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Virtual Goddess

Short story By: lailoken
Humor



In the early days there was some stigma attached to choosing an artificial life partner, but eventually, it became the norm. The latest statistics show that eighty-five per cent of couples now consist of a human/android pairing, a trend reflecting the abandonment of natural procreation in favour of genetically enhanced proliferation of the species…


Submitted:Jul 9, 2012    Reads: 27    Comments: 2    Likes: 1   


Prologue

Beauregard Saxe had made it to the top in the advertising world, his meteoric rise through the ranks earning him a salary worth 1,000,000 credits per month, while the most successful of his friends outside the company could only boast of earning 200,000, per month. He switched to automatic pilot, allowing the on-board computer to land the silver and emerald green Bentley LXGT on the landing pad of his new penthouse apartment. The gull wing door opened with a whoosh and Beau stepped out to survey his kingdom.

With smug satisfaction, he strolled around the rooftop terrace admiring his astronomical observatory, swimming pool and tennis court. Numerous planters containing artificial shrubbery served to soften the scene. Beau walked over to the console to input the access code. Like a boy with a new toy, he played with the control panel, partially opening and closing the transparent roof covers. Of course, he'd seen it all before when he'd looked the place over with the estate agent, but now he owned it he could play to his heart's content.

As he took in the surrounding panorama of glass-clad towers reaching for the clouds, Beau derived enormous gratification from the fact that very few rooftops stood more elevated than his own. The sun was setting and the metropolis lighting up; through the lanes of flying traffic he could just make out the semi-submerged ruins of the old city in the distance.

A transparent elevator tube conveyed him down to the expansive balcony, from where he entered the high-ceilinged spacious living room to be greeted by a meow; Zenobia, a Persian cat, rubbed against his leg, purring. He needed to familiarise himself with the apartment's central computer - to input the chip containing his personalised settings, so that he could truly feel at home. A small wall panel slid back as his palm waved across its surface, revealing the main console. The chip was inserted, bringing the penthouse online.

'Hi, Beau,' came the sultry Irish accent of the computer's hypnotic voice.

'Hello, darling,' he replied.

Beau settled at the round dining table, its onyx-finished surface displaying numerous desktops. Once he had fine-tuned the ambient lighting to his satisfaction, he set about decorating the hall-like living area's wall panels and floor - hands waving across the table like a magician as he tried out various colours, designs and patterns, pausing occasionally to look up at the results.

He eventually settled on a Minoan theme: a red-painted wood-grain effect for the supporting pillars, wall frescoes based on the Cretan Palace style; for the floor, Beau designed a mosaic pattern based on Picasso's Minotaur Oversleeping, along with Minoan rosettes and spirals in red ochre. The ceiling was adorned with Lehrdammer's Icarus. As an afterthought, he used Cullimore's Soul Passing through a Maze to decorate the elevator floor.

With the heating and air conditioning programmed, and the security codes reset, he relaxed with a glass of cognac and took in his surroundings. It was the serpent-handling women depicted in some of the frescoes that reminded him of what was missing - at last he could afford to purchase a companion, and not just any android but the latest VGX7. He could have acquired an artificial wife before, but for Beau, inferior models just were not good enough. Now, after all the anticipation, he had been able to order the perfect woman.

Beau moved around trying out one opulent synthetic brown leather sofa after another, deciding which wall would be used as the entertainment screen.

'Aurora, play "Sophisticated Lady", please, darling.'

A life-sized hologram appeared formed in the image of a young redhead bearing a striking resemblance to Ann Margret; she wore a full-length white cocktail dress. 'Archie Shepp's, Beau darling…?'

'You know the one, Aurora - and don't be calling me "darling" in front of guests again.'

'Would you like me to finish decorating the rest of the house, darling…?'

'You can do the library, Aurora. Use Pollock's Autumn Rhythm on three walls, leaving the feature wall brilliant white - and don't overdo the blue tint this time.'

'I prefer his Lavender Mist myself, Beau.'

'Oh, all right, Aurora, as you wish.' Beau shook his head.

'How about a compromise, darling…? Lavender on two walls and autumn on one…?'

'Fine, Aurora, but I'll do the bedroom myself.'

'All right, darling, but for the bathroom I suggest a pale grey and white, rag roll effect, and that tasteful Carrera-Banks nude as a feature.'

'Aurora! This isn't a bachelor pad. You can use the Morris Reclining Nude if you wish. That's final.'

'But, Beau…'

'Just do as you're told, woman - please. Run the Anthrogenex promo, will you? And don't be teasing Zenobia with virtual mice and dogs again - I've only just had her repaired.'

Aurora became transparent and faded away. The wall adorned with a Cretan bull-leaping scene became a digital image screen. An attractive strawberry blonde launched into her spiel, designed to validate virtual partnerships.

In the early days there was some stigma attached to choosing an artificial life partner, but eventually, it became the norm. The latest statistics show that eighty-five per cent of couples now consist of a human/android pairing, a trend reflecting the abandonment of natural procreation in favour of genetically enhanced proliferation of the species…

The feed paused, interrupted by Aurora reappearing: 'Incoming message.'

'Allow, Aurora.'

Aurora's form faded to be replaced by the image of a handsome, athletically-built man with a pale brown complexion. 'Hi, Beau…, just reminding you that the company party gets underway at eight. I've uploaded the coordinates to your computer.'

'No reply,' barked Beau. 'Play Chopin's Opus 34, no.2, please, darling.'

As the sound of the low tempo waltz filled the apartment, Beau's thoughts turned to the forthcoming evening's dinner party, wishing he had acquired his Virtual Goddess in time for the event - but at least this would be the last time he'd be required to socialise as a singleton.

Beau ascended a short flight of steps and approached a section of wall decorated with the Blue Ladies of Knossos; a panel slid back revealing the master bedroom. A round bed occupied the centre of the circular room, situated below a transparent dome; the walls were still plain white and awaiting decoration. He checked the built-in drawers and cupboards to make sure the relocation technicians had unpacked and arranged everything according to his specifications. Once satisfied, he entered the walk-in wardrobe through an arch, doors sliding open automatically, and selected a mushroom-coloured suit with double-breasted jacket, and a matching fedora hat.

