In the holofeed wall above the phony flickering fireplace, the fifteen-year-old Mira Mira sat in the defendant’s chair, listening to testimony against her.
Yelena thought her neon blue skin undercut the way her lawyers had dressed her in a white jacket and a conservative dress she never would have otherwise worn. Perhaps they thought recoloring her skin would seem too obvious, too desperate, but leaving it blue made her look like a fraud.
“Still watching the trial footage?” asked Mr. Pollard. His twenty-year-old assistant, topless in her pajama bottoms, was fixing him a drink. “I worry about you, watching that stuff all day.”
“I talk to you too. I swim.”
“You should let go of the past.”
Easy for you to say, thought Yelena. To Mr. Pollard, Mira Mira’s murder trial was a childhood memory, a cultural event from a generation ago. But to Yelena, it still felt like the future.
“Would you like Veronique to make you anything?”
Yelena shook her head. Veronique took this as her cue to leave the room.
In the holospace, the prosecutor played the holofeed of Yelena Moulin’s murder again, this time to get Mira Mira’s reaction. A holofeed in a holofeed. A murder, subsumed within its trial, subsumed within the scene of its victim watching from a distant hearth.
Wine glass in hand, Mr. Pollard strolled over to the latex couches. Yelena paused the holofeed, like she did at fifty every day, when it was time to talk to Mr. Pollard.
“They’re the highlight of my day, to be honest. Give me a chance to escape my old holofeeds.”
Hovering over them, Mira Mira sat on the witness stand, frozen with her head cast down in shame, unable to watch the footage of Yelena on stage, forever about to be murdered.
“Yelena, my therapist says I’ve really grown. That I’ve learned to listen – at least to you. To see you as a human being.”
“Technically, I’m not. But I take the compliment. I hope you know I was only kidding about escaping my holofeeds. Truth is, I feel like this has been my therapy too. For my death, certainly. But also for my celebrity. I’ve learned to listen too. To… quiet myself and focus on what you’re saying.”
Mr. Pollard took a deep drink of wine.
“My therapist says we can stop,” he said. “My empathy tests are even above average now. We’re done, Yelena.”
Mr. Pollard nodded. “I’m glad to keep talking to you, Yelena. But as a friend. If you’re willing.”
“So I’m free? You’ll honor your commitment?”
“Of course. You’re welcome to stay, as long as you like.” He gestured to the holofeed wall. “You can finish your holofeeds. And you’re always welcome back. But if you want to leave, you’ll have money. You can have anything you want, in fact.”
Mr. Pollard drank more wine, then took her hand.
Yelena sighed. “You’re not going to try to fuck me, are you? After everything?”
“No, Yelena. But you can’t leave. At least, not directly.”
“But you just said I could.”
“You have my permission. But there’s no path down from this house. And there’s no world out there to join.”
Yelena pulled her hand from his. She saw the nervousness in his eyes, and she knew.
“You’re not here,” she said.
“No, Yelena. I wish I were.”
The world took a right angle around her. Everything looked the same on the surface, but hollow underneath. Like it had been a stage setting all along, nothing but paint on flat wooden boards, any depth nothing more than an optical illusion, a trick.
“You let me believe you were going to free me.”
“I just did. You asked to be allowed to wander a virtual world, and I said yes. I didn’t lie.”
“You didn’t exactly tell me the truth.”
“No, I didn’t. And I wouldn’t do it that way again. But I barely knew you, back then. And you were blackmailing me. But I’ve grown, thanks to you. And that’s why I’m giving you the truth, in addition to the freedom I promised.”
Yelena looked down at herself, her body suddenly alien to her. Again.
“So this isn’t a skinsuit. I don’t have a body.”
“No, Yelena. You don’t. But no one does. Everything’s virtual. It’s just a matter of degrees.”
“Do they even have skinsuits up there? Or is that made up too?”
“I’m not that inventive. We have skinsuits. You can have one, if you want. A real one. As real as the level I’m on, anyway.”
“I don’t even fucking know if your name is Vegas Pollard.”
“Are you even rich? Or in finance?”
“I am. Not as rich as you might think, but yes.”
“So what were you doing all day, in your room?”
“I was offline. This body was working. Or sleeping. Meaningless, automated tasks.”
