He grabbed a bottle of champagne from the fridge and walked back out to the main space. The usual two dozen people stood around a mostly faithful representation of his living room, drinking, talking, one couple making out in the corner. They’d all been friends since university, and even as they grew apart and changed over time, this core group still managed to get together once a year for the party. It was their own private Las Vegas: what happened on Halloween stayed on Halloween.
He scanned the room, looking for the Empress of the Universe. Hui may have been the undisputed champion, but it had been a long time since he’d been so baffled by one of his friends. If he didn’t know better, he’d have thought someone sneaked in.
He saw her by his bookshelf, which displayed a selection of the book, film and music titles currently in the entertainment drive of his system. She sipped from her plastic cup and seemed to scrutinize the shelves.
“You must know Emil’s taste by now,” he said as he walked up next to her.
She shrugged. “People change,” she said. “And there might be something good I want to borrow.” She smiled and drained her cup. “You going to open that?” she asked, glancing at the bottle.
“Why not?” He wrestled with the cork for a moment before it popped out. He poured some in her glass, then swigged straight from the bottle. “Cheers.”
“That’s not very bartendery,” she said.
He shrugged. “I’ve never been good at staying in character,” he said. They stood by the bookshelf, drinking in silence, staring at each other as if they might be able to see through the projection that rendered their images.
“I wonder if this is what it really looks like,” she said, finally.
“This,” she swept her hand to indicate the room. “Emil’s… place. When it’s not being used for a party.”
He didn’t know how to answer. Most of his old friends never talked about it, about him, about the accident. It had become one of the unwritten rules of the party — don’t talk about Emil. They weren’t his rules, though. This was his life now: he worked, had friends, traveled, all mediated through the software and hardware in his brain. He knew it sounded like a kind of technological heaven to some people, but it wasn’t. He wasn’t better than human, just different. If he could have a functioning body again, he’d trade all the immediate connectivity and virtual experiences in the blink of a microchip’s cycle. But that wasn’t a possibility.
This life wasn’t perfect, but it was immensely preferable to the alternative. Emil wasn’t embarrassed or shy about it, how could he be? But so many of his friends acted like talking about it was taboo, like mentioning it would somehow be pulling back the curtain on a stage magician, revealing that it was all just a cheap parlour trick. Even now, when they visited him in his own realm, they pretended that it was just another party, that the impossible costumes and improbable physics were just another option from the fancy dress rental.
It wasn’t everyone, of course. He and Hui met regularly, and everyone in his life that he’d met after he’d changed at least put in the effort to be understanding. As much as he wished the old gang could get over whatever it was that kept them away, Emil usually didn’t fight it, not anymore. He didn’t want to endure that moment when they looked at him — at the simulated version of him that his implants created — and compared it to what he had once been.
There was something about her, though. The Empress of the Universe seemed to want to find a way to bridge whatever chasm there was between them, one disembodied, the other… Emil didn’t know her story. Another unwritten rule — no asking, only guessing. Was it possible? He peered into her eyes, knowing they held no clues to the identity of the person who animated the body, but wishing that he might still see a glimpse. Could it be… him in there?
“If you want to see how Emil lives,” he paused, thinking abut how to phrase it, “I understand he takes visitors.”
Her face seemed to change subtly, something like recognition or maybe just hope written on it. Emil fought the urge to see what his program had done with her avatar, and why. But he didn’t want to know, not like that. Just because he had new abilities, that didn’t mean he had to use them.
“I wish …” Her voice trailed off and he was sure he saw the shine of tears in her eyes. “It doesn’t matter,” she said.
He let his hand rest on her arm, marvelling at the sensation of real flesh he felt. Hers and his. He thought he’d never get used to it. “It matters. What do you wish?”
She looked at him, her eyes locked on his, then her face changed. She smiled as if the conversation had never been serious. “I wish I really were the Empress of the Universe.”
“And what would you do with your great power?”
“I would make every day Halloween,” she said, “and then I would really be the Empress of the Universe.” She laughed and drained her glass. “Anything left in there for me, barkeep?”
“Sure,” he said, and poured champagne into her red plastic cup. His hand barely trembled.