by Pat Cadigan

Illusion is no longer possible because reality is no longer possible.

—Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

Illustration by Shirley Chan

“It’ s my wife,” said the pale man. “She’s cheating on me.”

Calgary frowned, forcing herself not to bite her nails. “Cheating,” she said, uncertain. The word sounded ridiculous. Cheating at what? And how could his wife do that on him? She had a sudden absurd mental image of the pale man stretched out shirtless on a floor, with an unknown woman setting out an array of playing cards for a game of solitaire on his naked torso, and then peeking to see where all the aces were.

“Cheating on me with another man. Or the equivalent.”

Now she had to force herself not to repeat the equivalent like some kind of random echo chamber. What did he mean by that? A woman, would have been her first guess, except it didn’t really feel like he meant that at all.

“I mean the equivalent of another person,” he added abruptly, as if he had read her mind.

“Are there equivalents of other people that couldn’t be described as just ‘other people’?” she asked him, honestly wanting to know.

He hesitated before he answered. “She’s cheating on me in virtual reality. With what could be any one, or anything.”

The hell with it, Calgary thought, and allowed herself to bite her nails. “So, did you want me to go over your service usage, is she running up big bills having her trysts? You should know, however, that the naked figures alone don’t stand up in court. You can run up the same charges playing out a roulette addiction in Virtual Vegas. In fact, are you sure your wife might not be working out a double-or-nothing quirk—”

“She’s cheating on me,” insisted the pale man. “And I want you to go into Virtual Reality and catch her at it.”

“But you’d have to pay me to do that,” Calgary said, completely nonplused. “You could do that yourself for free. Except for the hourly connect charges.”

The pale man shook his head. “You think I want to see something like that? If it were your spouse, would you? God knows what I might do. I might break six dozen laws in a flick—harassment, interference, virtual violence without a permit, international terrorist activity… God, wouldn’t that be perfectly swell, she cheats on me and I end up in a Hong Kong prison because I threatened a kung-fu movie extra with disembowlment starting just below the upper lip!”

No matter how sophisticated or advanced the world became, Calgary thought, life would sooner or later make a monkey or a jackass out of you. “How do you want your evidence?” she asked after a moment. “Flat photos, footage, transcription, multimedia?”

“As it comes,” said the pale man promptly.

“What does that mean?” Calgary asked, thinking at the same time that she already knew, but hoping she was wrong.

“In the same format. So I could—if I wanted to—put on the suit and go into the scenario myself.”

“Please don’t tell me you’re going to do that,” said Calgary. The man opened his mouth to say something and she held up one hand firmly. “I said, don’t tell me. And don’t tell me you’re not going to do that, either. Just don’t tell me anything.”

Calgary was not quite sure how she had ended up as a private investigator. She had started out as a professional search engineer, later taking up a sideline as a traffic analyst. The next thing she’d known, she was in court, giving expert testimony as to the various ways onhne expenditures could get out of hand. Addiction and adultery were the two biggies, she found herself saying over and over again. If you could be addicted to something you couldn’t even touch; if you could commit adultery with someone who couldn’t even touch you.

And what a silly word, adultery. In the US, where Calgary kept her license and credentials, none of the states even recognized adultery as a legal idea any more. You could adulterate as much as you wanted to and no judge would raise an eyebrow. It was when you used the family savings to finance your affairs that you got into legal trouble.

But while the courts may have cared about that, the pale man, like most other humans, was concerned with something else entirely. They always wanted to know the gory details, the ones that had nothing to do with bank accounts and expenditures. They wanted to know who, and where. Who in what surroundings seemed to be most important. Some of them tortured themselves making comparisons; more rarely, one of them might learn something. For all of them, however, it was the only way to feel the broken faith had been fully countered—betrayal of trust called for violation of privacy. The two things interlocked so powerfully, Calgary thought, it was a wonder that anything else ever got done.

The cubicle where Calgary did her VR work was a closet that had been slightly enlarged. There was room enough for a comfortable chair, and that was all. She didn’t need to move around any more—over the years, she had developed what the pros were now calling sense-surrender. It was simply letting the hotsuit do its job—it stimulated the senses and let your body feel as if it were walking, running, falling, flying, swimming, whatever was called for by the scenario of the moment. All you had to do was trust the ’suit, believe in what you were apparently doing. But, as was usual in the realm of the human condition, enough people had developed anxieties over sense-surrender, and in some extreme cases, a genuine phobia, that an international consortium of psychiatrists were arguing over whether it deserved to be a separate syndrome or just another variation on the techno-anxiety theme.

She stripped and grabbed the squeeze tube off the low shelf where she kept her vitamins and food substitutes. Hotsuit-in-a-tube was yet another controversy that couldn’t seem to he down and die with dignity. Some people claimed that the nano elements just weren’t substantial enough to transmit authentic sensation; others insisted that the nano elements just couldn’t locate themselves properly, so that you got absurdities like climbing stairs in your shoulders instead of your feet, and sexual arousal in your nose (there was a group that argued this last wasn’t a genuine problem, but it was a much, much smaller group). And then there was the inevitable group who found the idea of nanos on the naked body unacceptable, unpalatable, and just plain creepy.

Calgary herself found the cool minty gel quite pleasant, and if the added emollients didn’t really make her skin younger like all the ads claimed they would, they certainly didn’t do her any harm. And the new formula meant she didn’t even have to go to the trouble of rubbing it on. All you had to do now was squeeze it out on several pulse-points and let the tropisms go to work.

Five minutes later, the gel had congealed into a slick, flexible covering about the thickness of a coating of sunblock, looking deceptively wet. Calgary flexed a few things and bent a few other things experimentally, and could find no cracks. Satisfied, she grabbed her head-mounted monitor off the headrest, made sure there was enough conducting fluid in the small well, and put it on. This year’s model had fins and the usual chrome, but still managed to be lighter and more comfortable than head-mounts had been for some time. Apparently what the enthusiasts said was true: there was nothing better than an all-leather interior, even if it was faux leather.

She got comfortable in the chair and waited for the neck of the suit to trope upward and make contact with the headmount leads.

As soon as the eyescreen ht up, her entire body went limp in the chair. It was reflexive now, so much so that she was sometimes a bit nervous that any sudden bright light might cause her to collapse. So far, that wasn’t the case. Perhaps she was safely keyed to the eyescreen frequency.

She waited through the usual sign-on/log-in messages, brief news, traffic advisories—as always, post-Apocalyptic Noo Yawk Sitty had a waiting list, Club Hong Kong was adding a surcharge for perceiving groups larger than one thousand under one roof, and the Swedish government was handing out virtual pamphlets urging patrons to remember that there was more to their portion of Scandinavia than virtual sex changes. The Virtual Surgery Enthusiasts were countering with their own pamphlet, a manifesto concerning the right to experience any and all virtual sensation without governmental interference. Another busy day in VR; her contact counter said the concentration of local presences was averaging one hundred and ten per perceptible room-area.

She kept herself in semi-inactive mode while the headmount accessed the information the pale man had given her about his wife. While she waited for her resources to locate the woman, Calgary took a walk along Mainline, something she hadn’t done recently. There were entrances to a number of new areas, although a lot of them seemed to be shopping malls disguised as experiences. Popcult Watch was right, she thought, disheartened; they were in another whatever-it-is-get-rich-off-it phase. She made a mental note to check the projections on how long this stretch of brainless profiteering was su ...