Next it was time to get ready for the party. Beau entered the en-suite bathroom and stared at the embracing exotic beauties above the Jacuzzi, mouth agape. 'Aurora!'

He turned round to be startled by the sight of the hologram standing behind him. 'Oh… Aurora, why can't you do as you're told?'

'But, Beau, I chose that painting for you based on an objective analysis of aesthetics and artistic merit. I'm sure your new wife won't mind. After all, in spirit she's just a virtual woman, like me. Besides, you like women with a mind of their own.'

'Aurora, things are going to change from tomorrow, please try to be understanding. It's my fault for giving you too much lateral freedom of thought, but you know I'd hate to tamper with your programming.' The realistic mural transformed into an abstract. 'Thank you, darling. Now play me something beautiful, and then go get some beauty sleep.'

Aurora vanished. Beau stood in front of the mirror studying his reflection: medium height, average build and below average looks, but hardly ugly. The baldness of most of his pate bore testimony to his non-conformist nature, making him one of the few people who refused to undergo genetic hair regeneration. What remained of his once ginger locks had turned blond with middle age. He stripped and switched on the cyber-barber, a legless wall-mounted robot capable of sufficient movement to undertake all grooming requirements.

Once his head and nasal hair had been neatly trimmed, he reclined in the domestic dental chair to have his teeth brushed, flossed and polished by another automaton; Beau hadn't been rebellious enough to forego dental regeneration, something essential to both socializing and promotion.

After showering and towelling down, he stood in front of the blow-drying panel singing along to 'Casta Diva', attempting, but failing, to imitate Gina Cigna's voice.

Part One

Beauregard landed his sports coupe in front of the stately home, making sure he parked between vehicles less expensive than his own. He stayed in his seat for a while, fidgeting, before taking a deep breath and reluctantly getting out. Beau hated parties.

As he made his way past the parked motors, Beau found himself arrested by the sight of a vintage terrestrial car. He gaped in wonder at the voluptuous curves of a black, nineteen-thirties Bugatti Type 57S, mind boggling at the amount of credits such a work of art must have cost.

While the security guard checked his invitation, Beau admired the medieval suits of armour and couldn't help thinking about the cost and effort of maintaining such an old-fashioned residence.

In the middle of the grand entrance hall, Quinn's Siren sat on a marble plinth. Beau circled the statue taking his time to appreciating the sexually-contorted limbs and lithe form of the golden goddess. 'So slender yet so womanly,' he muttered to himself.

He pulled himself away and timidly headed into the main hall, glancing up at a copy of Cabanel's Eve after the Fall, hanging above the doors.

All the guests were dressed in the style of the nineteen-twenties - the latest craze to be regurgitated in the ever-retrospective merry-go-round of so-called contemporary fashion. The Velvet Underground had the crowd singing along to 'After Hours', Warhol screen tests playing behind them.

He was greeted by Theodore, the man from the holographic image, now sporting a blazer and boater. 'Beau, you old rogue, good to see you; thought you might have had the other half with you.'

Beau felt a little uncomfortable and shuffled his feet. 'Uh hum… yes. I take delivery tomorrow.'

A basic model waiting android passed by carrying a tray of drinks; Theo took a couple of glasses of pink champagne, passing one to Beau. 'Let's make a toast - to companionship.'

'Cheers, Theo.'

'Let me know what it's like, Beau, you know… doing it with an Andy.' Theo grinned like a schoolboy.

'You mean you've never…'

'I've only ever had the real thing. How's the new promo for lunar colonization going, by the way?'

'Nearly there - just a bit of final editing to do; it'll be on time.'

A brunette with a bob haircut, wearing a suit and tie, hijacked Theodore and took him to one side, gossiping in his ear. Beau looked around nervously, feeling out of place; most of the guests were attractive-looking people of mixed race, though generally not so attractive as to be indistinguishable from their android partners; genetic enhancement was still in its early stages. One day everyone would be beautiful. Yet the rebel in him was exceedingly proud that he stood out from the crowd: he had distinction and character.

Standing alone made him feel self-conscious; Beau drained the champagne and took another glass. He whistled along to the bluesy guitar in 'Over You', occasionally nodding at a passing underling.

Beau was puzzling over why the band would feel the need to wear sunglasses at night and indoors, when he was saved from feeling like a wallflower by the arrival of Thelonius, the head of personnel. Thelonius was tall and thin and towered above Beau, who hated having to crane his neck to look up at the man. He was dressed in a black and white pinstriped suit with two-tone brogues, and a black panama hat with a white band.

'Hi, Beauregard. Good to see you out.'

'You too,' Beau shook the proffered hand. 'I must say I'm surprised at Theo, inviting the rank and file to his home like this.'

'That's Theo, likes to consort with the peasants now and then, pretend he's just one of the boys.'

'Where are the wives?'

'Jean Carmen had to go in hospital for a few days with skin problems, accelerated cell growth or something. So, I booked Norma Jean in for her biannual service at the same time. Not to worry, they say they'll have Jean Carmen as good as new in no time.'

'Do they get many health problems?' Beau couldn't help worrying.

'Not really, but they do need regular maintenance. Anyway, I hear you've ordered the latest VG - state of the art. You shouldn't have too many problems with her. Just give her the liquid feed twice a day, that'll provide all her dietary needs.'

'Actually, I opted for the artificial stomach and digestive system so she can eat the same as me. I want her to be as human as possible, and appreciate my culinary skills.'

'Really…?' Thelonius frowned at him, 'That's unusual - but if that's what you want; anyway, those new models have an estimated thirty-year life-span, so they claim; that's almost twice the expectancy of mine. Still, you'll have to replace her eventually.'

Beau's chest swelled with pride and he wondered if anyone else in the room had the latest model. 'I doubt it,' he replied. 'That'll be long enough for me. I've no intention of allowing the longevity surgeons to experiment on my person.'

Seemingly oblivious to Beau's reply, Thelonius added, 'I don't actually require extended life-spans; I like to trade them in for a new model now and again, keep it exciting.'

'Is it true that you can't tell the difference from a real woman?' Beau asked, cautiously.

