“You don’t look like an Ishmael,” he said, an eyebrow arching. But it was a costume party. She could be anything in there.
She laughed, throwing her head back and revealing the hollow of her neck. She looked very thin, he thought. “I guess not,” she said, “but I’ve always wanted to say that when someone asked my name.”
“Ishmael it is,” he said. “You better call me Isaac, then.” His seventies afro shortened while his moustache grew, and the loud disco suit he’d been wearing morphed into a ship’s dress whites. A martini shaker appeared on the table next to him and he gave her the pistol-finger.
“Very clever,” she said, shaking her head in what he imagined was admiration. He mentally made a list of all his friends who liked — or at least had an awareness of — cheesy old television. “But isn’t that cheating?”
“You’re the first person I’ve talked to tonight,” he said, “no one else saw the other outfit. Besides, this one’s better.” He tugged the jacket down and grinned. “So, Ishmael.” He sipped from the red plastic cup in his hand. “You appear to have me at a disadvantage.”
“You’ve got me figured out, but I can’t tell who you are supposed to be.” He took in her utterly generic jeans and pale blue t-shirt adorned with a line drawing of a sparrow.
She leaned in toward him and looked around as if fearful that the other partygoers might overhear. “I’m the Empress of the Universe.”
“I see,” he said. “I must say, you look almost as much like the Empress of the Universe as you look like an Ishmael.”
She grinned. “I’m in disguise.”
He barked out a laugh, spilling his drink in the process. He grabbed a nearby napkin and dabbed at her arm, revelling as always in the simulacrum of touch. It wasn’t exactly right, he remembered that well enough. But it was so close.
He was disappointed when she took the napkin from him to finish cleaning herself up. “In disguise,” he said. “Very good. You might even win with that one.”
I shrugged as I dabbed at myself with the napkin. I had no interest in the contest. I’d never won, not in any of the years of Halloween parties, and I’d been to them all. Even the ones where were actually together in someone’s flat or house, as opposed to being simulated in this section of Emil’s enhanced mind.
I looked at the ineffectual napkin and shook my head. “This isn’t doing anything,” I said, and caught a glimpse of something familiar in Isaac-the-bartender’s eyes. I tried not to think about it too much.
I accessed the system responsible for creating this ‘body’ and had it clean up the stain on my t-shirt. If only real life were so simple to fix. I caught myself envying Emil — having this much control over his environment full-time. Then my stomach roiled, and a wave of self-loathing threatened to drown me. This was no game, it was more a prison than playhouse; this environment which was rendered by complex implants in Emil’s brain. Implants without which he was completely incapable of communication as a result of his paralysis, a result of the accident we… No. I didn’t want to think of that tonight. Not tonight.
“Nice talking to you, Issac,” I said, thankful that the software controlling my voice made me sound lighthearted. I made my avatar smile and walked toward a knot of people near the music system. It would be loud, hopefully loud enough to make me forget. For a while.
He watched her walk away, wondering if it would be awkward if he followed her. After a moment he headed for the area of the simulation that looked like a kitchen.
“What’s with that girl who isn’t even dressed up?” the woman with snakes in her hair said as she poured a large gin and tonic. “I mean, who comes to the Halloween party and doesn’t wear a costume?” Her friend, who looked like a cross between an fox and a vampire, didn’t answer. “What’s the point? Hell, even if you’re out of ideas there are, like, a hundred presets to pick from. There’s just no excuse.”
“Blue t-shirt?” Isaac said, interrupting, and the gorgon nodded. “She is in costume,” he said. “You should go talk to her.”
“You figured out who she is?”
Isaac shook his head. “Nope. Whoever it is has gone in a whole different direction this year. Unlike some of us, Lauren.”
“Damn it,” she said, as the snakes uncoiled, making her hair look like it had doubled in size. “How could you tell?”
“You do something with your hair every year,” the vampire fox said, shrugging. “It’s always obvious.”
“Well, at least you can tell I’m in costume,” she said, and turned to walk back to the main room of the party, a sibilant hiss following her.
“Just because we change bodies, it doesn’t change who we are,” Foxy said, giving Isaac a toothy grin. “Right, Emil? And, yeah — great party.” Isaac felt a paw on his arm then watched as his companion dropped to all fours and walked out of the kitchen.
He shook his head. That must have been Hui. She was the best guesser of them all; every year she’d been the first to figure out who everyone was. It was so bad that years ago they just gave up on having a prize for identifying people. Now it was all about the costumes.
Alone in the kitchen, he switched to a bird’s eye view of the party. It was still early, they were all still well-behaved. Of course, their drinks were just pixels and code, but what they did in real life was up to them. And plenty of them would be taking breaks from the simulation and enjoying whatever refreshments suited. Parties were always smoother when well-lubricated, and he knew it was tough to spend a long time in a simulation. He’d taken months to get used to it, so he figured most of the rest would be popping in and out.
