Curling up on her bed, Katie Martinez propped her laptop on a pillow, woke the machine, and clicked an icon on the desktop.
The HyperLyfe™ login screen glowed bright blue, and a short paragraph of white text scrolled up from the bottom.
What if you could have the life you've always dreamed of?
Don’t just wish for it. Create it.
In HyperLyfe™ the sky’s not the limit; it’s just the beginning.
The intro appeared whenever a player logged into HyperLyfe, a massively multiplayer virtual reality online world. Katie must have read those words a million times by now, and yet they still gave her a thrill.
She reached across the bed to her desk, and grabbed her mug of tea, taking a sip while she waited for HyperLyfe to log her in. One drawback of living in a cramped New York apartment was that everything was literally within arms reach.
She didn’t have that problem in HyperLyfe. In that world she had all the space she could ever want. A 3D artist and designer, Katie had seen the unlimited potential in HyperLyfe the first time she’d visited. After just a week in-world she’d bought herself a whole planet, named it Celestia, and spent months building countless futuristic cities, mysterious forests, and enchanting vistas on it’s surface. Before long, she was getting visitors to Celestia, people who explored, stayed, formed a community and paid real world money to rent homes to live and play in, in virtual reality.
HyperLyfe was a dream come true for Katie. It was a new path to happiness after the real world had let her down so epically. She both played and worked in HyperLyfe nearly fulltime these days. The money she made in the virtual world paid her real world bills, and the friendships she’d made on Celestia were as authentic to her as any she’d ever had in person.
Every Friday night, the community hosted a planet-wide party. Tonight’s theme was Gods and Monsters, and Katie had only about ten minutes to choose something from her wardrobe. It had to be spectacular. Since, in virtual reality, you could make your avatar look however you wished, players tended to get excessively creative. Angels, demons, superheroes, and glamazons were pretty much standards. But it wasn’t unusual to see players dressed as fairies, flying spaghetti monsters, sentient automobiles, or giant amorphous clouds of fog and glitter.
In real life the closets in Katie’s modest two-bedroom condo in NYC were laughably small. Her virtual closet, however, had infinite capacity. What woman wouldn’t want a closet full of exquisite designer clothing, all guaranteed to fit like a glove? The only problem was she had literally thousands of outfits. Scrolling through thumbnails she huffed in frustration and turned to her cat when he hopped up onto the bed to join her.
“What do you think Rupert?” she said, pulling the purring ball of black fluff into her lap. “The diaphanous Venus toga dress with the sparkling rotating headpiece, or this Sun Goddess outfit with the massive gold wings and glowing eyes?”
Rupert looked up at her and squinted.
“So neither. Right. You’re no help.”
A video-chat notification popped up in a box on her screen, from the real world, not a friend inside HL. She clicked accept and smiled when her friend Aiko Yoshida came into view.
“Egads what is wrong with your face?” Aiko grimaced and raised an eyebrow.
“It’s a mud mask,” Katie said, touching her cheek. “It’s my maintenance night. Don’t make fun.”
“Maintenance night?” Aiko wrinkled her nose.
“Yeah ya know. Nails, facial, landscape the lady-bits.”
“Oh that stuff. Jeez, you’re such a girl.” Aiko grinned and stuck out her tongue. “Who you gotta landscape for? You got a boyfriend you’ve been hiding from me?”
“Alright I’m hanging up on you now,” said Katie with a sigh. “I don’t need this abuse, I’ve got shit to do.”
“Yeah you do!” Aiko said, nodding smugly at the camera. “That’s why I’m calling. You’re Cinderella tonight, baby, and I’m gonna take your ass to the ball!”
“Uh, yeah, no.” Katie frowned. “I’ve already got a party to go to. I’m picking out my outfit now, and you’re keeping me from that. I’m gonna be late–”
“No, no, no. This is a real life party dorkus. Tonight. At Lux. You’re going. I’m sending Malcolm for you now.”