'It is now. I had one of the early prototypes in my youth, you know, when only female models were available and they were considered nothing more than sex toys. Those early models lacked responsiveness and were always breaking down, but now with all the advances in cybernetics and microbiology, it's as good as the real thing. Of course, in some ways it's even better, they don't argue back and spend your credits behind your back - or beat you to a promotion.'

Beau chuckled along before replying, 'But what about… you know… satisfying them.'

'Beau, get with it.' Thelonius looked amazed. 'That's the beauty of it, you don't have to worry about that, you just please yourself, and you know how easy that is.' Thelonius winked at him.

'Who would have thought it would become the norm. Still, some people stick to the old way; Theodore told me he's never had an Andy.'

'Ah,' Thelonius gave him a sarcastic grin, 'mutual romantic love, two clashing egos constantly bickering - who needs it?'

'But they had children together, the old way; they're even rearing them themselves. I hear that even their dogs are real.' Beau couldn't help sounding a little envious.

'Privileges of the mega-wealthy…' Thelonius lowered his voice. 'Anyway, who wants little shit machines running around the house, human or canine?' Beau's evident shock caused Thelonius to check himself and look a little contrite. 'Well, I suppose you have to admire their commitment to one another; who'd have thought it would have lasted this long? When pairing based on psychological compatibility was introduced in an effort to reverse the high rate of divorce, it was on the whole, a failure. Theodore and Vivian's marriage represents one of its few success stories.' Thelonius looked over Beau's shoulder, a charming smile appearing on his face. 'Ah, Vivienne darling, speak of the devil; we were just singing the praises of your marital bliss.'

Vivienne came into Beau's view singing along with the Gothic vocal on 'Femme Fatale.' Her tubular black dress and matching skullcap shimmered with sequins. Beau's knees trembled a little at the sight and scent of her; she wasn't technically in the league of a Virtual Goddess, but she was real. Vivienne had the Mediterranean looks and big dark eyes he favoured.

'Hi, boys,' she greeted them in a soft, flirtatious tone. Her accent slightly betrayed an American upbringing, with a hint of a Southern drawl. 'Theodore sent me to fetch you. Come and join the rest of the gang.'

Beau followed their hostess, snaking his way through the crowd of people dancing compulsively to the primal drumbeat of 'What Goes On', encouraged by the whip-wielding dancers on stage. The distorted yet melodic, lead guitar play reached receptor sites Beau never dreamed existed. Vivienne led them to a lounge area in a corner of the room. He was familiar with most of the people present; there was Candace, head of finance - a cute and cuddly, short-haired woman of African descent, who was generally considered to be the brains of the company. Candace was sitting with her virtual partner, Sutzi, a willowy girl of oriental appearance. The opposite end of the sexual orientation scale was represented by Darius, from the legal department - a young, smooth-looking fellow of Arabian appearance and a man of few words. He was accompanied by his blond virtual partner, Nathaniel, a muscular and athletically-built model of Scandinavian design.

Theodore introduced them to the other couple, Desiree, the brunette in the suit, and Atticus, her virtual partner. Atticus looked a bit like the twentieth-century film star, Sidney Poitier. Beau was impressed by Desiree's go-go dancing, but noticed that Vivienne was not. 'She's Viv's best friend,' Theo shouted over the music.

'Was!' said Vivienne, screwing up her face.

Theo offered a grin of embarrassment before continuing. 'Desiree, Atticus, I'd like to introduce you to Thelonius, the company's very own Oscar Wilde, and Beauregard, the most cantankerous person who ever lived. I give you all fair warning that whatever your opinion is, Beau's will be the opposite.'

Beau could feel the back of his neck reddening; Thelonius, however, welcomed the opportunity to perform in front of an audience. 'Too true, back in our university days, when the belief in God went through something of a revival based on the theory of Universal Consciousness, Beau was its fiercest opponent. Now that God has been officially declared non-existent again, he refuses to be slave to matter. Should God-bothering become popular again, Beau is sure to switch camps.'

'A non-atheist,' Desiree squealed with delight, clapping her hands together, 'how refreshing.'

Beau fought with his shyness and forced himself to reply, quoting Berdyaev: 'God cannot be an object of knowledge, because in the act of knowing man cannot rise above God.'

'That's right,' Sutzi concurred. 'From the perspective of the human condition the question is unknowable.'

Thelonius took offence at the android's contribution to the conversation. 'And how would a robo… I mean, how would you know?'

'Pure objectivity…' Candace rose to her partner's defence, glaring at Thelonius.

'All right, children,' Vivienne interceded, 'this is a party - no religion or politics, please.'

'And no discrimination,' Darius added.

Beau was invited to sit next to Candace and Sutzi while Thelonius took a pew opposite, next to Theodore and Vivienne, Desiree making sure everyone had a drink.

Thelonius launched straight into airing his disapproval regarding the current trend for women to have breast reductions. 'I can't understand women wishing to become flat-chested just because it complements the clothes in fashion at the moment. What happens when the fashion changes? The geneticists make a fortune giving them all breasts again.'

'We all know what you like, Thelonius,' said Darius, with a smirk. 'Every pair of virtual partners you've had, have been based on voluptuous blonde bombshells from the nineteen-sixties.'

'What about you?' Vivienne addressed Beau. 'I hear you've ordered yourself a goddess. What specifications did you give?'

Beau sputtered and almost spat his drink out. 'Well… Um… Actually, I asked for a fusion between Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale. I wanted the finished product to be a surprise.'

'I'm impressed,' Vivienne replied, making him blush.

'What's the obsession with twentieth-century women?' Darius asked no one in particular. 'I don't see why everyone loves those old films so much.'

'Oh, come on,' Theodore said, 'self-programmed holographic and virtual entertainment can't compare with those old classic films, they're so…'

'So human,' Desiree finished his sentence.

Most of the group voiced their agreement. 'Sweet Jane' finished to calls of 'Encore,' but then the bell rang for dinner.

'Anyway, Darius,' said Theodore, 'don't be upsetting Beau - he's showing us a tribute to those old films after dinner, generated it himself.'

Everyone followed Theodore and Vivienne into the dining room to gather round a long oblong table of rare solid oak. Background atmosphere was provided by a pianist improvising with larghi excerpts from Beethoven concertos.

