< Previous Chapter
> Next Chapter
When Robert returned, we dined in a cybernetic reconstruction of a cosy trattoria we had discovered in the mountains of Italy. There were no other customers and no staff. We dined alone. Just me and my creator.
The food appeared as and when Robert decided. And our plates and cutlery disappeared as soon as were finished with them.
Our conversation was perfunctory. Neither of us spoke much more than good manners dictated.
Robert, although prone to launch into dreary monologues about his work, was never a great conversationalist. And my solitary existence in Avalon was scarcely the stuff of which anecdotes are made.
Of course, the subject of someone breaking into Robert’s private world and raping his bride would have made for lively conversation but it would have been the end of everything. As drab as my existence was, I was not keen to relinquish it. Not until I’d had my revenge on Ethan – whoever he was.
After our main course – veal scaloppini with arugula salad – Robert recharged my glass with rosé then studied my face. His own bore a rare look of concern. ‘What’s the matter, Rhiannon? You seem to have something on your mind.’
For a heart-sinking moment, I was convinced he knew what had happened. Then I realised if that were the case we would not be dining together.
‘It’s this wedding outfit,’ I told him. ‘Must I wear it all the time?’
‘You look so beautiful in it.’
‘Remember all the clothes I used to have, Robert? I looked beautiful in those as well. There was that frock from Italy you liked. Couldn’t I wear that for a while?’
He looked puzzled. ‘What does it matter what you wear? I’m the only person who ever sees you and I like you in the outfit you’re wearing now.’
‘But you can’t expect me to wear it day in, day out. To be honest, I’m rather bored with it.’
‘Don’t you want to please me, Rhiannon?’
‘You know I do. But I have needs too.’
‘And I take care of them.’ He was being deliberately obtuse. ‘All I ask in return are little things like you wearing the clothes you wore when I married you.’
‘These are the clothes I was wearing when my life effectively ended.’
‘Enough!’ Robert’s hand slammed the table. ‘I don’t want hear about you dying. You’re not to mention the subject again. Do you understand me?’
Meekly, I nodded. The conversation was over.
We had panna cotta for desert followed by coffee and brandy. And then it was up to the bedroom where Robert permitted me to temporarily exchange my wedding outfit for a baby doll night dress.
Robert didn’t tell me about the studio. I suppose he wanted it to be a surprise.
I was wandering around the house: the dust-free house that never needing sweeping, washing or disinfecting. That was impervious to rot – wet or dry – to the elements, to the ravishes of time. A germ-free, zero maintenance house.
A house that would not allow me the diversion of housework.
Just past the nursery, I discovered a door that hadn’t been there before. I opened it and found myself looking at the sort of studio I should think many an artist would kill for. The exterior wall had been replaced with a picture window. It gave a panoramic view of what lay at the back of the house.
Canvasses ranging in size from not much bigger than a post card to big enough to cover a double bed were stacked against one wall. There were three benches, each laid out with paints (oil, water colour, acrylic), brushes, turps, palettes, knives, empty jars, rags. By the window, six easels in increasing order of size were neatly lined up.
It was absurd. Laughably so. I hadn’t done anything the least bit artistic since leaving school. What made Robert think I had the inclination or talent to spend my time putting paint to canvas?
As usual, he thought he knew me better than I knew myself.
Very well, Robert. If you want your bride to be an artist, then an artist I will be.
I selected the largest canvas and pulled it away from the wall. It slid onto the floor. I pushed and kicked it into the centre of the room. From a bench, I grabbed a tube of magenta oil paint and unscrewed the top. I pointed the tube and squeezed. Paint splashed onto the canvas like ejaculate onto a bed sheet.
A couple more squeezes and I had three rough lines of magenta.
Back to the bench. This time I selected Prussian blue. Squeeze and squirt. 6 times over.
There followed titanium white, cadmium yellow, napthol red, brilliant pink, Chinese vermilion, manganese violet, King’s blue light, cobalt turquoise, burnt sienna, Venetian red, lamp black, rose doré, French ultramarine, Winsor green, terra rosa, charcoal grey, cremnitz white and renaissance gold.
The canvas and much of the floor became a riot of colours. Perhaps an approximate representation of the chaotic fractals at the edge of my virtuality.