“Your sister’s sex club? Tonight? What on earth are you–”
“Hi Katie!” A new face squeezed into the video chat box and waved enthusiastically. Red hair, bright blue eyes, incredibly stylish.
Katie grinned and waved back. “Tessa! Great to see you again. Are you going to this party?”
“She is,” Aiko interjected, leaning into the camera. “And she’s got us all kitted out too. Check out what she’s got for you.”
Tessa shoved back into view and held up a dress. It was a lush red, short, flirty, and strappy in a sex-kitten-meets-bondage-master kind of a way.
Katie’s eyes went wide.
“You want me to wear that? Not that it’s not beautiful Tessa,” she added quickly. “I love all your designs, it’s just very…. It’s just very.”
“I’ve seen you wear stuff way sexier than that in HL,” said Aiko, frowning.
“Oh please, that’s totally different and you know it,” Katie replied. “Everything in HL fits perfectly, and I can change hair, eyes, and skin tone on a whim. Whatever. I can change my boob size if I want.” She grabbed a handful of the moth-eaten sweater she was wearing and shook her sizable chest for emphasis. “I really doubt these monsters are gonna look good in that handkerchief you want me to wear. No offense, Tessa.”
“None taken,” Tessa said smiling. “But…” she turned the dress around and unzipped it to reveal a fully lined interior with a built in underwire bra. “I did design this with chesty girls in mind. You’ll be fine.”
“Ughhh,” Katie groaned. “That is a seriously beautiful dress, and I’d love to hang out, but I really can’t tonight. I’ve got another party to go to, and–” Three messages popped up on her HyperLyfe screen, friends already at the party, wondering where their host was. “And I’m officially late, so I really gotta run.”
“Nope,” Aiko said. “You’re going. I need you. And don’t worry about your Celestia party, I’ve already arranged it.”
“What do you mean you arranged–” A chat request popped up on her HyperLyfe screen. Barbarella69 was messaging her. Katie accepted the request and typed a response.
Catalina_Celestina: Hey Barb! Sorry I’m late!
Barbarella69: No honey, please don’t worry about that. Aiko messaged me. You need to go to that party tonight. I insist. I can play hostess on my own. Everything will be fine.
Catalina_Celestina: One sec Barb.
Katie stared at the message then lifted her gaze back to the video screen that held Aiko and Tessa.
“Why does Barb already know about this party you want me to go to, you bossy, meddling psycho?”
Aiko grinned and stuck out her tongue. “Because I knew you’d argue, and you have to come tonight, so Barb and Tessa and I decided we needed to gang up on you.”
“Okay…” Aiko said, lifting her eyes skyward as if she was gathering her thoughts. “Let me explain. No, there is too much, let me sum up.”
Katie snorted loud enough that Rupert jumped and glared at her. “Points for the Princess Bride reference, geek, but please make it snappy.”
“Okay well, this is a very exclusive, very special event. It’s the release party for HyperLyfe’s new virtual reality upgrade. Aaron is releasing at the club because–”
Katie set her teacup on the desk with a clatter and held her hand up to stop Aiko from talking. She needed a minute to process this. Aaron Eldridge, CEO of Eldridge Innovations, famed video game pioneer and the brains behind HyperLyfe. The guy was a genius. Katie knew Aiko worked with Aaron from time to time, but she’d never been able to get her to discuss her work much. Now, to find out not only that Aiko had an inside track on all the latest VR tech, but that she was going to drag Katie along for the fun? It was too much.
“Shut. The hell. Up,” she said, gaping at the screen. “You’re joking.”
“Dead serious, fangirl.” Aiko shook her head solemnly.
“Is it, is it all the new gear?”
“You betchya.” Aiko nodded. “All the sensory gear is finally ready. The bodysuit, the gloves, the visor. That chair thingy that makes you feel like you’re running and flying and–”
“Holy crap. Okay, I’ll be there. With bells on. Naked, whatever. I’m coming.”