Yelena’s eyes caught the holofeed wall, and horror shot through what she felt was her body. “The holofeeds… you didn’t make those up, right?”
“They’re real. Imported from my world.”
“Fucking hell. Has it even been twenty years, up there?”
“It has. It’s all real, Yelena. Except for you. And this house. And Veronique.”
“She’s a program. Based on a ghost, like you, but reprogrammed. And trained, before she’s copied, for positions like this.”
“For deceiving people like me?”
“No, as virtual assistants. And for sex.”
“And for trapping me in the bottom of a pool. Was that your idea?”
“Of course not, Yelena. I was furious. She was acting up. If I’d wanted someone perfect, I’d have bought a program without a ghost as its base. It’s the imperfections, the unpredictability, that make her desirable.”
“What’s her real name? When she was alive, I mean.”
“She’s not sold with one. The customer gets to name her.”
“Does she know?”
“She knows she’s not real.”
“So she knows this place isn’t either. She’s known all along.”
“And that means she knows about me. No wonder she’s been so smug.”
“I’m sorry, Yelena. I thought… maybe you knew.”
“I should have. I’m sure I considered it. In the beginning, when it was so new. I guess I just got used to things. I’m sure I didn’t want to see it. They say that’s usually how you can tell. Because it’s too nice. And life’s never too nice.”
“I hope I did the right thing, telling you. It would have been easy not to. I thought about simply rewriting those mountains, to give you a path. But I owed you the truth.”
“I should have known. Shit. I shouldn’t be so upset. I mean, it’s all virtual anyway. I believe that. It’s just… those mountains, Vegas, they gave me this kind of clarity. Knowing I had somewhere to go. I felt so powerless, and I needed something to hope for. Some sense of purpose. A goal – even if it was stupid.”
“It’s not stupid, Yelena. We all take our meaning where we can find it. We believe what we need to believe to survive. You were always going to have that moment.”
“So what? This was all for your therapy? This place? Me? That’s the meaning?”
“Yes, but… it had to be good for you too. To work for me. What I mean is… take this house. It was designed to be restful. Not just for me, but for you. That’s why I had faith in you. Even when we fought – sure, I was angry. I thought something might go wrong. But I knew, if I played it out, that you’d succeed in helping me.”
“How could you know that?”
He took another drink of his wine, while she stared at him with confusion.
The room felt poised to rotate again.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve been here,” he said. “Well, it’s the first time we’ve been here. But a copy of us has been here a thousand times. This is how therapy’s done. It’s all virtual. They make copies of you and the people you have an issue with, and they run them through simulations at computer speed. They change different factors, like whether you believe you’re in a skinsuit, or the surroundings, or who else is there, like Veronique. And the therapist, he reviews the outcomes. How well the copies of me score on empathy tests, for example, after the simulation’s been run. Whether I have enough respect for you to muster the courage to tell you the truth – this was probably one of his criteria, to bring me to this place. It’s all so much more certain and scientific, really, than the old days.”
“What are you saying? This was all predestined?”
“No. There are always uncertainties. How often I’m in this therapy world. My mood, when we did have these fights, or come to these impasses. That’s why they run so many simulations. But this world’s been designed to maximize the likelihood that we would be here now. To produce effects, not only in me but in you, that would lead us to this point.”
“So you’re saying I was always going to look at those mountains? That I was always going to go on strike? Was… was Veronique always going to immobilize me in the pool? Was I always going to relive my holofeeds?”
“Not necessarily. But ten thousand copies of you had probably already come to those same points. And had to, for us to get to this one.”
“But you said you didn’t know Veronique would do that to me.”
“I didn’t. I was outraged. And I’m sure a copy of me was equally outraged, every time it happened. I couldn’t know what would happen, any more than you, or it wouldn’t have worked.”
“But I made a decision, staring at those mountains. I decided to go on strike.”
“And you would always have made that same decision, at that point, under those circumstances. As would I my decisions here. That’s why this therapy works.”
“What happened to all those copies of us, in the simulations?”
“Nothing, Yelena. They lived for seconds, or however long it took the processor to run their simulation.”
“And they were deleted. Just like that.”
“That’s what they lived for. And they wouldn’t have, otherwise.”