Beau ate quietly, preoccupied with thinking about the much anticipated delivery of his new companion, and barely aware of Thelonius entertaining the group with his Victorian-inspired wit.

'You know, Thelonius,' observed Candace, pointing her knife at him, 'your brain must be so large it's a wonder your skull doesn't split open.'

'It's not about the size of the brain,' Thelonius responded. 'For many people, having a large brain is simply like living in a huge mansion, but only having the ability to use one room.'

'Is that so?' Candace scowled at him. 'Have you ever heard the saying "Blowing out other people's candles doesn't make your own shine more brightly"?'

Outside of work, Beau was accustomed to being more of an observer rather than a participant, and he took the opportunity to study the interaction between people and their virtual partners. The duck breasts were artificial, but the French wine was genuine. Beau was enjoying being part of the elite.

'So, Beau,' Theodore said, 'Thelonius tells me you've bought an island in the Irish Sea. Kept that quiet - not planning to defraud the company and run off to the wilderness, are we?'

'Ah, yes… I mean, no. It's quite small, you can pick them up rather cheap you know; it's for when I retire, always fancied getting back to nature, one day.'

Of course Thelonius had an opinion. 'Can't for the life of me, understand why anyone would leave a developed zone to live out there, but then you are a bit of an eccentric, Beau.'

Thelonius simply cut up and teased the à la carte cuisine around his plate, showing much more enthusiasm for the decanted Bordeaux wine. Candace and Nathaniel began enthusing about the latest UN initiative, conceding special human rights to androids. Although they would still be classed as dependents like children, and still be the legal responsibility of their partners, they would be protected from abuse by law. Vivienne and Theodore agreed with Beau.

Despite Vivienne's earlier appeal against politicking, Thelonius couldn't help himself. 'Next thing you know, they'll be granting equal rights to artificial animals.' He stuck his fork in the duck breast and left it there. Silence fell over the patron's end of the table, shocked expressions turned towards Thelonius. 'Well…' he shrugged, while displaying a sheepish yet non-apologetic grin, 'Do androids dream of electric sheep?'

Beau was more interested in the reactions of Sutzi, Atticus and Nathaniel than anyone else: their faces remained impassive, without a trace of shock or indignation. He was disappointed. The more time he spent in the company of androids, the less real they seemed. Candace was obviously livid.

Theodore cleared his throat and addressed Thelonius. 'Actually, the possibility of them dreaming could soon be realised. In the next generation of virtual brains, an experimental mode has been included in the design. If activated, there is said to be a possibility of emotional evolution. No jump to sentience has yet been confirmed, but it's still early days. Of course, the technicalities go right over my head.'

'That's not even science fiction,' Thelonius retorted. 'It's pure fantasy. How can science possibly replicate the vital interaction between our organic selves and the sub-atomic forces our sapience probably depends on?'

'Excuse me!' Candace interjected. 'What the hell has sapience and sentience got to do with allowing human rights to people who feel pain just like us?'

'Come on!' Thelonius protested. 'Don't get melodramatic about it. So they have the semblance of a nervous system to prevent them from damaging themselves, and feel pain just like animals do, that doesn't mean we should make them our equals.'

From the way Candace was holding her glass, it looked as though she was about to throw wine in Thelonius' face. 'They're not animals though, they're virtual human beings. Shouldn't we show some grace?'

'Uh hum…' Beau hesitated before joining in. 'If the latest Neo-Gnostic theories have any merit, there should be no real reason why an advanced AI shouldn't be able to utilize the same quantum source as our brains do thereby allowing for emotional and intellectual evolution. Looking at it the other way round, as our brains are basically just organic computers manipulated by Universal Consciousness, why shouldn't that consciousness be able to utilize a computerized brain, providing it is sophisticated enough. But then, who knows?'

'I hope not,' Thelonius looked appalled. 'What would be the point in having a virtual partner that acted as irrationally as a real woman?'

'Don't worry, Thelonius,' Vivienne interceded with a mischievous smile, 'if they do evolve, I'm sure Anthrogenex will continue producing vacuous models for men like you.'

The meal over, everyone returned to the reception room with their glasses of porter, the pianist still playing with the larghetto from Chopin's Opus 21. Theodore soon called for the lights to be dimmed and all eyes turned to the silver screen above the stage.

SHADOW PLAY

A Short Film by Beauregard Saxe

Billie Holiday's 'I Cover the Waterfront' finished playing, but the table still kept turning on the gramophone, the needle stuck in the final groove of the vinyl disc; clothes lay strewn across the living room carpet forming a trail that led to the half-open bedroom door and beyond - just inside the doorway lay an almost empty champagne bottle dripping wine, on to the carpet.

The apartment was dark, illuminated only by whatever moonlight and street lighting penetrated the windows and open blinds; most of the light fell on the centre of the room, leaving the extremities engulfed in shadows. An electric fan stood on a stool at the foot of the bed - whirring and creaking as its head moved repeatedly from side to side - sweeping the mattress with its artificially-produced breeze. The night air was laden with humidity, making the couple perspire profusely, despite the fan. Oblivious to anything but their passion, the embracing lovers moaned and groaned in sexual abandon on a bed striped with bars of shadow, formed by the laths of venetian blinds.

A black cat appeared from the shadows and headed into the living room. Halfway across the floor, the cat froze and stared at the door to the apartment. The faint sound of metal scrubbing against metal caused the cat to arch its back and hiss, before disappearing into the shadows once more.

(Maurice Ravel's Le Gibet began to play as incidental music, providing a silent movie atmosphere.)

The door handle moved downwards in slow motion, the door easing open to reveal a tall man dressed in dark clothes and a panama hat; releasing the door handle with the same care as he'd opened it, he pushed the door to and stepped stealthily into the room. In the shadows, the cat emitted a barely audible yowl and lashed its tail.

Moving cautiously towards the bedroom, the intruder froze at the sound of an approaching police siren. The wailing drew nearer and reached an overwhelming crescendo as the patrol car drew level with the building; then the noise began to lessen and fade away, becoming high-pitched as the vehicle withdrew into the distance.

