When everyone else looks at “The Mirror of the World Without You,” they see art–art that removes them from reality. When Thomas looks at it, he sees technology…and danger to the artist behind it. He offers Maxine a sweet deal to come and work for his VR company, but she refuses–she’d been used before. But without his protection, who else will try to take possession of her?
“I can’t see myself,” Thomas said, raising his hand to touch the Mirror. The reflected room behind him was pale gray and filled with a line of guests, each craning their necks to see around him. It was a terrible sight, and he smiled in delight even as his eyes filled with tears. His body grieved for the lack of himself, the knowledge of how little he mattered, even as he felt like crowing with joy.
“Sir.” The guard shook his head. “Don’t touch.” He’d been saying it through the whole opening, no doubt, to incredulous guests trying to touch the work of art or science or whatever it was. Keeping people far back enough from the frame so they didn’t spill wine on it when it clicked.
“How?” Thomas asked, knowing that the guard couldn’t answer the question, but unable to stop himself.
“Read the sign, sir,” the guard said.
Thomas laughed under his breath. It wasn’t what he’d wanted to know, but he bent toward the sign anyway; he would have seemed out of place otherwise.
Why can’t you see yourself in “The Mirror of the World without You”?
The sign explained, in language a ten-year-old could understand, that it wasn’t a mirror but a television. Cameras in the television screen itself—which had originally been part of a console gaming system—recorded the images that surrounded the screen and projected them.
The real trick was in the way the cameras removed the viewer’s image from the screen. The cameras didn’t just edit out the image of the viewer—which would have removed all people from the image—but placed a subtle pattern layer over all moving objects. The pattern was cued to align with the orientation of the eyes of each object, if it had any, and simulated the sensory data the eyes sent to the brain from the area directly over the optic nerve, or blind spot.
The brain saw the pattern, interpreted it as the eye’s blind spot, and filled it in with what it calculated to be the correct images. The brain, trained to compensate for its own shortcomings, erased anything coded with what seemed to be the same pattern, rendering it invisible.
It was essentially an optical illusion, if a very sophisticated one. It worked wonderfully. As Thomas finished reading the sign, he peeked at the Mirror out of the corner of his eye, trying to get a glimpse of himself. The cameras tracked his gaze quickly, but he was able to catch a white wisp that faded like a breath on glass. It was creepy.
The woman behind him was having a completely different reaction. She was standing with her hands on her hips and grinning, making faces at herself. “Nobody can see me! I can do whatever I want! Nyaaa!” She stuck her tongue out.
But of course Thomas and the other guests could still see her, both in real life and in the mirror; each person only failed to see themselves.
Thomas lingered near the Mirror for hours, watching people’s reactions. He saw a grown man collapse from the shock of it; he saw a small child start calling her mother’s name and crying, twisting her dress up in her hands as her mother struggled to push the dress back down, covering her stockings and underwear. He saw a young artist’s face light up as he opened the cover of a pad of paper and started sketching; the guard had to gently move him aside after asking him to step out of the way several times. He saw a woman with a recently-shaved head burst into laughter. Everyone’s reaction was different.
He wondered briefly about his own reaction of grief and realized that it had only inspired his resolve; he was determined to leave a legacy. To make the world a little different. A little less unforgiving.
The guard repeated himself, over and over, until he was hoarse: Read the sign. Don’t touch the exhibit. Please step aside, ma’am.
Thomas spotted her almost immediately when she arrived. Of all the people at the gala opening of the Sensation & Perception exhibit, she was the only one near the Mirror wearing blue jeans. She was a pretty black woman of thirty years or so; the kind of artist who had survived in the market for years now, and was more interested in other people’s reactions than in gathering flattery.
Or maybe she didn’t mind a little flattery. She caught Thomas looking at her steadily and with what he hoped was warmth but could look like anything, depending on her mood. She walked over to him, and said, “Let’s get a coffee.”
They passed the line at the cash bar (one of the great benefits to going to openings was hearing what drunk people had to say about art) and stopped at the barista. Thomas bought them two lattes; the girl didn’t look like she knew enough to make a decent espresso. They found a table that didn’t rock too much and sat. The building echoed in a way that it didn’t when it was full of people.
Maxine said, “Who sent you?”
“Nobody. I sent myself.”
“Well?” she asked. “Which is it?”
“I sent myself.” Thomas extended his hand. “Thomas Bertinelli, CEO of VitaRealSoft. I want to hire you.”
“So you can get your hands on that.” She nodded toward the end of the line to see the Mirror, which extended so far into the foyer that it almost mingled with the line for the cash bar.
“I want you,” Thomas said. He waved at the line. “That is only a small part of what you can do.”
“Maybe I like being independent.”
He pushed a card toward her. It was white and didn’t say any more than it had to. “If you need anything. If you’re interested.”
She pushed back her chair, which caught on the rough ceramic tiles and almost tipped over. “I was hoping you’d be interesting.”
“Please,” he said, gesturing toward the card. She picked it up, flipped it over a few times, then stuck it in her back pocket.
After a few moments, he threw away his latte and went back to stand at the periphery of the exhibit. The guard had changed. The woman looked familiar, like Thomas’s Korean calculus teacher from high school, only taller. The familiarity was only another optical illusion, another trick of the brain, but, working with VR as much as he did, he was used to that kind of thing.
The museum closed. Thomas waited until the streets cleared, taxi after taxi lined up to make a buck off people who didn’t want to risk their fancy dress on the subway. After that, it was a ghost town, the only people around being both hungry and best glimpsed out of the corner of an eye in order to avoid them. Thomas waited on a bench with his jacket pulled up. A man walked toward him; Thomas reached inside his coat and waited; the man walked away.
