The woman pushed the door of the restaurant open and glided inside. She was tall and elegant, and so confident that -- even in a black-tie place such as this -- everyone turned to stare at her. The skin-tight, shimmering wine red dress she wore helped. The colour of it matched her hair and lips perfectly, creating an image of perfection.
The maître d' fobbed off the customers he was talking to, dropping them with a waiter, and came straight over to the lady.
“Good evening, ma’am,” he said with his most shark-like grin. “Do you have a reservation? Table for…?”
“A table for two,” the woman replied, loud enough that everyone around her could hear. A few of them dropped their eyes and turned back to the people sitting with them, while others kept watching, hoping that something would change. “Under the name of Smith.”
“Ah, yes. Your date has already arrived. If you would care to follow me, ma’am.”
The lady – whose name wasn’t Smith – nodded and followed. The maître d' took the scenic route, leading her up through the raised seating area before taking her round to the back of the restaurant. Of course everyone in the place was well-dressed, but the maître d' wanted to take the opportunity to remind his customers that they could all do better.
All apart from the woman in the red dress.
At last he brought her round the corner to her table, though she didn’t mind the diversion. She had spent the trip drinking in all the stares, basking in the hatred and envy sent her way. It left a warm glow in her cheeks, and when she was seated across from her date she looked even more divine.
Not that he looked bad. Quite the opposite in fact. A neatly trimmed beard, perfectly styled bed-hair and a suit that followed every line of his body. Under all the layers of the three-piece outfit, it was hard to tell how much muscle he had, but there was certainly not a roll of fat.
Mr Smith smiled as his date sat down. “Well? How do you like the venue?”
The lady smiled at him, careful not to show any teeth. “It’s perfect,” she said.
“And everything else?” he asked with a flourish of his hands.
“Also perfect.” Keeping her eyes fixed on his, she picked up the menu. “Is there anything you’d recommend?”
“I believe they do a very good lobster. Of course, that’s a recommendation from other people, not myself.”
“You’re staying vegetarian tonight?”
The woman raised an eyebrow as she finally looked at her menu. “You know it doesn’t count right?”
Mr Smith shrugged, a casual movement that was still effortlessly graceful. “I know. Force of habit I suppose.”
“You find that habit harder to drop than other ones?” The woman smirked as she looked back up at him, pointedly running her eyes down his body.
“Funny isn’t it? But I do.”
“I’m not sure what that says about you.”
“I’m going to read it as proof of my undying love for all animals.”
With a laugh like rain she puts her menu down. “Okay, we’ll take it like that. So what are you having?”
“They have a very nice looking roasted vegetable dish. That will do for me. Would you like the lobster, Anya?”
“Very well. I’ll try that.”
Mr Smith clicked his fingers, and a waiter was at his side in seconds. With the order placed, Anya leant her elbows on the table and picked up her glass. As she spoke she swirled the wine inside it around, though she didn’t drink.
“So?” she asked. “What’s it been like? Getting all the attention.”
“It’s fine. I’m not sure that I’ve noticed it that much more than usual–”
“Huh. That’s easy for you to say.”
“–but I still don’t think I care for it. If I’m walking about, its usually because I’m busy. Trying to get somewhere, do something, see someone. Having lots of people watch me is off-putting.”
“Oh come on. You were watching as I walked up. Didn’t you see the waves of attention I got? Doesn’t that do anything for you?”
Mr Smith took a deep gulp of wine, and Anya was mesmerised by the way his throat rippled. “Honestly?” he said afterwards, jerking her out of her staring. “Not really. None of the looks were friendly. And besides, when you turned up I was looking at you.”
“Well, I wore this for you, so the least you can do is indulge my desires as well.”
“And I have. I am as pretty as can be, but there was nothing in the deal about enjoying each others suggestions. It’s not my fault that you enjoy looking like that.”