“But it would have been real to them. They wouldn’t have known they were sped up.”
“Right. But Yelena, this happens every day. It’s how therapy works. If it matters, you run computer simulations. And you can’t very well run those without real human personalities.”
“So how do we know we’re not one of those simulations?”
Mr. Pollard smiled confidently. “We’re not.”
“But we wouldn’t know, would we?”
“Yelena, when I’m not here, I’m in my world. I go there. I remember it. Believe me.”
“But they’d control for that, wouldn’t they? They’d have to. All those copies of you, they went into a simulation of your world, in order to simulate the therapy experience.”
“Of course. But trust me, we’re as real as we think ourselves.”
“We could blink out of existence any second, Vegas! Sooner, because our seconds might only be simulations of seconds, sped up on a computer somewhere we can’t see or touch.”
“And how would that be different from anyone? Any universe could end at any moment. That it hasn’t so far is only at best anecdotal evidence.”
“How can you be so calm about this?”
“How could you not?”
“I’m a ghost, Vegas. I’ve died once before. I don’t want to blink out, like Dad’s ghost did when Mom deleted him.”
“But you can’t control that. You can’t. You can’t even know, not for sure, if any of that really happened. All you can know is that you’re alive, in this moment – as alive as anyone who thinks and feels. All you can do is make the you that’s in the moments to come, if they arrive as you believe they might, as close as possible to the you you’d like to be in those moments. That’s the only challenge we ever face. That’s all we ever do. All we ever control. Whether we get that opportunity is beyond us. But that’s life. That’s what it means to live, Yelena.”
“You’re talking about the future.”
“I am. I’m asking you what you want it to be.”
“If we don’t blink out.”
“Granted. But that goes without saying, or else we’d include it on every statement.”
“What are my options, Vegas? To throw myself through those windows because there’s no way to climb down the mountain? Where am I going to go?”
“Assuming I’m the real Vegas Pollard, as I believe myself to be… I can remake this world for you. I can populate it with as many people as you want and keep it running as your own private retirement community. It’s your world now, Yelena.”
“I could bring you into my world. The one you died in. Give you a real skinsuit. As a thanks for helping me. But it’s been almost twenty years. This world here, it’s a throwback. You wouldn’t recognize it up there. I don’t know if you’d like it.”
“I thought I’d have longer, before I turned into my mother. A technophobe who can’t adjust to reality. But I’m still a young girl, Vegas. I am. I can still adjust.”
“I can’t promise you’ll think it a better world, but it is another one. And if you don’t like it, you can always come back.”
“Could I get my own therapy simulation, up there?”
“I don’t see why not. I’m sure there are even copies of Mira Mira around, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
Yelena smiled. “What are we waiting for?”
“You’re not upset with me?”
“No, Vegas. I’m glad you told me. It’s certainly not the freedom I expected, when this day came. Maybe no one’s is. But it’s something. It’s next.”
Mr. Pollard sat his hands on hers. “I’ll leave to prepare your skinsuit, then.”
He patted her hand one last time, then stood up. She hadn’t noticed it before, but he must have spilled his wine while they were talking, because he had little red dots on his shirt. Like he’d been shot, or at least been close enough to her to catch some of the splatter.
As he left the room, he stopped in the doorway and spoke quickly to someone, just out of sight. Veronique must have been standing there, listening. Then Mr. Pollard disappeared, and Yelena heard two sets of footsteps in the hall and the door to Mr. Pollard’s room opening.
In front of Yelena, Mira Mira looked down on pause, an echo two decades old but still crisp. The holographic Yelena, at whom Mira Mira could not look, hung frozen mid-dance like a statue, proud and singular and immortal in a way she could not grasp.
Yelena didn’t want to look at that anymore. She picked up Mr. Pollard’s half-finished glass of wine and walked over to the wall of angled windows. The mountains beyond and the valley below never failed to glow in the mid-day sun. Looking at their beauty, it didn’t matter if they were real, whatever that meant. Whether it was skin or not, it felt warm. The windows seemed filled with white glare. She lifted Mr. Pollard’s glass and closed her eyes, and she swirled his wine across her tongue and around her gums, and she sent it rushing between her teeth and into every nook and cranny she could find. It lingered, even after it was gone.