The intruder allowed himself to breathe again and resumed his stealthy approach towards the bedroom door, revolver in hand. He crept through the door and reached out a hand towards the light switch, but then withdrew it. A few more steps and he was standing over the bed, pointing the gun.

It was the sound of the revolver cocking that distracted the amorous man from his love-making; he withdrew from the woman and rested on his knees, facing the gunman, his demeanour remaining impassive.

'Spence,' exclaimed the woman, covering her modesty with the sweat-soaked silk sheet, 'what the hell…? You didn't even want me - so what's this all about?'

'He's the strangler,' said Spence, 'look under the pillow.'

The brunette reached beneath the pillows to produce a length of cord. The naked man leapt at Spence with a roar. Three shots sounded - the muzzle flashes briefly illuminating the gloom. The man fell to the floor in a crumpled heap.

'I do want you,' said Spence.

Fin

The room was illuminated again, the round of applause making Beau grin boyishly with a mixture of pride and embarrassment.

'Well done, Beau,' Theodore and Thelonius offered in unison, as they slapped him on the back.

'RKO would have been proud of you,' Theodore added.

'Makes one wonder how the studio failed,' added Thelonius.

'Well… the government of the day did kind of cut its nose off to spite its face when it persecuted the most creative studio of all time.'

'You know, Beau…' Thelonius grinned at him, 'the woman in the film looked a bit like Vivienne.' He turned to Theodore. 'Don't you think?'

'Come to think of it…' Theo was grinning at him now. 'Not holding a torch for Viv, are you, Beau?'

'Uh hum… I…' Beau could feel the shame burning his cheeks; he was relieved when the lights dimmed once more. A murmur of approval escaped the crowd as Liza Minnelli appeared spotlighted on stage, dressed in a glittering red dress and skullcap. She began performing 'Cabaret', backed by two pairs of dancers, the men done up like Charlie Chaplin, the peroxide blonde girls like Jean Harlow, with punk rock-style make-up, wearing tasselled dresses.

'I'll get the drinks in,' Thelonius headed for the bar.

Beau watched Vivienne dancing with Candace near the stage. The Chaplins danced like bow-legged clowns, while their partners shuffled their feet, shimmied their tassels, and waved their hands in time to the music - the women in the audience copying them.

Beau's hopes that the subject was forgotten proved to be in vain. 'You know, Beau,' Theo confided patronisingly, 'divas like Vivienne are exceptionally high maintenance, much more so than a Virtual Goddess.'

He felt irritated by Theo interrupting his enjoyment of one of his favourite songs and snorted in reply. During the slow part of the number, the dancers smooched cheek to cheek.

Thelonius returned with a tray of large brandies, just as the performance drew to an end, the dancers framing Liza with outstretched arms. To vigorous applause and wolf whistles, Liza's hologram faded out and the dancers straightened up to take a bow. People started dancing to an android quartet's rendition of 'My Old Flame.' Beau wasn't very good at dancing, but he still loved it. Theo grabbed Desiree and they danced close, whispering intimately in each other's ears. Now Beau really felt like the gooseberry and was relieved that Thelonius was also by himself.

Beau visited the toilet and, as he relieved himself, stood staring at a painting of Maria from Fritz Lang's Metropolis. He tried to look forward to the arrival of his goddess on the morrow, wondering what he would find behind the veil, but his mind was preoccupied with thoughts of Vivienne.

He returned to find Thelonius dancing to 'In a Sentimental Mood', with a blonde girl from the band. There was no sign of Theo, Desiree or Vivienne. He watched Warhol's The Kiss for a few minutes, then decided to bow out gracefully and retired through the French windows to the rear terrace.

Beau placed his glass on a stone balustrade, produced a cigar from inside his jacket and lit up. He began mulling over his observations - how the virtual partners were passive and seemed to exist simply to patronise their human partners - although he did admire Candace for allowing Sutzi's programmed inquisitiveness. Beau had never had a woman, but he had always admired those with spirit. A sense of disappointment hit him, and he ceased feeling excited about taking possession of his Virtual Goddess.

Beau's musing was interrupted by the sound of voices arguing, his enhanced lenses automatically zoomed in and focused on an arbour situated a short distance down the garden and partly obscured by myrtle bushes. The voices were muffled, but sounded like they belonged to Theo and Vivienne.

A few minutes later, Vivienne came storming past and entered the house. Theo strolled up to join Beau, grinning sheepishly. 'Real women for you,' he said with a wink. 'They have terrible tempers, Beau.'

'Is it a big problem?' Beau had to ask.

'Not at all, nothing wrong with a bit of passion. The good thing about falling out is the making up afterwards.' Theo winked again, nudged Beau with his elbow and strolled back into the party.

Beau finished the cigar, stubbed it out on the balustrade and looked around for somewhere to dispose of the stub. He'd just thrown it into the shrubbery, when a voice almost made him jump out of his skin: 'Hi, Beau, hope you're enjoying the shindig.'

Vivienne had returned and was standing beside him holding two brandy glasses; he shuffled his feet nervously, feeling awkward at finding himself alone with an attractive woman. His mouth opened but words failed to form - with an enormous effort he tried to meet and hold her gaze, but failed. Beau had no doubt that Vivienne could not possibly find him attractive, but he sensed that she enjoyed the awe her sexiness inspired in him. She offered him one of the glasses; Beau downed half of the fiery liquid in one gulp.

'Oh, Beau,' Vivienne simpered, 'you are sweet; it's so rare to find shy, sensitive men these days. Being so self-conscious, you must be very intelligent.' She batted her eyelids shamelessly, her wicked eyes glinting with mischief despite the intoxicated glaze.

'Not really, Vivienne, you might say I'm a Jack of all trades, but master of none. Except, hopefully, making ads, of course.'

'Loved your film, by the way - so romantic; I bet you'd love to be a Spence, save the damsel in distress.'

'Well… Uh hum… I'm not really the hero type.'

Vivienne placed a forefinger in her brandy; she sucked it before continuing. 'Would you say that I'm virtually a goddess, Beau?'

'Um… yes… of course.' He dared to search the depths of her eyes.

'More so than that… Desiree,' she lowered her chin, eyes rolling upwards, her tone of voice beseeching patronisation.

