“You should take those off,” Ophelia told me for the hundredth time as we walked to the cafe. She liked to ride me about my vidglasses every week or so.

A simulated herd of some kind of bird-like dinosaurs leaped over our heads and charged across the street, threading their way through the backed-up traffic. Ornithomimus? I eye-moused one of them to get a pop-up. Sinornithomimus dongi, it turned out. Never heard of them.

“They’re educational,” I said. “They make things more interesting.”

“You know what’s interesting?” she said. “Real life, that’s what’s interesting!”

I nodded and thumbed the advanced features control in my pocket until I got to the simulated mods menu. I eye-selected Ophelia and eye-clicked her clothes off. After a second, her eyes narrowed.

“What are you looking at?” she said, snatching at the glasses. I jerked my head away.

“None of your business!”

A passing businessman frowned at me.

“If you’re tarting me up again, that’s just it, you hear me?” Ophelia said.

I popped up the menu again and switched the option to “naughty schoolgirl,” one of the presets. Ophelia was a little on the scrawny side, but she still had the stuff to fill out a naughty schoolgirl costume.

“OK, I put you back to normal,” I said, mostly not staring.

“You better,” she said. We got to the café and walked in, got swallowed up by the stuffy dark coffee-stained air, and waited for a table behind a huge, tall guy. All of a sudden, I saw her: that girl Magdalena Birch, leaning over a tiny table and laughing with her mousy friend Lisa or Lisolette or whatever her name was.
“Gotcha!” Ophelia shouted, taking advantage of my stop-and-gape moment to grab at my vidglasses. I flinched away, accidentally knocking the glasses off and into a potted plant.

“Now look what you made me do,” I muttered, not looking, feeling in the plant for my glasses.

“Who’re you talking to?” the huge, tall guy said. I didn’t answer. The huge, tall guy stepped closer, right through where my glasses had been projecting Ophelia. “There’s nobody there, dorkwad. Don’t come in here if you’re going to talk to your imaginary friends the whole time.”

I found the glasses, pulled them out, wiped the dirt away. One lens was cracked. The error light was blinking.

Great, Ophelia, I thought. Now are you happy?

Note: This story, while it stands alone, belongs to the Anan Muss series.

Anan Muss was careful.  While he still made mistakes (after all, a legion of King Ash’s slitters once sliced arc-blades at his head on every quantum-entanglement port),  Anan’s caution merely meant that it took longer to do simple tasks–as if his brain had rocketed to light-speed, slowing down time.  Washing, ironing, and folding laundry usually cost him a weekend, even with robots. Cleaning his apartment required a week’s vacation.

Love was trickier.  In college he’d taken his time to talk intimately and walk around the hanging orchid gardens with girls he found interesting.  It took him a month to ask women out to the aquarium theater, another month to kiss underneath bridges by the canals, and a year later to fall helplessly in love.  The year after that might have been marriage, he supposed, but women rarely waited long enough for him to ask them out.

Luckily, the second-generation AI ladies appeared in Japan.  All the shy lads wanted one.  By design, quantities were low, demand high.  One would have cost his year’s accounting salary.

So Anan mail-ordered one of those borderline real phonies made in China.  His fingers trembled as he unwrapped her.  Her skin–a soft, off-ivory–accentuated her raven-black hair.  His heart wanted to gallop away, but he reined it in.  She accepted his hand and stepped out of the box, “Am I not beautiful?”

Caught off-guard, yet ever poetic, Anan sought the right word:  “Yes.”

“Love me, and I will be whomever you want.”

Anan explained he wanted her to be herself.

As if he had said nothing, she added, “You will be whom I want you to be.”

He said he’d try to accommodate any odd request within the limits of his brain pattern.

She laid plans of their future together.  He said he hoped she would have patient understanding, be someone he could share words with, someone who’d sharpen him gently, someone who would challenge and accept challenge.  “That’s exactly who I am,” she said, mentioning her unparalleled poetic sensibility.

As he painted her a porcelain love poem, he spoke of this inane idea he’d had of dating women virtually–not for love per se, but to understand women better.

He handed her his poem:

Laxity in

love milks

the black

swell of

twisted minutes

into hours

She shattered the porcelain and stalked away.  “I have no time for words.”

