“Safe Sex is Cybersex—Cybersex is SAFE!” Victor hummed the advertising jingle as he prepared for his self-promised treat. He had been saving all month for this. This was the big-time, the upmarket program used by VPs and other execs, not a sleazy “Dial-a-Dame” advertised on the Participorn networks.
Victor James was a virtual clerk, a code writer with a second class degree in Tri-visual Leibnitz. He lived in a real apartment but lie worked in a virtual office. They were a new breed, the home-workers. All their work was done via modem on the home computers. Offices had given way to networking and in many cases the employees had never met each other in the flesh. The ones who survived in this environment were the natural loners. People who didn’t mind spending the day alone, crunching figures and processing data. There were times when Victor didn’t see another human being for weeks. He worked by computer, he ordered his groceries by computer, and they were delivered to his door, paid for by automatic debit. Surrounded by sophisticated equipment, he even got his fun by computer. Today, his work done, he prepared for his electronic night out.
“Its marvelous what they can do nowadays,” he thought preparing for his date, He checked that the soft plastic sense-pads were adhering properly to his bare skin in all the right places. Smoothing the sensi-skin body stocking, Victor slipped the snug helmet mask over his head and took a deep breath to check the springtime fragrance of the olfactory unit. “Computer on!” he commanded, and the opening screen filled his vision. Soft music started in the stereophonic headset. He clipped himself quickly into the upright cradle and moved his hands experimentally. They appeared before him, browner and stronger looking than his everyday hands.
He tried a few practice runs. Virtual Movement was quicker than walking. You simply pointed and clicked, and you were there. At nearly four dollars a minute, you don’t waste unnecessary’ time getting from one place to another.
He verted to the door marked Enter, and keyed the pin-pad. His fingers felt the texture of the keys, felt them yield to the pressure he exerted through the sensi-gloves. The door opened and he passed through into the glade where birds were singing. A light breeze rustled the leaves and played gently on his skin. He looked down at himself “A terrific body.” He remembered choosing it from the catalogue: Caucasian Male, age 28. He checked it out, looking down the nude form, “It’s male all right!” Quickly he summoned the clothing menu and settled for a pair of faded jeans.
He spoke a command and a shimmering screen materialised before Iris eyes. He entered his credit details and his acceptance of the statutory’ agreement. A honeyed voice echoed the words on the screen.
Welcome to the Virtual Reality Dating Service.
Please take full advantage of the wonderful opportunities offered by VIRDIS, the only relationships that are Safe and Sure in the Tumultuous Twenties. Please look carefully at the following screen. Just point to the features you require and the VIRDIS Instant Assembly will compose the partner of your choice. Remember, only standard features arc included in the basic cover fee. Bizarre requests may cause some delay and will incur an extra charge. Choose Now, and have a happy time. This visit is timed for one hour from APPEARANCE, Extra time may be negotiated.
A warning chime will announce twenty seconds to Fadeout.
Controlling his impatience, he chose carefully but quickly, Some of the default specs were packaged; blue eyes with blonde hair, green with red. For the less finicky, height could be generalised as short, average and tall. Personality traits were harder to define, and he hesitated a few times before establishing a psychological profile. He entered Random and threw in a couple of variables. It doesn’t do to be too definite, he thought, or there is no excitement; better to allow yourself to be surprised. Satisfied at last lie pointed to the Start button and the screen dissolved into a mist of bubbles which rose into the air. “Nice graphics!” he thought, and he looked across the glade to where a path wended between the trees. A figure was approaching.
He knew she wasn’t real, that the girl on the path was an illusion, but, as always, his heart leapt. She seemed intent on negotiating the path, avoiding the twigs of the saplings that encroached on the track. One of them caught her across the face and she swore. He laughed in amazement

“What Programming!” At the sound of his voice she looked up. Her eyes, as green as he had specified, were angry. “And what the hell are you laughing at?” Really surprised by now, he wondered about the variables he had included. Surely State of the Art hadn’t made such progress. There must have been a breakthrough. Normally, virtual reality women were little more than highly sophisticated versions of the inflatable plastic dolls of his grandfathers era. Somehow he had conjured up a Virtie with a mind of her own. “Well,” she said, “don’t stand there gawking. Come and help me dis- entangle myself from this damned briar. It is mining my new skirt. A fine adventure this is turning out to be! I know you’re not real but at least make yourself useful.”
He verted to her side, no sense in wasting expensive time. The briar, firmly fixed into the material, felt wiry to his touch; real, too real. As he separated it from the cloth, a thorn pricked his finger. It nearly drew blood, and again a feeling of alarm swept him. The safety protocol was supposed to rule out things like this. The flesh of her leg felt warm and firm through the thin fabric. “Hey! Watch it, Buster! You may be a figment of my imagination, but there are limits. Haven’t you HEARD of sexual harassment?” The indignation in her voice did not sound feigned. Astounded, he gaped at her. This was getting right out of hand. He reached out to take her in his arms, time was awasting! Startled, he watched her vert twenty feet across the clearing.
