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Authors: T. Warwick

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BOOK: The Artificial Mirage
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It was a little after eight when Charlie turned off the main road and wandered down the quiet street lined by green lawns and glass office buildings set back behind undulating hills. A cedar-chip path led to the black onyx cube on stilts above a goldfish pond set amid a dimly lit Japanese garden. He went through the body scanner and waited as the lead bouncer gave him the once-over. “Welcome to Seppuku,” an anonymous, gentlemanly voice said. A man with round occluded spectacles and a long white cotton trench coat stood motionless at the entrance. Charlie walked in past a row of complete sets of samurai armor watched over by three Filipina women in white sundresses and a dozen AR blue jays. He reflected that such expense would not be wasted on physical objects in Saigon. AR Lauren, wearing a short black cocktail dress with frills around her thighs, looked back playfully over her shoulder at Charlie as she walked ahead of him through a sea of wispy white
women in colorful silk dresses interspersed by corpulent Saudi men in white thobes. His gray suit drew no attention. In the main lounge, there were more white women sitting on clear plastic sofas chatting enthusiastically; their grating insouciance attested to their expense. He sat at the end of a long row of empty large burgundy velvet chairs at the bar. AR Lauren stood next to him, mouthing the words to the Italian opera that was barely audible over the rumble of conversation and laughter.

“What are you thinking?” AR Lauren’s innocent purr came through his right earbud and caught him off guard as he surveyed the room. He looked at her and took the earbud out as he set her speech to captions. She gave him a cute frown. The women found the large white cotton thobes of the Saudi men ideally suited to sharing projections. Charlie saw a few fragments of some animated Goyas and more than one dancing Rodin. The words “Cogito ergo sum” were snaking their way up and down the large thobe of a Saudi—a joke that had a group of women in strapless sequined dresses in tears of laughter. In AR they created cartoonish likenesses of the Saudis that mimicked their walks and gestures.

Harold was nowhere to be seen. Charlie wondered what he was doing there. He didn’t belong. He belonged back in Cities of the World at a sidewalk café in Buenos Aires, savoring the rhapsodic awakening of espresso and Cointreau—a real place with real women. He refreshed AR Lauren, and she sat next to him with her legs crossed and seemed to give him an empathetic smile.

“Charlie!” Stephanie clamored his name as if she hadn’t seen him in years. She grabbed his hand and took him on a whirlwind trip of dashing in and out of conversational groups—the same groups he had just been scanning. Saudi men seemed to be lining up for the occasion. “This is Omar!” She beamed at the Saudi, who seemed to convey an immense gratitude that she had bothered to take the time to say hello to him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw the real Lauren. He looked back and blinked, and there was just the constant turning of dresses like at a dry cleaner’s.

He traversed through the crowd with Stephanie, tacking back and forth like sailboats, before dropping down on a vacant black velvet couch.

“So what’s your deal, Stephanie?”

“What do you mean? How did such a lovely young woman like myself come to find solace among such barbarians?” She gave a nasty look to a large Saudi man twice her width sitting diagonally across from her.

“I don’t think anyone comes here for the sand,” Charlie said.

“No, they certainly don’t. They usually come here for the money. That’s what my father did.”

“He was an engineer?”

“No.” She looked uncomfortable and signaled a Filipino waiter by pointing at a bottle of Grey Goose. He brought the bottle and two shot glasses for them.

“So?” Charlie looked at her, waiting for a response after they had both finished their shots.

“One more?”

“OK.”

She leaned over and whispered in his ear, “He smuggled hash into Bahrain.”

“What happened?”

“He was caught. The Saudis executed him.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I’m not. I got the sailboat to myself.” She looked at him, waiting for his reaction, and then almost spit into her shot glass from laughter.

“You used to share it with him?”

She laughed again. “No, we lived in the eye of the dolphin.”

“That’s a nice island. One of the nicest in Bahrain from what I hear.”

“A nice community,” she said.

“Yeah. So what happened?”

“It was seized. The Saudis and the Bahrainis work together.”

“You mean the police?”

“Oh, everyone’s working with everyone these days.”

“I guess.”

“You look tired,” she said. She stared into her glass for a moment. “Yeah. They took everything. But they let me keep the boat because it was registered in my name.” She sipped her drink.

