Originally published in Kanstellation Magazine, January 2020.
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 25, 2045—Psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Wilson was honored by the American Medical Society for his revolutionary treatment of drug addiction. Wilson uses medications and targeted electrostimulation to affect permanent changes in the nucleus accumbens, the brain’s ‘pleasure center.’
MONDAY, MAY 13, 2047—Altlife Virtual Reality releases the much-anticipated Ultimate VR. The new immersive experiences include being a Hollywood actor… Beta-testers rave about Ultimate VR’s nonplayer characters, which have fully developed AI-based personalities.
I see it again today: a small purple cloud, the size of a football, hovering by the juice bar. It’s been showing up for about a week, always around lunchtime. No one else notices it; two of the camera crew almost walked through it.
I usually eat on the set with the rest of the cast, but today I feel weary and take the lunch back to my trailer. I’m just a couple of bites into my wrap, when I notice the damn haze. Inside, by the door.
I chew as loudly as I can, crunchy lettuce bits falling from my mouth, and I stare the thing down. It has no eyes, but I know it’s alive, and whatever it is, it’s pissing me off.
I’m mid-bite when the haze disappears. I spit out that last bite unchewed and go limp on the couch, blood throbbing in my ears.
At the director’s birthday party, I make out with a brunette from the costume department. My manager Max separates us and gets me a ride-share home, which is for the best—random hookups are bad for my recovery and I don’t even like the girl all that much.
I see the haze floating by the coat check on my way out. It looks more solid, more opaque, like purple cotton candy.
The urge to touch it overwhelms me.
I reach out and I know it will disappear, but before it does, for just a moment, the haze feels soft and warm under my fingers. It feels like skin.
I seek the haze and feel disappointed, almost hurt, when I don’t find it.
We shoot some difficult scenes. The director pulls me aside, says I’ve finally broken through to the core of my character. Says he’s always believed in my talent, in me. That makes one of us.
The haze shows up days later, at lunchtime, by the juice bar. It’s larger, perhaps two feet tall, and for the first time I glean a shape.
I get up, pretend to pour myself a beverage. My heart races as I reach out and cup the cheek. The haze doesn’t disappear. I stand there for an eternity, soaking up the softness and the warmth.
She is everywhere. In my trailer during breaks. In my apartment every night.
The more I touch her, the more details there are in her shape, the more of her I get to know. Within days, every square inch of her body is burned into my memory.
Sometimes I think I might be losing my mind, but I don’t really care.
Max sits across from me, wants to know what’s going on. I ask if the director complained, and Max says no, the director couldn’t be more pleased, so I ask what the problem is.
He knows I’m up to something, asks if I am on drugs again. No, but I’m not sleeping much, which is true. Max doesn’t buy it. He leans back, arms across his chest, fingers tapping his upper arm. He waits.
I sink deeper into the chair and sigh, then tell him all about her, my purple-haze woman. His eyes widen and all color leaves his face, but he doesn’t say a word. I tell him that I am fine, that I am not hallucinating. He says he believes me, but I don’t believe him.
I don’t want to be put away again.
At home, I lie down next to her, the familiar softness and warmth, and everything is better.
TUESDAY, AUGUST 6, 2047—Psychiatrist Dr. Stephen Wilson was arrested last night in Hollywood.
After three suicide attempts and several psychotic breakdowns among the celebrity alumni of Dr. Wilson’s well-known drug rehabilitation program, the LAPD investigation uncovered that Dr. Wilson had sold confidential patient information, including personality tests and brain-scan data, to Altlife Virtual Reality. Altlife used this information to develop the artificial intelligence that runs the very realistic nonplayer-character personalities in its newly released and widely lauded Ultimate VR movie-star immersive experience.
Los Angeles Police Department’s medical experts suggest that the irreversible changes to certain areas of the brain in Wilson’s rehab patients, which resulted from his treatment protocol, might be why it was possible for some users of Ultimate VR to interface with these living, breathing celebrities rather than the nonplayer characters modeled after them in Ultimate VR. These intrusions could be perceived as hallucinations and cause severe psychological distress to the unwitting participants.
Ultimate VR has been recalled.
Max says I look like shit. I feel like shit.
The movie wrapped up. Critics and the press rave about my performance. Max says I’m a shoo-in for an Oscar nod. I should be ecstatic.
But I don’t care. She is gone.
I’ve never felt more lonely… I can’t shake the thoughts of using again.
Max looks worried.
Max is at my door. He says to close my eyes and hold out my arm. I’m not in the mood for his games, but have no energy to argue.
Something smooth slides under my fingertips, and blood rushes into my head.
I open my eyes and, for the first time, meet hers. They are dark brown, soft and warm, like her skin.
She wears a deep-purple dress and jokes that she wasn’t sure if I’d recognize her in any other color.
I smile as I trace the familiar curves of her cheekbone, her jawline, her neck.
She glows. We glow.