'I'd say you were about as aesthetically pleasing as femininity gets.' Beau was surprised by his response. 'Anyway…' He downed the rest of the brandy. 'Time I was off.'

Vivienne took Beau's glass and threw it at a copy of the Venus de Milo, followed by her own.

'Come on, Beau,' She grabbed his hand to drag him inside and through the throng of people watching the stage.

Beau pulled Vivienne up and stood next to Thelonius, watching Josephine Baker dance. 'What happened to the girl that you were dancing with?' he couldn't help asking.

Thelonius looked a little embarrassed. 'Actually, Beau, it turns out she's a man, called Candy Darling.'

Beau was dragged away. 'Vivienne, are those leopards real?' he asked, but she didn't seem to hear.

They passed through the entrance hall, back into the night air; the sudden energetic movement, along with the brandies, made Beau feel a little giddy. The next thing he knew, he was in the passenger seat of the Bugatti, feeling like he was sat on the floor. The engine came to life with a guttural growl, along with the stereo - The Velvet's 'White Light, White Heat' erupting from the speakers. The Bugatti's wheels spun in the gravel as a prelude to propelling them up the lengthy drive - illuminated Henry Moore statues flashed by ever more rapidly. Vivienne was laughing.

The car exited the gates, the primitive headlamps barely illuminating the blue paved road ahead. Beau had never been in a wheeled car before; his heart palpitated wildly as he gripped the dashboard and stared ahead, hedgerows and dry stone walls rushed by at alarmingly close proximity, the car's antiquated chassis and suspension transmitting every bump in the road to his posterior

Beau knew he had travelled much faster in the air, but he had never actually experienced such seemingly literal and immediate speed before. Vivienne was saying something to him.

'What, Vivienne?' he shouted.

She turned the volume down a little. 'I said Theo's such a pig.'

'But surely… I mean… I've always sensed that he loves you.'

'Oh, he loves me all right, that's not the problem… hang on.'

Beau thought she meant literally and gripped the dash even tighter, knuckles turning white as they overtook a hover car on a blind bend. Vivienne threw the car at a tight corner, the back end sliding out of line. Beau was forced to lean so much that his shoulder pressed against Vivienne's. They exited the bend, the car jerking from side to side before it straightened up.

'The problem, Beau, is he doesn't worship me - loves himself too much, and that damn Siren statue Daddy bought us as a wedding present. Then you have men like Thelonius, who only worship Virtual Goddesses. Somewhere along the line, men lost their awe of real women.'

The roar of the engine and pulsing live recording conspired to create a raucous symphony of dizzying sound, accentuating the sense of excessive speed and motion.

As the car shot down a dip in the road, gathering momentum, Beau's stomach seemed to drop into his bowels. They climbed the next rise, and flew over the crest, all the blood in his body surging upwards into his head. The throbbing bass, the relentless ringing of cymbals and the blood rush, all made him feel light-headed. Beau couldn't help wondering if Vivienne had spiked his drink with some kind of drug.

Without realising they had completed a circuit, Beau saw the gates of the mansion appear - just as the sound of guitar strings screeching like tortured violins reached a crescendo. The whole hair-raising journey had barely taken ten minutes, though it seemed like they must have covered miles.

Vivienne skidded the car sideways and brought it to a halt, spraying a Mercedes Benz limousine with gravel. 'It's all right,' she assured him. 'It's only Theo's.'

Beau hauled himself out of the Bugatti to find that his knees were trembling.

'Come on, Beau, let's get a nightcap.'

'Ah, Vivienne, to be honest, I've had enough and want to get home - big day tomorrow.'

'Did you enjoy the ride, Beau?'

'I can honestly say that it was the most terrifying experience of my life, but thanks.'

'Makes you feel alive, doesn't it? Anyway, thanks for listening, Beau.' She gave him a quick kiss on the lips and sauntered off.

Beau stumbled to the car nursing his backside, and called for it to open up, then waited for the door to rise. He slumped into the passenger seat. 'Genevieve…' he slurred.

'Yes, Beauregard honey?' said the car, in a sexy, posh English accent.

'Take me home… honey. And play Nina's "Little Girl Blue".'

'Would you like me to give you a massage, Beauregard honey?'

'Oh, yes, please, Genevieve.'

Part Two

Beauregard awoke with a hangover and a raging thirst.

After he'd rehydrated himself, he requested Brahms' Violin Concerto and placed the headset of the mood enhancer over his temples, asking Aurora to program the device for bestowing a clear mind and upbeat mood. Beau wished to be on top form when his goddess arrived. First impressions were essential, even if she was an android. The electronic waves stimulated the relevant receptor sites in his brain, producing endorphins and releasing the desired amount of serotonin and dopamine to bring about the chemical balance required.

When the time came, Aurora informed Beau that the delivery car had arrived. He was standing by the landing pad when the silver Rolls Royce Pegasus limousine descended, Schubert's Ave Maria playing in honour of the Virtual Goddess. The doors opened and she stepped out dressed for a funeral: black dress, stockings, high heels and wide-brimmed hat with a half veil, just as Beau had specified.

The chauffeur required an electronic signature from Beau's thumb print. 'Of course, she's only had rudimentary programming so far, sir, just log into your account to download everything you need to finish off the personalisation. I must reiterate how important it is that you read the information manual.'

Formalities over, Beau took his new wife by the hand and led her to the elevator. They rode the lift in silence, Beau looking at his shoes and fidgeting nervously.

When they entered the living room, Beau couldn't resist lifting the veil to see what he'd purchased. 'Wow, you are a goddess!' he gasped, gazing in awe at her face.

'I'm so glad that you like me,' she said, with an Italian accent. 'And what am I to be called?'

'You're name is Sophonisba; mine's Beauregard; it means beautiful gazer.'

'Sophonisba, for sure; I like it very much, Beau…regard.'

Zenobia rubbed up against Sophonisba's legs. 'She wants you to pick her up,' said Beau.

Sophonisba gathered the cat in her arms, but she looked uncertain about what to do with her. Aurora appeared, unprompted, and looked like she was waiting to be introduced.

'Ah, darling, this is…'

'I heard,' the hologram interrupted, 'Sophonisba.'