“Good. Because we do genuinely need you. This is a press party. Lots of marketing and promo and shit is counting on this event going well. We had an interpreter for the deaf press, but she’s kind of having a baby right now so, yeah, I repeat, we need you.”
“An interpreter?” Tessa chimed in, her brow furrowed in confusion.
“I’m fluent in American Sign Language,” Katie said. “My mom’s deaf, so I learned when I was young. I’ve done some interpreting. There’s a big deaf community in gaming and virtual reality actually, because with text to speech software and typing as communication, there are fewer barriers online for the deaf when they want to communicate and interact with the hearing.”
“Oh wow.” Tessa grinned. “I had no idea. Makes sense though. Neat!”
“We had a backup interpreter,” Aiko said. “But they’re not as knowledgeable about virtual reality as you are Katie, so I’m really glad you’re able to do this.”
“I’m so stoked you asked me!” Katie grinned. “And more than a little annoyed that you’ve been holding out on me. You’ve been working with Eldridge all this time and you couldn’t slip me even a few details?”
“Nope, on pain of death I could not share. But it’s no matter, all will be revealed tonight at the party of the century.”
“Century?” Katie smirked and cocked one eyebrow skeptically.
“Well at least the best one this month,” Aiko said. “Thank god you landscaped those lady-bits KitKat. Because you’re going to a nerd orgy. Who knows, you might get lucky.”
“Oh please.” Katie blushed and waved at the screen. “Seriously though, why have this party at Lux? I don’t get it. This upgrade is going to revolutionize virtual reality across the board. It has so many useful applications other than just sex.”
“Rule 34 bitch!” Aiko crowed. “It’s all about Rule 34!”
Katie scrubbed both hands over her face and groaned. “Oh please tell me the focus of this party isn’t going to be all about the seedy intersection of sex and virtual reality?”
“Of course it is mamacita! Everything is about sex!”
Katie sighed and turned back to the still open chat window with Barb.
Catalina_Celestina: Barb, I’m being kidnapped to a kinky, high-tech sex party.
Barbarella69: Sounds like a damn good time. We’ll all be fine. Go, have fun and please, promise to do everything I’d never do! ;)
Catalina_Celestina: Good lord. See you later.
Katie clicked the little X button to log off HyperLyfe and turned her attention back to Aiko and Tessa.
“Alright, I’m all yours. Ready for whatever vile and corrupt plans you have for me tonight. I think I’d do nearly anything to get a peek at the new gear.”
“Most excellent!” Aiko threw her head back and cackled wildly while Tessa eyed her with concern. “My faithful servant will be there any moment to collect you for tonight’s festivities!”
There was a knock at Katie’s front door. She pointed off screen. “Faithful servant, I presume?”
Aiko cleared her throat. “Oh yeah. It’s just Malcolm. I mentioned I was sending him right?”
“Yeah you did.”
“Well hup-two princess, before all the mice turn back into pumpkins.”
“That’s not how it happened. The mice did not–”
“Who cares!” Aiko yelled at the camera. “See you in twenty.”
Aiko and Tessa disappeared from her computer and Katie stared at her reflection in the now dark screen.
“Oh damn, my mud mask,” she said as Rupert rubbed against her knee.
The knocking started up again.
“Be right there Malcolm!” Katie shouted. Tripping over Rupert, she headed for the bathroom to wash her face. “Cinderella my ass,” she muttered to herself. “Sex club?”
* * *
The minute Katie walked through Aiko’s front door, they pounced, wrestling her into that slinky red dress, propping her up in a pair of sky-high heels on a kitchen chair so Tessa could adjust the length. Katie chewed her lip and watched as Tessa fussed with the hem.
“Not too short,” she begged.
“Shush,” Tessa said around the handful of pins sticking out of her mouth. “I know what I’m doing. Obey me, and I won’t poke you with a pin. Tell me about Rule 34. What is that?”
“It’s uh, you ever heard of the Urban Dictionary?” Katie asked, turning slowly as Tessa prodded her around and shook her head. “Nevermind. Okay, so Rule 34 is this internet thing, an adage really, a joke that has a lot of truth in it.”