“Don’t get any funny ideas!” Anger made her very’ attractive, “I didn’t pay good money to be molested by any run-of-the-mill Seamy! I decide the program. Right?”
“Let’s get this straight,” he said. “YOU are the Virtie. I am the customer. I’m not paying two hundred and fifty an hour to be given the runaround!”
“Huh!’ she said “A likely story. If you’re not careful, I’ll ask for my money back.”
“Okay, convince me you are real. This should be good.”
“Don’t be silly.” she said. “My name is Kathleen. I’m an advertising exec. I live, and work, in New York, I don’t get out much, have you seen New7 York lately? (Oh, this is stupid, you are not a real person.) Anyway I thought I would be safer with electronic relationships, so here I am.”
“Well you certainly don’t talk like any Virtie I’ve ever had, but then I never entered random with two variables before. Are you sure you are a real person?”
“Are you? All I can see is a CM28 straight out of the catalogue. You answer the description okay but you don’t seem to have any of the qualities I asked for.”
“But Kathleen,” he felt the sense of unreality increase. Or was it Reality? “Obviously some- one is playing tricks with us. Of course I’m not a catalogue CM28, I am really thirty-five. My name is Victor, I live in Melbourne Australia, and I must admit I’m not as well built as this body. Still I’m not too much different from what you see. How about you? How real are you?”
“Well I don’t know what image you ordered, but I’m thirty, red hair, green eyes and I’ve had no complaints about my figure. What do you think has happened? Do you think VIRDIS is experimenting with a REAL dating service?”
“Maybe. How do you feel about that? Does it make any difference to you that we’re real? It does to me. I’ve never encountered this before. To tell you the truth I’ve never had much luck with real people relationships. I’m kind of shy that way. Virties seem so safe. What should I do now, with you finning out to be real.?”
By now they were sitting side by side on a grass bank. She put a hand on his arm. “Victor, What would you have done If I had really been a Virtie?”
“We’d have made love. And you, what did you want front the meeting?”
“Much the same, I guess. I’d finally decided that tonight was the night. A nice anonymous CM28. I’d get laid, and lay some persistent ghosts.” She blushed, “Don’t I sound awful!”
“No more so than I am. For the first time I have to face up to what I’m doing. What sort of man AM I? living a fantasy sex life, scared of finding myself a real girl, not that I’d know where to look.”
“Don’t feel bad. What we do doesn’t hurt anyone. At least we are not out there spreading disease. But you are right in a way. Today is different. If only I hadn’t found out you are real. Where do we go from here?”
“Well, what you see, is a CM28, and what I see, is the red-headed beauty of my dreams… It seems a pity to waste all this valuable equipment…” He turned and took her into his arms. He felt her tense for a moment but then she yielded. The artificiality of the face mask sensors, which had bothered him in the past, faded into insignificance. The touch and taste of her seemed more than authentic. Illusion reigned supreme. Their virtual bodies melded. It was more convincing than the most real of dreams.

It was good; so good that he missed the warning chime. Twenty seconds later Kathleen dis- solved into smoke and he found himself standing upright in the holding cradle.
A bright square screen flashed into existence. “Thank you for using VIRDIS. If you wish to save the most recent configuration, select SAVE.”
“Save,” he shouted. “Save, save, SAVE!” Suddenly it was the most important thing in his life. A girl of his own. A Real girl! But New York? There was no way he would ever get to New York. Frantically he realised that he didn‘t know Kathleen’s name and address. He stripped off the sensi-skin and pads and threw them into the cleansing unit. Still nude, he booted up Internet and sent a wide message to the New York Gate, “Kathleen ADV/exec. (re. VIRDIS) call vicjay@melb.vic.au.ozimail1454. urg;pvt
The Sysop at VIRDIS HQ turned to his assistant and smiled. “A great success. Paul, The ex- perimental program DREAM-DATE REALITY has passed its first test run with flying colours! What do you think he made of it? Hey, look what’s come up!”
The Search program, set to detect any references to VIRDIS, echoed Victor’s message to New York.
“He’s only trying to call her! Wow, he must really be keen. What shall we do now? I guess this calls for exec decisions. I’ll zap it through to VP Marketing. They’ve really stirred up something this time. Well, that’s their worry. They have kept this program so hush-hush that I’m not sure myself. Is she for real? A computer matched client? Or is she a Super Eliza, designed to respond to poor old Vic’s demand specs? Ah well, you can take over now. I’ve had a long day and I’m going home to a real live wife. She may not match the beauties we supply, but at least she’s flesh and blood. Sometimes I pity the poor bastards! G’night Paul, and good luck!”
That night, warmly snuggled up to the lightly snoring bulk of his wife, the Sysop found himself thinking again of Victor. Where was the harm. What is reality anyway. “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, who is to say that it isn’t a duck!” The lonely have their right to happiness. Still, he knew which he preferred. His arousal communicated itself, and the sleepy figure turned in acceptance. Virtual reality be damned!
© Copyright H, St V. Beechey Sept 1994