They were his closest friends, many of whom he’d known since before the accident. It had changed his life, confined him to this facsimile of a world, but he knew he was lucky. If it had happened only a few years earlier, this technology that allowed him to be half human, half simulation wouldn’t have been available and he’d have been trapped in his unresponsive body. He knew well enough that no one could stay sane for long in that condition. As he looked at the simulation he’d created of an apartment, furniture, a whole life he could still share with the people he loved, he felt a surge of gratitude for the wires and chips in his head.
He scanned the rooms and picked out about a dozen people he was sure he could identify, but none of them were Diego. He wondered if this was the year he’d finally skip the party. He wondered if that would be good thing. Emil knew that Diego was as shattered as he’d been by the accident, only Diego’s injuries couldn’t be fixed with technology. Seeing Diego only once a year, in the skin of another person, it was almost worse than not seeing him at all.
Emil left the party for a moment, pulling up a simulated memory file. It was from before, but the implants worked with neural memories, rendering them into the same kind of simulation that now mediated all of Emil’s experiences. Both more and less real than memories, it was like stepping back in time, into a party maybe five years previous.
It was Tyra’s house, an over-large split level on the edge of town. She’d decorated like it was going out of style, though — plastic skeletons and crêpe paper bats overrunning the place. Emil found himself dressed as a matador, hand-in-hand with a hardened Klingon warrior, bat’leth at his side. He simultaneously remembered and remembered remembering the body in the rented Star Trek costume: Diego, a skinny bookworm with perfect eyelashes who stopped Emil’s breath that summer. The summer before the accident. He exited the program and for a moment wished he could feel his face. He was sure there would be tears.
Hui’s words echoed. Changing bodies doesn’t change who we are.
I hovered around the edges of the group by the music. I could feel the memories, the despair starting to climb inside me and I fought to keep it at bay. It’s hard to imagine that all it takes is one moment, a singular moment of metal and plastic colliding and a person could be locked in his head, unable to move or talk. But still alive, still awake.
It must have been horrible. No wonder every year since, he’s volunteered to host the party, here in the home he’s made in his mind. I looked around — it was uncanny. If you didn’t pay close attention it looked like any luxury apartment. But it was too perfect, too clean. And the ‘costumes’; for a group of people who never grew out of playing dress-up, the opportunity was too tempting.
“Nice t-shirt.” The voice came out of a sleek chrome and black leather sofa, and I jumped. At least my real body did, but my avatar simply smiled.
“Thanks,” I said. “I think you’ve got ‘most unexpected’ sewn up this year.”
“Ha!” the sofa said. “Very funny. But you have ‘most inscrutable’ for sure. Or maybe ‘most meta’? Dressed up as a person who couldn’t be bothered to dress up? Kind of impressive.”
I laughed, revelling in the moment of normalcy. Friends, making jokes. No one accusing anyone of anything. It was freeing.
“Would it be inappropriate to sit on you?”
“Nah, I’m game.”
I perched on the sofa and tried to pick out Emil from the gryphons and rainbows and impossibly beautiful people in the room. Once, I’d have thought I’d know him anywhere. Each year I found I was wrong.
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.
November first was always tough. A physical hangover could be counteracted with drugs and neurostim, but a psychic hangover was nearly undefeatable. I looked forward to the party so much, when it was over it was almost like I’d been punched in the gut. Halloween was like stepping back in time, like for one night I could be the person I used to be, before.
It had been years since I’d met any of those people in the real world, my “closest friends.” I knew they talked about me, the ones who still met for the occasional drink or meal. Even the ones who’d moved somewhere far kept in touch online. Except me. I was alone. How could I face them after?
There had been an investigation and they said it wasn’t my fault. That it was the conditions and the other driver crossing the line. But it was me who’d been at the wheel, me who had been responsible. And I had just walked away, while Emil lay there, broken and unmoving. His beautiful body reduced to a shell, animated by wires and painted in pixels. And I did that.
I lay in bed, watching the sun slant through the window. Something had changed, somehow. At first I couldn’t even identify the feeling, it had been so long. But finally I knew what it was — I really did wish that every day were Halloween. I wanted to be out there, wanted to be back there, at the party. The only place where I felt like a human.
I rolled over and picked up my handheld. I’d always kept the contacts up-to-date, but never used it. When I hit the connect button I was so surprised I didn’t have time to be afraid. How long has it been since I wasn’t afraid?
“Hello?” The voice sounded hungover, too. That wasn’t a surprise. It was the only thing that wasn’t.
“This is the Empress of the Universe,” I said. “Well, I was yesterday. Today I’m just Diego, I guess.”
I waited for Emil to answer, fear, exhilaration and anticipation nearly drowning me. As the moment stretched out toward infinity, I looked out the window and saw a flock of birds take flight off the roof of the building next door, their tiny bodies moving together as if they were individual components of some complex machine. I felt something warm and real and safe returning to my body, like birds returning to their nesting grounds after a long, cold winter — there, at that moment between question and answer, between gravity and flight.