There was a loud pop in the kitchen, and Katie startled, grabbing onto Tessa’s shoulder for balance. Aiko strode out to join them, a bottle of Prosecco in one hand and three slim glasses in the other.
“Rule 34 of the internet,” Aiko said, setting the glasses on a nearby table and filling them. “If it exists, there is porn of it, no exceptions.” She lifted one glass and drained it. “Never a truer thing has been spoken.”
“Basically,” said Katie, as Tessa helped her down from the chair, “anything that exists in the world, in a non-porn form, the internet has definitely corrupted it and guaranteed there’s porn.”
“So say, waffles,” Aiko said, handing them each a glass. “You like waffles?”
Tessa took a sip from her glass and nodded.
“Well,” said Aiko. “Guaranteed there’s some guy out there that really really really likes waffles. And thanks to the internet, he’s found other people that enjoy waffle fucking too. And you better believe they made porn of it.”
“Holy shit.” Tessa chuckled. “People are so fucking weird.”
“Definitely,” Aiko said. “It’s awesome.”
“Well it’s not always awesome,” said Katie. “I mean it’s the internet, there’s some dark shit out there. But that’s what’s so great about virtual reality. I’m not condoning anything evil of course. But if someone with a waffle fetish wants to explore that, in VR they can, privately, without shame, or fear of social repercussions.”
“And,” said Aiko raising a finger. “Without any actual waffles getting hurt in the process.”
“Ew.” Tessa wrinkled her nose. “I may never eat a waffle again. Quick, change the subject before I barf.”
“Well you did a damn fine job polishing Katie up,” said Aiko. “If she’s Cinderella, I’m thinking you and I are the ugly stepsisters tonight.”
“Oh please! As if! ” Katie laughed, set her glass on the table and headed down Aiko’s short hallway to the bedroom, where she knew she’d find a full length mirror. “I’m sure it’s just the magic of Tessa’s dress,” she called over her shoulder. “It’s doing all the work. I’m just…” she stopped talking when she caught sight of herself. “Damn.”
“Yeah, damn,” said Aiko coming up behind her. “You look amazing.”
“I was thinking your hair up,” said Tessa, crossing to the mirror. “A smoky eye and a deep red lip. It’ll be dark in the club, so you can get away with more make-up. I’ve got a matching red clutch for you too, so you can stash some lipgloss and your cell phone–”
“I don’t want my hair up” said Katie, shaking her head. “When it’s down, it covers my scars.”
“Scars?” said Tessa.
“This.” Katie ran her palm over the dark scar that marred the skin of her one shoulder. “In fact I should probably wear a wrap, so I don’t mess up the look of your beautiful dress.”
“Nonsense!” Tessa said, frowning at her. “You look fabulous, and the scar is part of you. I didn’t even notice it until you pointed it out.”
“Wabi-sabi,” said Aiko, nodding in agreement.
“What’s that?” Katie asked.
“Shit! We gotta hurry. You two get dressed, we gotta get downstairs!”
“But what’s wabi-sabi?” Katie whined as Aiko pushed her into the bathroom where Tessa was waiting with make-up.
The only way to predict the future is to invent it.
Aaron Eldridge believed in those words whole-heartedly, so much so that they were the first line of the speech he would be giving in about twenty minutes.
Here, in the cold white marble bathroom of his brand new penthouse on the top floor of Calvert Tower, Aaron chewed antacid tablets like they were Skittles and practiced his speech in the mirror.
Below him, on the ground floor of the building, staffers were putting the last-minute finishing touches on tonight’s presentation to be held at the city’s newest hot spot, Lux.
Aaron and his company, Eldridge Innovations were about to change the internet, forever, and hopefully, the whole world along with it.
So this speech? Probably the most important speech of his life.
He hunched over the sink and tried not to puke.