“And do you enjoy looking at this as much as I enjoy looking like this?” Anya asked. She leant back on her chair and dropped her shoulders, opening the gap at her cleavage a little wider. “Is this helping?”
“Ah…” The face Mr Smith pulled told Anya all she needed to know.
“Seriously? Well, if this doesn’t work, nothing will.”
“Yeah. I guess not.” Mr Smith leant back and got lost in his thoughts.
Anya rolled her eyes, making sure no one else saw, then took her first sip of wine. “Okay, ‘Mr Smith’,” she said. “Let’s just get through the rest of the evening. Maybe you need some time to get used to this first.”
Giving her his biggest smile he leant forward again. “Yeah, all right. I mean, we went through all the effort of getting here after all.”
And so the meal passed in pleasant small talk. Neither of them touched on their appearances again, or how the restaurant was. Least of all, none of them spoke again about all the people staring at them.
“I had a wonderful evening, Mr Smith.” Out on the street Anya raised the back of her hand and let Mr Smith kiss it.
“As did I, Anya. Thank you for your company once again.”
“Any time. And next time… well, that’s a nice outfit, no matter where we are.”
Mr Smith chuckled and tugged at his lapels. “A little over-dressed for most of our dates, isn’t it?”
“I wasn’t talking about the clothes,” Anya said with a wink. She spun on her heel and walked away. Eight steps down she waved a hand over her shoulder, but Mr Smith had already turned and walked the other way.
After another eight steps Anya disappeared, and soon afterwards so did Mr Smith.
Hundreds of miles away, Anya tapped in the recall command on her computer. Her avatar would find its way home now, leaving her free to disconnect. She unplugged the artificial reality unit and stretched.
Flesh-and-bone Anya still had red hair, but the similarities with her avatar for the night ended there. Anya was dumpy and short, and had never had anyone look at her with such envy, love and fear as they had that evening.
Anya picked a stylus up and swirled it in her fingers. Fear; now that was something she hadn’t expected. It had been nice though. The whole evening had been good. Another fantasy off her list. Make every head turn and stare when I walk in the room. In the end it had been easier than she’d hoped.
Her ‘prop’ was a big factor in that, of course.
“Hmm,” Anya hummed to herself. “Mr Smith.” She leant back and grinned, safely storing that memory for another time.
No, it had been a very good evening.
Less than a hundred miles from the restaurant in the other direction, ‘Mr Smith’ entered the same code and unplugged his unit.
Except out here it was Miss Smith.
Bella Smith rolled her shoulders and stood up. Her hands subconsciously danced over her own body, checking that all the usual curves were back where they should be. Not that she minded being male inside the artificial reality. It was fun, and in a weird way slightly freeing, but it always took her brain a few minutes to catch up again afterwards. At least she didn’t need the bathroom this time.
Real life Bella shared some of the same features with Mr Smith. The strong cheekbones were still there, as was the hair colour and complexion. The attractiveness of Bella’s face was hidden under grime at the moment however. Too long spent trying to work out her problems had left her reeking and greasy.
Bella leant back and rolled a stylus across the desk. Every time she closed her eyes she saw the deep red of Anya’s dress. The damn thing wouldn’t leave her alone. And as for Anya, in that form, all curves and promise?
“Nothing.” Bella sighed and flicked the stylus across the desk. “All that shape, all that cleavage, for what? Not a single spark of interest in her?” Bella dropped her head back against the chair she was sat in.
Anya had worn the ‘perfect’ female form tonight, yet Bella still hadn’t cared. No matter how much she stared, she’d never wanted anything more.
Bella looked at the picture on her desk. It was an old one, a self-portrait taken of her and another woman. In the lopsided, slightly blurry image, the sight of that woman’s face made Bella’s heart leap and her stomach flip. One terrible photo could do more for her than a high-definition simulation of Anya.
Bella leant back against her chair and sighed. “Damn it.”
It hadn’t been a bad evening, but it had still done nothing to chase away her ghosts.