“This is Harold,” Stephanie said as Harold walked over unexpectedly.

“I know,” Charlie said. He put out his hand, but Harold just looked at his extended arm.

“Hi.” Harold grinned from behind fully occluded glasses that gleamed like black onyx. He was navigating his way through animated Gauguin paintings that were brought to life as an interactive game with some of the Russian women in the club. It was a promo they were trying to sell to prospective boyfriends.

“Walk with me, Charlie. We must discuss,” Harold said.

“Excuse me,” Charlie said. He stood up and followed Harold up a black steel staircase in the corner to the roof. The listless air was being purposelessly blown around by a singular fan. Charlie watched as Harold waited for the door to close. The floodlights at the entrance and the distant streetlights were the only source of light.

“You like money, Charlie?” Harold spoke Mandarin, but Charlie’s Mandarin app needed to refresh itself. After a few seconds, he saw the question scroll across his line of sight.

“Yes,” Charlie said.

“Good.” Harold had brought back the occluded sequence of pale-as-ivory Russian women traversing thickets of Balinese jungle. “You want to make more money, right?”

“What are you offering?”

“I need a driver to cross the causeway to Saudi. Five hundred dinars.”

“I’d have to think about it.”

“Bahrain is a strange place for you to be. You like being a boat boy?”

“Not really.”

“This is the man you must contact. He will go with you to the Saudi Embassy.” Harold handed him a business card obscured by a green cloud that hovered around it.

“For what?”

“For a visa. Think about it. Let’s have another beer.”

They walked back down the stairs. “Asahi?” Charlie asked as they approached the empty bar.

“No. I am Chinese.” He pointed to the display of Tsing Tao and flicked the payment for it plus one Asahi to his tab in the AR menu above the Filipino waiter’s head. The Ethiopian woman behind the bar placed the beers in front of them.

Charlie held his can of Asahi up to Harold’s glass of Tsing Tao and waited for him to finish pouring.

Harold swirled his glass of Tsing Tao and examined the foam. He motioned delicately with his stylus ring, and his glasses ceased being occluded. Charlie was able to see his eyes for the first time. “I need an answer soon.” He placed his unfinished glass of beer on the bar and walked away, disappearing into the crowd.

Charlie had started to get up to leave when he saw her walking over in a pink cocktail dress, a champagne flute dangling from her right hand. She gave him a wry smile and stood in front of him, twirling a lock of her hair that had come down just so.

“Lauren?” Charlie said. She had an AR entourage that consisted of a constantly changing assortment of likenesses of herself wearing gigantic hats—very expensive. He looked beyond her and saw Harold and Stephanie snaking their way through rivers of evening wear and AR animation.

“Hi, Charlie,” she said

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I had to go to Vungtau to find out.”

“Find out what?”

“That you’re here.”

“You followed me here? Why?” Lauren leaned closer to the bar and rested her elbow on it as she propped her chin up with her hand. AR Lauren, wearing a burgundy silk dress of a similar cut, stood to the right of her and mimicked her. “What do you love about me so much, Charlie?” she asked with a disinterested expression.

“Everything.”

“Like what?”

“Everything you do. Everything you are.”

“You mean, like my ass?”

“Among other things. It’s not just the physical. It’s everything else.”

“Like what? My lips?”

“The way your eyes look when you look up at me. The way you raise your eyes.”

Lauren glared at him and inhaled strongly through her nostrils. “Is that all?”

“Is what all? I don’t know what to tell you. Your walk—”

“The way I
walk
, Charlie?”

“It’s not just the walk. It’s the fact that you’re the one doing the walking. It’s
you
. It’s just part of everything that you are.”

“Oh, please.”

“Why did you leave Saigon?”

“Why did you?”

“To find you.”

“Really? I don’t believe that.”

“Why not?”

Lauren flashed the clinical smile of a doctor who thrived on the growing weakness of a patient. “I’ll tell you what. You can have me for two thousand dinars.”

“Well…why…”

“You don’t have two thousand dinars, do you, Charlie?”

“Why would you say that?”

“So what do you want, Charlie?” Lauren raised her eyes in the way that he had spent so much time trying to explain to the engineers in Saigon.

“I want you. I’ve always wanted you…more than you could ever imagine.”