There was no way he could believe this upset stomach was due to nerves. He was worth multiple billions of dollars for chrissakes, a little speech shouldn’t be fazing him. E.I. dominated every tech field they were a part of. Their gaming division alone owned eighty-two percent of the market, and their crown jewel, HyperLyfe™, was the most popular virtual reality simulation in the world.
When E.I. held a presentation, everyone paid attention. Aaron had stepped out onto dozens of stages in his career to this point, and he’d never felt sick prior.
There was a rapid knock on the bathroom door, and before he could protest, it opened.
“Welcome to the building, neighbor!” His friend, Wyatt Calvert, former Navy SEAL and current head of security for Lux, clapped Aaron on the back and pulled him into a bear hug.
“Jesus, you look like shit,” said Wyatt when Aaron pulled away from him. “And what’s with the undies? Why aren’t you dressed yet?”
“Ugh.” Aaron shook his head, groaned, ran the tap and splashed cool water on his face.
“Are you sick?” asked Wyatt. “Or is it just nerves?”
“No idea.” Aaron shrugged. “I’ve had butterflies before, but never this bad.”
“Well you’ve been waiting a long time for this announcement so maybe–”
Aaron’s stomach gurgled loudly. He grimaced and rubbed it, as if that would settle things down. Then he remembered. “I think I know what it is. I went for a run late last night, stopped by a little burrito stand and–”
“You ate street meat?!”
“Don’t say it like that, most street vendors are totally legit–”
“Yeah but the night before a big speech is not the time to go sampling exotic fare that was heretofore entirely unknown to your digestive system, man.”
“A burrito is hardly exotic. Honestly–”
“Wyatt?” A voice sounded from beyond the bathroom door, and there was a light knock. “You in there?”
Aaron caught Wyatt’s eye and pleaded soundlessly. “Don’t let her in here,” he mouthed.
Wyatt nodded but opened the door anyway, letting in his wife, Jinx, co-owner of Lux and Aiko’s identical twin.
“Thanks, asshole” Aaron grumbled. “There goes my last shred of dignity.”
“You look like hell,” said Jinx. “What’s the matter?”
“Bad burrito.” Wyatt answered for Aaron.
“Poor thing.” Jinx scooted around Wyatt and felt Aaron’s forehead. “No fever, yeah, probably a touch of food poisoning.”
“I love it when she gets all motherly,” Wyatt said, grinning widely. “Super hot.”
“That reminds me,” Jinx said, thumbing over her shoulder. “If I’m being maternal. I’d like to point out that you’ve got literally no furniture out there. Just a mattress, and a half-empty jar of mayonnaise in your refrigerator.”
“Ew,” Wyatt grimaced. “That’s nasty.”
“You’ve already snooped around my apartment?” Aaron said, pushing past Wyatt and Jinx into the bedroom.
“Snooping! Pshhh!” Jinx scoffed, as she and Wyatt followed behind Aaron, “Call it friendly curiosity. Besides if I’m going to get you a housewarming gift I needed to know what color schemes I’m working with.” She raised an eyebrow as she appraised the room. “So far it’s uh, very beige.”
“I know,” Aaron said. Plopping onto the bed with a sigh he followed her gaze around the room. “I’ve been way too busy with the launch to bother with decorating or buying new furniture.”
“Yeah but dude.” Wyatt scrubbed one hand over the back of his neck. “Where’s all your old furniture?”
“Gave it all to Carly in the break up.” Aaron picked up the white dress shirt that was lying on the bed and slipped it on. “She liked it, she could have it. Was mostly her taste anyway.”
Wyatt winced. “That’s rough man. Thank God you two never got a dog.”
Jinx, sighed in sympathy, sat on the bed next to Aaron, took his hand in hers, and began massaging the inside of his wrist.
“That like an acupressure thing?” he asked.
“Yep, it’ll help settle your stomach. I’ll make you some ginger tea too, when we get downstairs.”
“Thank you. You’re a gem.”
“Well, we love you,” Jinx said, pushing up his shirtsleeve to massage his forearm. “And it’s because we love you I’m gonna lay down a little bit of truth. You’re better off without her,” she said. “Carly was a narcissist.”
