Saturday, January 3, 2009

Relationships, Vol. 3 by Piers Anthony

As she went to work in the real world next day, she was hyper-conscious of the Caps on people she passed. Some sat on bus station benches with their eyes closed, lost in Alternity. One older man and woman, evidently a married couple, sat holding hands, lost in the Caps. Some people were walking along, eyes open, but vague, also lost in the other realm. So it seemed it was possible to function in both worlds at the same time, though surely it took some practice.

During her lunch break at work, she saw some Caps come out. One male co-worker sat at his desk, breathing hard, his crotch tight with an erection: he was having sex in Alternity. A woman sat with a dreamy smile, perhaps being seduced. But when the lunch break was over, they put away their Caps and got efficiently to work. They had learned to ration their visits to Alternity. So the Cap was not destroying traditional society, merely enhancing it. But she was sure there were hard-core addicts who were headed for trouble.

Early evening was her main time for Alternity. She lay on her bed and put on the Cap. In a moment, she was at the avatar shop, checking the lesser-used models, until she located one that vaguely resembled her natural body. Except that it was better proportioned, and not overweight, and the hair was longer and glossier. It was a more attractive version of herself. That seemed like a fair compromise.

She went to the bird bath. Zel was there. He did not greet her, and she realized that he didn’t recognize her. “I’m Mera, in another host.”

“Ah. I thought you might be, but did not care to gamble. I apologize.”

She was touched, somehow. She stepped up and kissed him. “No, I apologize, for confusing you.” Then, seeing his surprise, “And for doing that. I didn’t know I was going to. I’m not normally a forward person.”

“I assumed you were interested in birds.”

“No more than you are. I like what you’re doing, but what I don’t know about birds would fill volumes. I enjoyed our dialogue yesterday. But I think I had better be candid. I have a—a mission, and I’m looking for a man to help me learn what I need to. But it might turn you off.”

“Then now would be the time to broach it.”

“Exactly.” But she felt some regret, because she was afraid it would do precisely that. He was too nice a man to want to be involved in anything like this.

She explained about her virginal embarrassment, and her decision to return the affront in kind. “But I need to be able to emulate a man well enough to fool a man, in a male avatar,” she concluded.

“That might work, and surely he deserves it,” Zel agreed. “It would also gain you points on the sexual scoreboard.”

“I’m not in it for points. Just revenge.”

“I did not figure you for a vengeful person.”

“Neither did I, until this.” Then, unwillingly but unable to stop, she told him of the prior incident, and her resulting humiliation. “I was such a fool!”

“No. You were a normal, trusting, decent human being.”

Mera, surprised by the support, found herself overwhelmed. “Oh, damn! I’m going to cry.”

And somehow, she was in his arms, sobbing against his shoulder. She couldn’t help herself. Damn, damn, damn!

In due course, wrung out, she withdrew. “I’m sorry. I lost control. I didn’t mean to burden you with all this.”

“You’re a real person.”

“Oh, yeah. A real fouled-up, nothing-in-real-life person. I guess I was wound up tighter than I knew. Do you want me to go away now?”

“No. I will help you as well as I can.”

“Oh, thank you!” Yet there was almost an element of disappointment in her gratitude. She had rather expected him to balk.

They worked on the bird feeders, and talked, and Zel acquainted her with the male perspective as well as he could. He also showed her how she could generate illusion in Alternity, to make things seem other than they were. It was possible to make ‘mind’s eye’ projections of visions, dreams, or thoughts, and to record them for playing back later. If a person had sufficient imagination. Bodies, also, could be modified by such spot illusion, masking their real nature.

Under Zel’s guidance, Esmeralda turned out to have excellent imagination. Her frustrated artistic bent now flowered in Alternity, as her mere thoughts animated the things she imagined.

“Oh, look at that!” she exclaimed as she formed a vase of lovely flowers.

“I am unable to,” Zel said. “The important thing is that you are satisfied with your mental creation.”

So it was just in the mind’s eye of the originator. Still, she was thrilled with the accomplishment.

Then one day as she was walking through the forest park to meet Zel, she juggled three imaginary colored balls ahead of her, sharpening her ability to make illusion motion as well as illusion objects. A woman passed her, going the other way. “Nice balls,” she said, and moved on.

She had seen them! No, she must have seen Mera’s hands moving, and fathomed what she was doing.

She reached Zel. “Someone saw my illusion balls,” she said. “Maybe. Is it possible to learn to make such things visible for others?”

Zel considered, not answering directly. “Mera, I am going to ask two things of you. First, give up this quest for vengeance. It does not become you.”

And there was the problem. She had locked onto a plot, but now realized that she didn’t like it. It was true that Tim deserved something like this, but she felt unclean trying to do it. Maybe Zel had seen that. “Done. I am relieved. There’s so much more to have in Alternity than petty revenge.” She truly was satisfied to let it go, a weight was gone.

“Second, if this is some kind of a game for you, you can end it now.”

A game? “I don’t understand.”

“You have already won. You are a consummate actress.”

“Me? Won what?”

“My heart.”