed by a miraculous vision as I did when I saw the lines of worry in his forehead soften. “Patrick,” he repeated, and it made my stomach do a fluttery little dance to hear him say my name, my name. “But … dear God, you’re him.”

“The whole time.” I nodded and swallowed down the lump in my throat.

He took a deep breath and let it out in a stuttery rush, then raked his fingers through his hair. “Are … you still on the clock?”

I laughed aloud at that one, aware that I sounded a bit hysterical. “Are you kidding? I am beyond fired. I am the most fired person in the universe. There has never been anyone in the history of being fired who has been more fired than I am right now.” I shook the bag I’d managed to sling across my chest during my frantic dash after him. “I can’t go back. As we speak, they’re probably deactivating my security clearance and calling their lawyers and … something else, I have no idea. Calling the cops? They might be calling the cops.”

A crack of a smile tipped the edge of Rex’s mouth, so beautiful I nearly cried with relief. “Then get in the car,” he said, waving me in, and I dashed by as fast as I could just in case my hesitating too long would make him change his mind.

The inside of the car was spacious, not large enough for a crowd, but with quite enough room for two people to ride comfortably. Since it drove itself, the car had next to no area left for the front seat, and in its place sat a large terminal screen, a few consoles, and a mini-bar. I’d seen the inside of cars like this before, but in magazines and the occasional high-end car chase movie; prior to sitting inside one, I hadn’t been wholly convinced they were real.

Rex took two glasses from the bar’s rack and poured from a thick green-glass bottle into each. “Whiskey neat, do I remember correctly?”

“You remember.” When he handed me the glass I tried to remember that this was probably the best alcohol I’d ever had in my life, that I should savor it — and I ended up taking half of it down in a single gulp anyway.

With a sigh, Rex leaned back against the seat and shut his eyes. “I’m sorry, you have to understand, I … didn’t think you existed. I had no idea you could even exist.”

I shrugged. “You weren’t supposed to.” The alcohol hit my empty stomach like a bomb, combining with the adrenaline high and lack of sleep, and I felt a little unmoored.

“Well, yes, I suppose I wasn’t.” He reached for his crooked tie and tugged it loose, leaving it limp across his chest, and I summoned my powers of self-control toward the effort of not grabbing him by it and sucking a hundred hickies into the warm skin of his throat. That he didn’t want me fired or shot was already too good to be true; I didn’t want to push my luck.

“But … I am real.” I looked down at my feet, at my cheap shoes, and wished like hell I’d had the presence of mind to put on something a little more appropriate to sitting in a car like this, or even just more appropriate to being seen in public by people who bathed regularly. “Not nearly as handsome, but….”

“I don’t care about that.” Eyes still shut, Rex shook his head, and he took a sip of his drink — one that was interrupted as a troubling thought visibly crossed his face. “…Just to check, you do like having sex with men, right? Because if this just about conversation, that’s fine–”

I laughed so hard I nearly choked on the sound as it left my throat. “I enjoy having sex with men and I really want to have sex with you specifically,” I nodded. “Because it doesn’t work both ways, the VR link. I mean, the operators don’t feel anything.”

A wicked little smirk took over Rex’s lips. “But you wanted to,” he said, and it wasn’t remotely a question. As I watched, I could see his body relax, his muscles uncoil; I didn’t blame him for needing a little bit to unwind, as I was having the same problem.

“God, I wanted to.” The alcohol and the situation and just being near Rex were conspiring to make me giddy. “Everyting Sven told you about thinking about you — and, uh, thinking about you — while you were away? That was all true too.”

Rex reached over and took my left hand where it lay limp against the seat, and my heart started thudding so loud I wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone in the building could have heard it. “So … tell me about Patrick, who is not from Stockholm.”

“Not from Stockholm,” I laughed. “Glenview.”

“And you said … student loans?”

“I studied drama.” I shrugged a little, sheepish. “Wanted to be an actor. Not a very good one, though.”

“I tend to disagree.” Rex rubbed his thumb over the back of my knuckles, then shook his head in amazement. “God, you’re … real, you’re really real, you’re really like that.”

“I am one hundred percent really like that,” I nodded. “Except for not looking like that.”

Rex shook his head and scooted closer on the seat, a slow approach, testing the waters. I didn’t dare move, lest I scare him away; this was his time to be in control. “Want to hear my secret? I picked ‘Sven’ because he was at the top of the list, and … I panicked. A friend had talked me into coming here, had even bought me the first session as a birthday present, and I nearly backed out a hundred times before, so when I got into the initial questionnaire, I just chose the first male name I saw. You’re far, far more my type than he is.” He took a deep breath and placed his hand on my chest, just above my heart, which I’d already resigned myself would never go back to its former resting rate. “I’m … sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve done this in real life.”

He was warm and strong, and he smelled of sandalwood and other dark, clean scents, and I could feel him, finally feel him, and somewhere in the back of my mind, the impossibility that everything might be all right was becoming more plausible with every second. “I bet … everything makes a lot more sense now, doesn’t it?”

“It really does.” Rex reached up to touch my cheek, the way he’d touched Sven’s so many times before. “Do you … know who I am? I mean, in real life?”

There it was, the golddigger question, and I supposed I should have been expecting it; as much as it scared me to say so, I had to be honest. “A very wealthy man. But I just found that out the other day. And it doesn’t matter when I found it out, because I don’t care.” I reached for his hand and took it with my own, then pulled back enough that I could see his face. “You could be poorer than I am — which is pretty poor, by the way, in the spirit of full financial disclosure, this car is actually bigger than my bathroom — and I’d still want this, in the real world, with you and me. Because I love you.” I took a deep breath. “So … do you want to?”

“It … depends,” said Rex, his voice suddenly sly.

“On…?” Did he want something else from me? Did he want me to jump off a bridge for him? I could jump off a bridge. I could do anything if I thought it’d convince him to say yes.

“It was you controlling Sven the entire time, right?”

“The whole time. I insisted.” I nodded and frowned, making sure he knew I was serious. “I wouldn’t let anyone else have you.”

Rex gave me a long, hard look, as though sizing me up before a fight, and I tried not to embarrass myself as I let him see me, the real me, the man pulling the strings that had tied up his heart. At long last he brought his lips close to mine, just enough that I could finally feel his breath on my skin. “Would you be like him in my bed?”

I smirked with all the cool confidence I could muster. “I’d be better.”

He laughed and leaned toward the front of the car, tapping the home button on the navigation screen. The jolt as the car began to move caused him to fall back against the seat, against my body; his elbow bumped my chest, and when he tried to extract himself from the awkward position he’d landed in, he got his hand caught somehow in the strap of my messenger bag, and when I tried to help I wound up spilling what little was left of my drink on my pants, and we both tried to wipe it up and found our hands pressed together in my lap, and then he was kissing me, kissing me, finally kissing me for real. Everything was better when it was real.

“We’ll be at my penthouse in two minutes,” Rex laughed against my mouth, “and then I expect you to prove it.”

“Until you’re convinced,” I promised, making good on my earlier desire to grab his tie, “and then some.” The evening city lights rose around us as we emerged from the garage, and we soared in each other’s arms high amongst the lights of the city, tangled and disheveled and awkward and flawed and perfect together.

Author’s Notes

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