“Aren’t all models?” asked Wyatt. “Isn’t that like the job description or something?”
Jinx grabbed one of Aaron’s pillows and threw it at her husband. “No, not all models are. But Carly was. Only interested in her own stuff. And I hate to say it but also rude. All-around super-unlikeable. You were thinking with your dick on that one, my friend. I never imagined you with her long term, Aaron.”
“She was pretty self-centered, I’ll give you that.” Aaron took back his hand and began buttoning his shirt. “But it takes two to make or break it, and I can be selfish too. I’m a workaholic. I know it. And to be frank, I didn’t like spending time in her world anymore than she liked spending time in mine.”
“Carly not a big virtual reality enthusiast?” Wyatt said, snickering.
“Not really,” Aaron said, ignoring the laughter. “I tried to get her interested a few times. Get her excited about the sheer breadth of creative imagination and effort that is just all over HyperLyfe.”
“It is pretty impressive,” Jinx said. Crossing to a box on the floor that was overflowing with expensive ties, she rifled through the contents until she found something suitable. “I’m amazed at what people dream up.”
“She didn’t even like Celestia,” Aaron said. Jinx handed him the tie and he walked back into the bathroom to stand in front of the mirror. “That planet is hands down my favorite place in world. It’s massive, and so diverse, and there’s new content every time I go there. And the storylines! These sweeping epic adventures that you can improvise off of, it’s amazi–”
Wyatt caught Aaron’s eye and tapped the watch on his wrist. “Save it for the speech buddy. Time to go.”
Jinx waltzed into the bathroom holding up a suit jacket and a pair of trousers. “How can you be such a clothes horse, Aaron, and treat your stuff like total shit? I literally found this balled up in the bottom of another box.”
“Oh, the Tom Ford tartan, great choice,” Aaron said. Taking the suit from Jinx, he slipped into it, smoothing the fabric aggressively as he turned back to the mirror.
Jinx stood behind him and frowned.
“What?” he said. “It’s wrinkle resistant.”
Standing on tip-toe, Jinx reached for his head.
“You’re too damn tall,” she said, slapping at his shoulder. Wyatt came up behind her, grabbed his wife around the waist and lifted her up.
“Thank’s baby,” Jinx said sweetly as she went to work on Aaron’s hair.
“Is it fixable?” Aaron asked watching their reflection.
“Messy is in,” she said, finger combing Aaron’s overlong brown waves back from his face. “There, that’s better. Your baby blues are little bloodshot but that should clear up on its own. How’s the tummy?”
“Still hurts a little, Mom.” Aaron pouted at her in the mirror.
“Stop it,” Jinx said, her tone stern but her nose crinkling with amusement. “Let’s get you downstairs and get some tea into you. Then you’ll be ready to change the world.”
* * *
Lux was bustling with activity. Eldridge Innovations’ PR and Marketing teams were huddled up in the lounge at the front of the club, going over last-minute strategies and press packets. The tech crew was in the virtual reality bays at the back of the club, upgrading Lux’s current sexy VR simulation with the brand new, mind-blowing, totally immersive experience that was the topic of tonight’s unveiling.
Aaron strode quickly through the lounge to a door marked staff that led to the maintenance corridors in the walls of the club. It was a shortcut to Lux’s performance auditorium, and where they’d be holding tonight’s presentation.
He entered backstage, behind the dressing rooms, and was glad to see that Aiko was already there, loitering by the catering table, a teacup in her hand. She was not alone. The woman she was standing with was petite and wore a slim fitting dress the color of hot red peppers. Her back was to him, and despite the lingering upset stomach and the distraction of his speech looming, Aaron immediately noted the woman’s backside. Pleasingly round and pert, the dress hugged her form, and created delightful little stress pleats under each cheek. He mentally shook himself and crossed the room to join them, taking the teacup from Aiko when she offered it.
