December sunlight settled onto the cold buildings, making golden blades of corners and blue lakes of windows. Steam misted the base of the streets around the ankles of the swaddled pedestrians. Everywhere else, in the alleys and shadowed, frosted parks, the gathering dark of the solstice held its ground. The contrast was uplifting and brutal. Winter - all kinds of winter - gathered under the hard black mass of cloud rolling in from the east. The pedestrians hurried, stirring the steam into spirals as I left them for the gleaming white lobby of Silkenmaiden. 
    I steady myself with one hand on the white porcelain of the machine, telling myself that everyone needs a  vice. What other vices do I need? The room is decorated in soft restful tones and the tank itself seems pristine; warm, white and welcoming. That's marketing for you. Stripped, I blink into the credit-checker and the machine cracks open. As usual I check that the machine is clean and as usual the metal gleams with a damp, lustrous polish. I step inside and it closes around me. I feel a familiar moment of panic as liquid runs around my feet in the dark and a deep, gentle voice tells me to relax. The liquid passes my head. There is a momentary salt scent until the mask finds its balance, not touching but sealing. Utter dark and silence follows and a surge as the movement simulator kicks in. I am on my back, the liquid flows around me at body temperature and I float, inert. There is no sensation except an illusion of infinite space but I know that all around me the silken maiden is extending its needles to within a micron of my skin. When I was a kid we had a toy, a bed of needles. You pressed it to your face and it made a perfect imprint. It's just like that. Small devices measure me and position themselves; eyes, ears, mouth. Banners float past telling me about my extra millimetres since last week and advertising diet regimes. I blink them off and the system replaces them with equivalents for fast food bars.                           

    "What would you like?" The sound seems to come from a descrete point several feet away, rather than two sub-miniature speakers in my ears. An image flickers to life at that precise point and not, apparently from two holoretinal projectors. She is indistinct at first, smudged. Her eyes solidify, flickering through subtle colour changes until they are deep blue. They enlarge. The hair cycles until it is rich and dark, but not too much, with the faintest fleck of yellow. The body slims, the hips fill, the voice microadjusts to contralto. The lips fill out a little and become a harder, deeper red. Each time the computers select whatever attribute my unconscious biofeedback likes the best. It is uncanny, sometimes frightening. "We have a special on Rome."
    "Rome is good."
    "Okay." Big smile, big wide smile. "This way."
    "Wait. Adjust me. With hypnotic."
    "Hypnotic adjustment is know to have psychotic-"
    "Bypass warning and confirm." The machine feeds me a hypnotic - strictly illegal but they can't prosecute a semi-autonomous processor, at least not yet. I look down at my body. Flab dissolves, my belly tightens, my legs seemed longer. "Enough."
    The patient mannequin turns and strolls away and I follow her just like a lamb. The first few steps are difficult as always but then I make the adjustment, belief suspended. I know that powerful cooler-thrusters are pulsing fluid against my feet, but the need to know how has slipped away and I am walking across a marble floor. We enter a large bathing chamber. I catch my breath, distracted by the couples in and out of the water.
    She strokes my hair, the touch real. The toga hits the floor, and she gives me another big, big smile. The scent of her oiled fingers cuts in, the last sense to be fooled, as he starts to massage my neck.
    The orgy disappears and I am surrounded by a hostile, laughing crowd. The amphitheatre has high walls. The woman has become a lion. I swallowed. My mouth went dry.
    "What the ...

login for more