Carla backed up so she could see the reef better. A tessellation of almost-identical shells, each occupied by something vaguely resembling an octopus, individually as intelligent as a cat, and about half the size of a cryopod. As in a coral, the “animals” were connected, forming one colonial organism. It sounded like the cell right in front of her was the one that had spoken. Last time, the colony had been much smaller, and it had not understood her next question.

“Which one of you spoke?”

I am only one. There is no one else but you.

That was interesting. The first few visits, she had not been sure it recognized her as an independent entity. And the language lessons she’d broadcast from the buoy seemed to have been assimilated. Was it gaining intelligence as it grew? She went through the rest of the questions, recording the answers.

“I’ll be back next year. Your health and prosperity.”

As on her previous visits, it only responded to direct questions.

You have returned. Why?

The reef was huge, extending several meters above sea level and for kilometers along the sand ridge. The base was lost in darkness. She hovered above the waves on the seaward side. As always, it seemed that the polyp directly in front of her was the speaker, though she never could see an organ moving or vibrating. She set up a slow leftward drift of the skimmer, to see if the conversation stayed with the original polyp or moved with her.

“You are my research project,” she said. “I study you, to find out how you grow, how you think, what you do.” The reef was silent for a bit.

Again, why? Small organisms that I eat don’t visit me. Only you visit me, and you are not like anything else I know. The voice moved with her, transferring seamlessly from one polyp to the next.

“I visit you because my people want to learn about others. Because we are not alone.”

Another pause.

Do you know others like me?

“I don’t,” she said. She and her Thesis Committee had agreed to say nothing about the fossil reefs stranded 100 meters above sea level. The reef spoke again.

I will create a motile form. It will transport my essence as you do for your “people.” There will be more like me. They will speak with you.

Your health and prosperity.


When she told him it was a long-term commitment, he assumed it was like any relationship, a simple “I love you” once a day, flowers on important occasions, spooning in the afterglow of sex. He didn’t like to be tied down, had many lovers, many flings, always something on the side, often on the side of that. Man about town, frequenting the brothels and the nightclubs of Hollywood. But when your lover is immortal, she doesn’t play by the same rules. A wannabe starlet off the bus from Grand Rapids she was not.

He said yes because he liked a challenge. She was a fucking goddess.

The sex was awesome, but the relationship made him needy. He didn’t expect to be jealous, didn’t expect to pine when she didn’t answer her cell.

“I want to hang out,” Aphrodite said, a noisy party in the background. “I’m just busy.”

“You said that last week,” he said.

“Sorry, sweetie. Gotta mingle and schmooze. Call ya. Kiss.”

She hung up and he pulled to the side of the road. He pounded the steering wheel. He hadn’t counted on the role reversal, being one of many lovers, being cast aside. He drove to his favorite bar and tried to pick up chicks, but his heart wasn’t in it.

When she blew him off at a Bel-Air party the next week like he was some regular schmuck, he lost it. He interviewed a dozen hitmen before deciding to off her himself.

He wound up Laurel Canyon and parked his Bentley outside her Mt. Olympus split level.

In her bedroom, amid moans and giggles, he wasn’t surprised to see her naked, cestus on the floor, body entangled with two well-endowed men who modeled for romance novel covers. Only Aphrodite noticed him walk in.

“Hey sweetie,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“I think I should ask you the same.”

“I think it’s obvious. You could join us.”

“I don’t think so. Not my scene.”

“Careful,” Fabio 1 said. “She’ll cut your pecker off.”

“Oh hush,” said Fabio 2. “That was someone else in her family, wasn’t it?”

She didn’t seem scared when he slid the submachine gun from his jacket and leveled it at her, just a flash of anger and a moment of realization. He held the trigger until the mag was empty.

This immortal, just like the men in her bed, was not immune to gunfire. He knew she would return, in another form, at another time, and it would happen all over again. Right now, the feeling of taking her out in a spray of bullets and blood was spectacular. He felt free.

He left the house, set on hitting up all the spots on Sunset and fucking every girl he could find.

Ares, the god of war, didn’t like to be tied down.

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