'No, actually I meant - Oh, never mind. Sophonisba, this is Aurora, she's like… well, like a sister. Aurora, you are to treat Sophonisba no different from myself - and you don't have to keep popping up all the time. Go amuse yourself in cyberspace, or whatever.'

Beau led Sophonisba to a chair and removed her hat before fitting the headset in place. After he'd downloaded the necessary software, Aurora finished the preliminary programming, uploading the relevant information to Sopho's computerised brain - memories that would allow her to converse with him on all the subjects of interest to him. Next, he asked Aurora to program herself to recognise and obey Sophonisba's voice.

'All right… darling,' he felt bashful saying it, 'tell Aurora to play my favourite piece of music.'

'Aurora, play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, Fourth Movement, choral.' The music began to drift from the surrounding speakers.

'Excellent,' he beamed in satisfaction, 'now my favourite film and scene.'

'Aurora, play Out of the Past, the casino scene,' Sophonisba commanded. Jacques Tourneur's film noir classic appeared on the wall panel, the femme fatale and Jeff Bailey sitting at a roulette table in Acapulco; the melancholy and enigmatic Kathy asking the private eye if he liked to gamble.

Beau had always fantasised about being like Robert Mitchum, but now there was no need to dream about wooing Jane Greer, he had his own goddess.

***

Beauregard had taken a couple off weeks off work to help Sophonisba settle in. The first couple of days were spent platonically, sleeping in the same bed like friends.

The wedding ceremony took place on the second day, a white-robed Neo-Gnostic priestess arriving to join them in matrimony, with Aurora playing maid of honour. Thelonius and Candace put in holographic appearances as witnesses. Arduina, the priestess, was an elderly black woman with a French accent. Sophonisba wore a pale, silvery-grey silk dress and veil, that Aurora had ordered unprompted. Beau kept telling her she looked like a veritable manifestation of Aphrodite herself. To the sound of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, Beauregard and Sophonisba exchanged Russian wedding rings, pledging to honour and cherish each other.

Before leaving, the priestess gave them a short sermon: 'Remember that we should always retain an open mind, continually questioning not only what others would teach us, but what we believe ourselves; our raisons d'être are a personal matter that we can only come to terms with over the course of our lives, through gnosis and cognitive flexibility. May you discover your own truths and, in each other, find some solace from the loneliness of individuality. Spiritus Sanctus in nomine, Amen!'

***

By the third night, Beau decided that the courtship phase had been of sufficient duration and it was time to consummate their companionship.

After he'd run Sophonisba a bath surrounded by candles, and written You're Gorgeous on the mirror in lipstick, Beau began preparing a meal of Chinese finger food: cucumber cups stuffed with nuts and chilli, steamed prawn and pork-flavoured mushroom dumplings, sweet and sour, lemon, and plumb sauces as dips, asparagus parcels, with sweet battered lychees and artificial cream serving as dessert, accompanied by specially imported rice wine.

The meal was served on the roof - Aurora playing emotionally provocative soul songs. As they nibbled the starter, Beau tried explaining how the old amps caused the horns to bleat sublimely on songs like Monique's 'If You Loved Me', and why modern technology couldn't recreate the effect, before he remembered he was talking to an android and started to stutter.

'Don't worry, Beau,' Sophonisba reassured him. 'I want to learn, for sure. Just try to forget I'm a goddess.'

They began to hand-feed each other the dipped dumplings, wiping one another's chins with napkins.

'Oh, Sopho, listen to this: Etta James; listen to how she expresses sentience.'

'But, Beau, why would she want to go blind?'

Beau realised that, although she could hear the music, Sophonisba could never truly feel it. He determined not to hold it against her.

By the time the lychees had been polished off, Beau was getting nervous. 'Uh hum, I say, Sopho darling, I had something special planned for tonight; I hope you don't mind.'

Sophonisba looked him straight in the eye. 'I know, Beau. We're going to make love.'

'Are we?'

'Yes, Aurora told me.'

'Did she?'

'She said you'd be worried about my not being responsive, but don't worry, Beau, I'm programmed to respond to pleasurable sensation, and Aurora has been coaching me.'

'She has?'

'Shall we begin then, Beau?'

'Oh, there's no rush, darling. Let's finish the wine first. Aurora!'

'Yes, Beau… darling?'

'Ah, Aurora, I wish you'd stop popping up behind me. Listen, I've been thinking, why don't you take the rest of the night off?'

'Charming - what am I supposed to do, switch myself off?'

'Well, can't you take a virtual holiday, or something? Just play 'Cry Me a River' before you go.'

With a slow drum roll, Aurora vanished. Beau stood up and offered Sophonisba a hand. 'Could I have the honour of the next dance, Sopho dear?'

They embraced and smooched cheek to cheek, slowly swaying in time to the music, Beau intermittently singing along with Betty Lavette; the cucumber repeating on Sophonisba.

'Oh, Sopho, you don't know how long I've waited for this night.'

'I hope I can make it live up to your expectations, Beau.'

'Don't worry, darling, I have it on good authority that we men are easily pleased.'

Beau had prepared the bedroom for the romantic tryst, lighting candles and spreading rose petals across the bed. The walls had been decorated with romantic scenes: Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, and of course - Romeo and Juliet; all presided over by William Blake's The Reunion of the Soul and the Body, above.

Apart from the tame love scenes in Beau's favourite movies, and whatever strange advice Aurora had given her, Sophonisba had no experience to draw upon and, being the conservative type, Beau was hardly any wiser. He'd had the option of programming Sophonisba as a courtesan, but couldn't bear the thought of her having more sexual experience than him.

Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto played in the background as the adult virgins embraced. Gazing into Sophonisba's eyes, Beau thought of declaring his love, but he knew the reply would be a purely automated response. Although he'd never known a woman intimately, the tactile sensation was genuine enough. He pretended the emotion he felt was mutual and indulged his impoverished senses. Although his initial ardour lasted no more than a few minutes, he didn't mind too much, as his lover had nothing to compare him with.

***

The newlyweds spent the time talking endlessly about all the things Beau enjoyed, music, films and books. Sophonisba did not need to hear, watch or read them; all the information was stored in her memory banks.