When Maxine left with the museum director an hour later, Thomas didn’t hesitate: he followed the two women.
The director headed toward a private parking garage, but Maxine shook her head and turned toward the subway entrance. She didn’t have any finery to protect and was probably bored with the director’s praise. Thomas followed Maxine, trying not to blink often. She didn’t spot him until they had almost entered a car—she made eye contact with him, then reached inside her purse without hurry but without blinking. A second later, she was gone.
Thomas scanned the area. She didn’t have to show herself, but she probably would; just to keep people from walking into her, which would give her away.
Following a hunch, Thomas got onto a nearby car just as the doors were about to close. There was a vaguely annoying old man getting onto the car in front of him. The man sat near the front, talking to himself. He reminded Thomas of someone, but he couldn’t put a finger on whom. The man sat near the front, and Thomas joined him.
There was a bang against the window as the train pulled out. Thomas saw the face of the man outside the window and laughed; it was a face to which he could definitely attach a name…and a rival software company’s name, as a matter of fact.
“We know illusions exist,” he told the old man. “Even when we can’t see through them. That’s where hunches come from. Our brains can’t admit they’re wrong, but they can give us a hint now and then.”
“Was it the smell?” The old man said. “I was careful not to use perfume.”
“You looked familiar,” Thomas said. “So did the guard. I worked it out. You projected something onto my eyes that changed you just enough that I filled in the rest for myself.”
The old man nodded. “Now what?”
“Work for me. Or hire me. Hire my whole company to work for you. You tell me what you want, I’ll make it happen.”
“I’ll think about it.” The old man turned toward the windows. His reflection was distorted, a smear of white across the window; Maxine had more work to do on the algorithms.
The car slowed, and Thomas stood. “I’ll leave you to your privacy. But I wouldn’t go home if I were you. Most people are short-sighted. They’ll what want you have, not what you are.”
“I hate this,” Maxine said. As the train jerked, he caught a glimpse of her in the window before the old man replaced her again. “I should post the algorithms and be done with it.”
She almost reminded him of someone he used to know—but it was gone, a trick of sensation, as interpreted by perception, his mind desperately looking for someone similar, someone he knew how to deal with or the right set of social rituals they could both take for granted. He bit his tongue, using the pain to chase the impression away. There was no one like her. She was the template, the first, and everyone like her would be an avatar of her, pale copies of a Goddess.
It wasn’t love, it was worship; he knew that.
He stepped out at the last second, grabbing a man who tried to get on the train as he was getting off.
The man didn’t look familiar at all, but Thomas didn’t want to take any more chances than he had to. The man pulled a cell phone out of his leather jacket and dialed it. Thomas followed him; the man said, “Do you mind?” and edged away.
“Dynamic Visions, right?” Thomas named one of his competitors, another VR company. The man twitched and hurried away, going up the stairs.
Thomas got on the next train, checking for messages. As long as she had the card on her, it would contact him if any number of unusual things happened to her, but she might also have called and left a message.
When the phone rang, he didn’t bother to answer it, just told the cab driver to stop circling and let him out at the address. He paid the driver with a hundred. When he reached Maxine’s building, he flew out of the cab, kicked in the lock at the door, and ran upstairs.
13B was locked, with the smoke alarm just starting to shriek as he shouldered through the door. Smoke poured out at him, and he dropped to his knees and started crawling. He might have heard sirens, but the fire alarm was too loud to be sure. The alarm in the hallway joined the one in her apartment.
His eyes stung; his lungs burned. He wasn’t sure whether the pain in his head was from lack of oxygen or the noise. The closer he got to her bedroom, the hotter and smokier it was.
He found her in the bathroom in the tub, with her shirt off and her skin covered with running water and blood. Black flakes—skin—swirled around her, stuck to her bra. Her head was tipped to the side, and her mouth was starting to fill with water. He closed the door to keep the smoke out.
He pulled her out of the tub and wrapped her in towels; by the time he was done, the door handle was too hot to touch. He opened the bathroom window, but it was too small for either of them to fit through, and he closed it again. Hardly up to code.
Thomas shoved the cabinet out from under the sink, scattering rolls of toilet paper, and braced his shoulders against the opposite wall, which was hot enough to make him flinch for a second. He kicked the drywall under the sink until he’d punched through it, took out his knife and kicked it into the two-by-four support until he’d gouged it deep, then worked it out of the wood and did the same near the floor. He kicked the support until it splintered and snapped free, then used it to break through drywall and tile to the kitchenette on the opposite side.
There was just enough room for him to crawl through; he pulled Maxine after him, losing the towels in the wall and scraping off even more of her skin before she woke up, screamed, and worked her own way through.
They went out through the front door. The firemen picked her up and carried her downstairs and past her neighbors and into the ambulance. When they asked who he was he shook his head and said, “Nobody.”
Without the sirens, it would have been quiet. People seemed frozen as they watched the flames and the images therein. Familiar images, images from dreams.
Dynamic Vision copied the blind spot first. They might have reverse engineered it, but Thomas didn’t think so; it was just a little too soon.
After the attacks, badly burned, Maxine disappeared. Her agent knew how to contact her, but that was it.
VitaRealSoft came out with Déjà VR, the first virtual reality system that felt real. It was magical. It was like coming to a place you’d always dreamed of—familiar, yet subtly different from player to player.
“It’s almost like I’ve been here before,” people said. Trade secret.
Thomas Bertinelli married a beautiful blonde named Mary. She didn’t love him; he knew that. One interviewer asked, “Where do you get your ideas?”
He said, “My wife.”
The reporter looked at her and saw a piece of white trash with big boobs who looked like his ex, shrugged, and wrote something down about his muse. He didn’t see what Thomas saw, which was a Goddess.