Author : William Tracy

A woman sat in a surreal coffee shop. The floor was paved with rough slabs of hewn granite. The small, round chairs and small, round tables were solid oak. The walls were of the same stone as the floor, punctuated by ornate stained glass windows.

The space itself was what made the shop so strange. The floor only occupied a couple hundred square feet, yet the walls soared straight up out of sight. The ceiling was completely invisible from the ground. If one craned one’s neck, one could see, high above, ornate chandeliers. They hung from metal fixtures, cast with inscrutable Gothic figures, protruding horizontally from the walls.

The other strange thing was the lack of coffee. There wasn’t anything else to drink, for that matter. You can’t drink in virtual reality.

A man sat down next to the woman. “Hi, Mary.”

Mary’s face lit up. “Qaxiph! Where were you? I was so worried!”

Qaxiph sighed. “Can I not disconnect for a few days without you going crazy?”

Mary looked hurt. “Do you think you can just take off without telling me?”

Qaxiph stared at the floor. He seemed so sad. Mary scooted next to him, wrapped an arm around him, and buried her face in his shoulder. There was no smell. Mary decided that the virtual reality system must have been designed by a man. Men have no idea how important smell is.

Qaxiph pulled away. “Mary, I think that we need to talk.” Her eyes met his as he continued. “You have been setting your system to make my avatar look human, have you not?”

Now Mary pulled away. “Does it matter?”

“Yes it does.” He put his hand under her chin and forced her to meet his gaze again. “You are … sexually attracted to me, I can tell.”

She put her hand on his wrist. “I love you.”

“This can not work, Mary.”

“Yes! Yes it can.”

“Mary, how do I say this? I am not a human. I am on a planet five hundred light-years away from yours. We can not ever see each other. You know this.”

She pushed his hand away. Why did someone have to invent faster-than-light communication, but not faster-than-light travel? One could communicate across space, but not be there. It was information exchange without presence. It seemed like something a man would invent—it technically got the job done, but missed the point entirely.

“Mary. We have to separate. This can not go on.”

Mary wanted desperately to be with Qaxiph. She didn’t care what he really was. She wanted to hold him. She wanted to smell him, whatever that smell might be. “Why are you doing this to me?”

“I am doing this for your own good. Our species are not even physically–” Mary abruptly disconnected, cutting off his speech.

She returned to her small, sterile room. The walls, ceiling and floor were white, as if the color had grown bored and gone away.

A bed, two chairs, and a desk occupied the room. She sat at the desk, her computer terminal flickering sadly in front of her. She released the VR cable from its socket at the back of her head, letting it drop. It hit the floor with a dull sound and lay without moving.

For a long time she stared blankly at the logoff display. Then she stood up, and shuffled across the room to her bed. She collapsed onto it without taking off her clothes or getting under the covers.

Mary cried herself to sleep.


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