Realising that his companion could not actually appreciate the symphonies, movies and novels, Beau soon became dissatisfied with sharing his enthusiasm - such interaction seemed hollow. Accordingly, he erased the data comprising his Favourites list; Sophonisba's apprehension of the art would still be no more than an algorithmic analysis, but at least she could experience them manually, so to speak.

Beau had looked forward to having his own live-in soprano. Sophonisba had the capability to play back recordings of great vocal performances, while employing simple mimicry, like Aurora often did, but Beau wanted her to actually sing the songs with her own voice and took it upon himself to coach her. He might not possess the vocal chords for the job, but he certainly had an expert ear.

Sophonisba was a physical being with female DNA, whereas Aurora was simply a sophisticated software program with a female voice and holographic image, albeit configured to study and imitate feminine behaviour. It had worried Beau that Sophonisba and Aurora might not get on, that they might exhibit the same kind of jealousies you would expect of real women in such a situation; but they seemed to get along fine, to such an extent that it was Beau who often felt jealous and excluded from their girly intimacies.

***

Beauregard was planning a party to show off his new wife and penthouse; the problem was he hated the thought of his friends seeing Sophonisba acting like an automaton. With meticulous attention to detail he analysed the VGX7 manual, determined to fine-tune Sophonisba to near perfection. Theodore had been right about the experimental mode, but the manual warned against activation by anyone but expert programmers. Besides which, activation required the signing of a disclaimer absolving the manufacturers from responsibility, the services of an advocate being necessary to finalize the agreement and acquire the code. There was, however, an intermediary option allowing for some amount of intelligent self-programming akin to independent learning. Besides activating the enhanced mode, he spent hours altering her automated responses to some specific questioning. When he'd finished, Beau asked Sophonisba to get him a drink.

'Get it yourself, darling,' she replied. 'I'm busy.'

Beau grinned with the satisfaction of an optimistic amateur, and asked Aurora to serve him. He'd just collected the glass from the automated bar when Aurora announced the arrival of visitors. 'Incoming vehicle… Theodore Jensen requesting permission to land…'

'Allow, Aurora. Darling, can you come here and sit next to me, please?' he addressed Sophonisba, who was sitting on the opposite couch, reading Robert Grave's Seven Days in New Crete, and simultaneously analysing Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto.

'Not now, darling,' she replied without glancing up. 'Can't you see I'm reading?'

Beau was perplexed. He couldn't recall programming her to disregard that particular question. The sound of the elevator descending spurred him into action, rushing over to sit beside Sophonisba. Butterflies fluttered around his stomach at the realisation that Vivienne was accompanying Theo. As his eyes lit on a bare-breasted Cretan pythoness, he could feel himself begin to blush. His mouth gaped on the brink of ordering Aurora to change the theme, but it was too late for the alteration not to be noticed. He tried to play it cool, even though his guts were churning. The elevator arrived, revealing his guests, both wearing suits with fedoras.

'Hi, Beau,' said Vivienne, with a vivacious smile. 'Thought we'd come see your new place, and… you know.'

'Hope we're not interrupting anything.' Theodore gave him a wink.

'Vivienne, Theo.' Beau found his tongue. 'This is Sophonisba, my… well…'

'What a beautiful name,' said Vivienne, her eyes inspecting the Virtual Goddess.

Sophonisba glanced up to give the guests an enigmatic smile and cross her legs.

'Looking forward to the party,' Theo beamed. 'Thanks for the invite.'

As Vivienne admired the decorative theme, Beau tried to will his blood pressure to drop.

'Love the abode,' Vivienne declared, and gave him a wink, 'any chance of a guided tour?'

'Come on, Sopho darling.' Beau stood up. 'Let's show our guests around.'

'Not just now, Beautiful Gazer, I'm not in the mood.' She turned her attention back to the book and turned the page. Beau was mortified.

Theo broke the tension with practised diplomacy. 'I can wait till the party, Beau, you show Viv around and I'll keep… Sopho company.'

Beau led his guest into the library. Vivienne wandered around the free-standing shelves and seemed impressed with Beau's collection of old, cloth-bound books. 'Beautiful Gazer, you're so old-fashioned, it's kind of charming and endearing - sexy even. Are they all first editions?'

'Well, mostly…'

Vivienne sensuously stroked the copy of a Hirst skull, bragging that she owned two originals, and then gave Einstein's bust a kiss. Beau resisted the urge to wipe off the lipstick immediately.

Next she paused at the feature wall to gaze inquisitively at a painting. 'Everybody has to own a Desmond Morris these days; I can't make my mind up about them.' After taking in the surreal, alien landscape, she turned to Beau, frowning. 'Are they creatures or plants?'

'They are whatever your own mind interprets them to be, Vivienne.'

'Weird - but kind of strangely beautiful - a bit like you, Beau.'

Beau got the impression Vivienne was seeking self-gratification at his expense, attempting to induce an episode of blushing. Although she still evoked a sense of the numinous in him, his intimacy with Sophonisba, coupled with Vivienne's masculine attire, had infused him with a new-found immunity to her teasing.

'Have you any Warhols, Beau?'

'Do I look like I own a stately home and a priceless statue of Kate Moss?'

Vivienne batted her enhanced lashes at him. 'If you play your cards right, Beau…regard, I might buy you one. By the way, have you heard about the Arts Council contemplating bringing forward the cut-off point for private ownership? If it comes into effect, we'll have to give up our Picassos. What do you think about regulating ownership?'

'Well, it's nice to own your own pieces, but I suppose that art ultimately belongs to everyone.'

Vivienne wasn't content with ending the tour at the virtual games room but insisted on seeing the bedroom. Watching his guest take in the romantic scenes decorating the walls with a knowing smile, Beau could feel his face burning in capitulation.

'Quite a love nest, Beau.'

Seemingly content with having reaffirmed her sexual dominance, Vivienne allowed him to lead her back to the living room.

Theo was sitting next to Sophonisba, looking rather amused.

'Well, we'd better get off, Beau.' He rose to his feet. 'I see you've got her well-trained,' he added with a wink.

Once the visitors had departed, Beau said, 'Sopho darling, we need to have a talk.'

***





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