“Jinx said you need to chug that down Mister. It’s her special ginger blend, if it doesn’t help your stomach at least it’ll help your breath.”
Aaron lifted the teacup to his lips and gulped, rolling his eyes at Aiko’s remarks just as the woman in the red dress stepped forward and offered her hand.
“Mr. Eldridge, it’s such a pleasure to meet you. I’m Katie Martinez.”
He spit tea all over her dress.
It got worse from there.
Trying to save face he immediately pretended that the tea was too hot (it wasn’t) and that he’d only spit it out in an effort to protect his tongue from burning off. Then realizing what he’d just done to her beautiful dress, he grabbed a handful of napkins off the catering table and began mauling the poor woman.
Her breasts actually. What he was trying to do was to sop up the tea, but since the location of the stain was in the chest area, he was in fact repeatedly assaulting her with every dab. Worse yet, he couldn’t seem to stop.
Katie Martinez’s hand closed over his wrist and firmly pushed it away from her person.
“I think you should let me do that,” she said.
“I’m so sorry,” Aaron said. “I’m so so–”
“Good God Man!” Aiko crossed her arms over her chest and gave Aaron a long hard look. “Well then,” she said, gesturing to the other woman. “Aaron meet Katie, your deaf interpreter for tonight. I’ll have her ready for you as soon as I wring her out. Unless you’ve got a firehose in your back pocket you’d like to use on her next?”
Katie looked down at her dress, back up at Aaron, and to her immense credit she smiled.
“Oh it’s not that bad.” She flipped her long brown hair over her shoulder, pinched the dress fabric, pulled it away from her body, pursed her lips and blew. “I don’t think it’ll stain,” she said, looking back up at him with an expression that seemed intended to ease his discomfort.
Big brown eyes, a great smile, tiny dimples at the corners. And that look in her eyes, so sweet and earnest, but also lively, intelligent.
Aaron pressed a fist to his mouth and shook his head.
“Again, I’m so so sorry,” he said. He didn’t trust himself to say much more, since apparently his stars had aligned in the constellation of Fuckwit today.
He cleared his throat, and scrubbed a hand over his jaw, trying not to stare at the damaged dress and a few rogue droplets of tea that were trickling down her cleavage.
“I have just made the worst first impression of my entire life,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “And I hope that does not bode ill for how tonight’s presentation will go.”
Katie’s smile grew a little and her eyebrows knit into the sexiest pity-look he’d ever received.
Oh, man. It wasn’t the tea that was too hot, it was Katie Martinez.
“Oh no, stop that.” Katie held her hands up. “I think this was good luck. You got your blunders out of the way behind the scenes, and you’ll be just fine when you go on stage. Promise.”
“Man’s got eleventy-billion dollars in the bank and he needs reassuring,” Aiko muttered under her breath. “You literally do not deserve my bestie Eldridge. Saint Katie is way too flipping good for you.”
“Oh you’re friends? I didn’t realize.”
“We met in HyperLyfe actually,” said Katie, nodding. “A few years ago. My mom is deaf, so I sign, and Aiko figured that with my knowledge of the world, and VR…well I was the best fit on short notice.”
“No, you’re the best fit period,” Aiko said, scrunching up her nose. “Our other interpreter is great, but she doesn’t get HyperLyfe the way you do.”
“You’re a VR enthusiast?” said Aaron.
“Definitely.” Katie nodded and her eyes sparkled. “HyperLyfe changed my life.”
“That’s wonderful,” said Aaron. “I’d love to hear more, I–”
“Not now egghead, I gotta get Tessa on this tea-splosion before it sets. And I’m sure you’ve got shit to do, too. Jinx’ll blow a gasket if this thing starts late.”
* * *
Tessa was able to save the dress. A few dabs with some club soda, a minute spent with a hair dryer in a dressing room, and Katie could no longer see the spot where one of her idols had poured hot tea on her breasts.