But she was looking at an AR creation from Living Romance, where the main character was brandishing his sword and imploring her to do some-thing she couldn’t understand because her earbuds weren’t in. Charlie had said something, but she wasn’t sure what it was.

“I’ll deal with you later,” she said to the program as she dismissed it with a wave of her hand.

“Later?” Charlie said.

“Oh, not you,” she said. “What are we talking about? I mean. I think it ended for us, Charlie. Right?”

“Yeah.”

“Eh, so…And then Chi got raided, and I lost my job.”

“You know. When I got here…I was looking for you. The whole time I was here, I was looking for you. Living on that boat, I kept thinking what it would be like with you there.”

“You live on a boat?”

“Yeah…well. It’s all I’ve got for now.”

“Don’t be sad, Charlie. You look sad.”

“I’m not sad. I just wish things were different.”

“Me too,” she said as she stroked the side of his face with her right hand. She turned and walked to the staircase.

When he got back to the marina, it was high tide. The inflatable dingy was moving around so recklessly that he jumped from the dock and landed in the center. His paddling was barely audible over the wind. Beneath the blur of sea spray, he saw the AR icon hovering above his boat as the moonlight shone on the waves brushing its deck. He tied the dingy off and brought up the anchor. He set a course for the new harbor with an AR map that hovered above the console. His solar-charge indicator showed he had more than enough power to make it there and back.

After an hour of the sloshing of the waves beneath the moonlight, he reached the CBD. The fierce radiance of the Manama skyline swept over him. Each building was outlined in multicolored LEDs that shimmered on the water. He was overwhelmed by the return of a feeling of dread. It had started out as a nervous tingling but had evolved into a compulsion to stab his palms with a fork and vanquish it once and for all. But he knew he would only be left with bloody hands. Nothing was the way it was supposed to be. He was supposed to be in a private room at the Formula One track with Lauren and a case of Krug. Decadence—just the thought of the word was humiliating. He pulled up the console and changed the coordinates to head back to the marina. The boat came about quickly.

He clicked on AR Lauren’s icon. “I really don’t know if I can take this anymore,” he told her as the waves splashed his bare feet and ankles, just missing the cuffs of his pants.

She arched her back so far it seemed she might fall overboard and looked up at the moon from an inverted perspective. “Everything happens for a purpose,” she said calmly. It was one of those reassuring lines entered by one of the programmers in Saigon, who had pasted a slew of standard responses from a generic guru app. It was something the real Lauren would never have said. She would have initiated an argument or insulted him—and it would have culminated in sex, the great release from everything that never solved anything. But there on the boat, AR Lauren was soothing and encouraging and allowing in a way that wasn’t seeking anything from him. Her brown eyes were tranquil and full of empathy.

He was beginning to feel a resurgence of courage that transcended his humiliation. He had no need to play a role for her—she didn’t care. She was just there with her black silk robe flailing in the wind, exposing her creamy, iridescent body traced in laser speckle against the full moon. She flashed him
her trademark smile. Savage pupils stared at him from the corners of her eyes as she turned in profile. Her lack of existence was betrayed by only the distortion of her feet as the waves swept the deck. He looked up at the clear night sky, and his constellation AR app began rhythmically mapping the Big Dipper and then Orion before he terminated it with a wave of his ring stylus. She lay down above the cabin on her side with her head supported by her left hand. The robe had disappeared, and she looked identical to the real Lauren. He looked down at the business card Harold had given him as AR dolphins the size of his fingers bounded through the murky green mist and around his hands and forearms.

24

F
riday was a weekend day in both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The streets of Manama were empty. Charlie got off the bus and listened as the howls of the evening prayer built up to a crescendo in the distance. The place Harold had told him to meet hadn’t shown up on any of the proximity pointers that lit up the bus stop. He dismissed the line of generic smiley faces with thin arms and legs, eager to direct him to nearby shops. A row of AR grandfather clocks standing beneath the tram stop awning showed it was exactly 7:40 p.m. as they contracted and expanded like beating hearts, a hacker’s idea of graffiti. He was late. After a minute of walking, the humid air began to condense on his skin. He stopped as he entered the arched tunnel through the Ling Wei Tower. He paused a moment to stare at his pale reflection in the gleaming black marble floor. There wasn’t a trace of sand anywhere.

BOOK: The Artificial Mirage
13.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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