Aaron Eldridge. He was just a few years older than her, so as an adolescent interested in technology, she’d followed his career on the news. From his first arrest as a coding wunderkind, (for hacking into a federal database) to his time spent as a government consultant (part of the terms of his stay out of jail deal with the Feds), to when he entered the private sector and started Eldridge Innovations.
The man was a genius.
He also happened to be very good-looking. And she’d noticed, as she watched him pacing backstage, that he also had a very fine ass.
Things moved quickly once the press arrived. Aiko led Katie to an X taped downstage from Aaron’s spot, and wished her luck. The press filed in, the lights came up and Katie did all she could to keep up with the presentation, to deliver not only the content of Aaron’s speech to the non-hearing journalists, but to accurately re-create the tone and attitude of his words.
Aaron paced the stage behind her, animated and charming. He was so at ease and comfortable, so clearly in his element, she had to take care not to get lost in his spell. She wasn’t just an observer here, she was part of the show.
There were giant flat screens all around the packed auditorium, and so, while Katie was at the edge of the stage facing away from him, she could still see every detail on his face clearly. Her gaze followed as his image flitted across the screens. Tousled brown hair, piercing blue eyes, that trendy tie, and he was so tall. She knew the stats—his Wikipedia page said he was six foot six—still it was something else to witness it in person.
And as a tech geek, the fact that he was also giving the most exciting speech about virtual technology she’d ever heard, well, that was just icing.
It took every ounce of self-control to stay focused on the words, to pay attention to the translation and not just whip around and curl up on a corner of the stage, chin in hands and stars in her eyes.
“HyperLyfe is three-dimensional virtual reality in a two-dimensional space,” Aaron was saying. “Right now, the HyperLyfe experience is a lot like playing with virtual dolls. You log in, you press the arrow keys on your keyboard to walk, and you’re watching your little avatar waddle around on the screen, right?” Aaron did a little waddle of his own, and the audience laughed, then he laughed and Katie echoed the exchange in her translation, drawing her fingers up her cheeks in the sign for laughter. “The new generation of HyperLyfe brings you right into that three dimensional space.” Aaron waved his hand at the huge screen behind him, and the image changed.
A mountain range, at dawn, its craggy surface dotted with dragons. Katie glanced at the screen and almost gasped. She knew it was computer-generated, but still, the realism was astonishing. Aaron stopped talking, so there was nothing to sign, and she watched silently with the rest of the audience as the video continued.
The camera panned across the range, then dove steeply and focused in on the biggest of the dragons. The beast roared, and stretched its wings wide, the rising sun shimmering through veins in translucent, leathery skin.
Suddenly the perspective changed, and when the dragon bellowed again, the audience was seeing through its eyes, watching as a furnace erupted from those awesome jaws.
“Now I know what you’re thinking,” Aaron said. “You’re thinking ‘but Aaron, I’m still watching this on a screen. Yeah it’s first person perspective, and that’s neat and all, but I’m not living it. I can’t feel my scaly skin, the weight of wings on my back, the wind whipping around my body as I fly, the heat from the fire I’m breathing blowing back against my face. That’s just not possible.’”
Aaron paused, looked up at the screen and back at the crowd again.
“As of today my friends. That. Is. Possible. With HyperLyfe 2.0 and some very special gear we’ve been developing, you can be that dragon. I’ve going to turn things over to our head of development now, and he’ll explain all the gory details.”
The room erupted into applause and Katie wiggled her fingers for the translation, watching as a short, balding man strode out onto the stage and took the mic from Aaron.
There was a ton of technical jargon next, lots of talk about specs and S-Suits, (short for sensory suits), and a detailed run down of everything that made HyperLyfe 2.0 different from the original version. Basically, from what she could tell, it was mostly the suits. Full body from toes to jaw, the inside of the suit was covered in nano-haptics, tiny discs that could sense changes in the wearers body and even better, apply sensations according to the environment, and actions taking place in the 3D virtual world.
So basically, from what Katie understood, yeah, you could be a dragon, and if you were wearing one of these suits, it would feel like you were one too. Wings on your back, wind on your scales, heat on your face.