I felt good. Creating disorder in an orderly world was therapy. Laughing happily, I threw myself onto the canvas, wriggled about. Pressed my cheek into the paint. Swam through it. Rolled across it.
I became giddy as I turned onto my back. Spread my arms and legs and stared up at the ceiling.
This was not what Robert had intended. I hoped he was watching. Sitting there at his private terminal seething and fuming and rehearsing the speech he’d give me when he visited me next.
I sat up. My hands were covered in paint. I could feel it drying on my face. But my white wedding suit remained white.
As I stepped off the canvas, the paint on the floor vanished. My hands and face were suddenly clean. There was no paint where no paint should be.
And I felt robbed.
Robert prowled around the oil painting, glass of white wine in hand. The canvas lay where I’d left it, on the floor. The paint had dried in a matter of hours. In the real world, it would have stayed wet for many days.
I stood off to one side. Nervous. Waiting for him to tell me how ugly my baby was. How deformed and pointless.
‘I’ve seen worse.' He nodded his head approvingly. ‘For someone who claims to have zero artistic ability, you’ve done quite well.’
I felt blessed; like the sun had burst through a break in the clouds. ‘Really?’
‘It’s a pity I can’t take it with me. I’d like to hang this somewhere in Sybernika House. It’s better than most of the crap we’ve got there.’
I was in the library reading Frankenstein when Ethan next broke into Avalon.
I found myself in the middle of an indoor arena. It was oval and just large enough to fit snugly inside a tennis court. A high wall separated me from a gallery running around the edge.
A dozen men sat in the gallery. They wore white robes and Viennese masks and were as transparent as Ethan had been when I’d first seen him. Ghosts from another world.
I was naked. My ankle was manacled to a chain attached to the concrete floor.
Ethan entered the arena via a tunnel. He was dressed in a leather outfit that would have looked out of place anywhere except a gay bar. I turned my back on him and he laughed. The audience responded with a smattering of applause.
‘You look as lovely from behind as you do from the front, Rhiannon. You have the most wonderfully rotund buttocks. So firm. So inviting. And such a lovely rectum too.’
There was a sharp crack and pain ripped across the small of my back. I turned just as Ethan drew back his whip to strike again. This time he got me across the stomach and it hurt a whole lot more. Instinctively, I dropped to my knees.
The audience clapped and cheered. Some of them masturbated.
I crossed my arms over my wounded belly.
Ethan circled me. When he was behind me, the whip went crack again and it felt as if a line of fire had erupted along my lower back.
‘You know what I love to see, Rhiannon. I love to see a woman’s face when she’s in pain. I love to see tears on her cheeks. And I love the sight of smudged mascara. As do all my friends in the gallery!’ The ghostly voyeurs applauded and yelled their agreement. ‘I’m sure you’re too ignorant to appreciate the conceit, but I refer to these gentlemen as your Bachelors. They’ve paid top dollar to see you suffer and I intend to make sure they get their money’s worth. I am going to whip you and beat you and punch you and kick you. And then, on behalf of the Bachelors, I am going to violate at least two of your orifices.
‘By the time I’ve finished with you, you’re going to wish you were dead. And therein lies a beautiful irony. Because you are dead, Rhiannon. You don’t actually exist which means I can do anything to you and I won’t be breaking a single law.’
I looked up to find Ethan standing in front of me. With a sneer, he kicked me full in the face, causing my nose to break.
Fired by Robert’s praise, I decided to be a proper artist.
Nothing too grand: start small and work my way up.
There were books in the library that could have taught me how to paint, but I thought it would be more interesting to teach myself. So I took a canvas, about the size of a sheet of A4. I placed it on the small easel by the window and looked down at the garden with its formal lawn and statues of centaurs, unicorns and gryphons. It was the perfect subject for my first attempt at non-abstract art.
I grabbed a palette, tubes of oil paint and a clutch of brushes. Then I began.
It was easier than I’d expected. I seemed to have an instinctive knack for mixing colours, for knowing which brush to use, what brush strokes were needed. I got the perspective spot on.
Everything in my head flowed through my brush onto the canvas just as I pictured it.
After an hour, I was done. And I was proud of my work, stunned at how good it was. So I took another canvas, a bigger one this time, and began again. Two hours later, I had a second picture of the garden. Apart from its size, it was identical to the first.
Another canvas. Twice as big as the second one. Another painting of the back garden, the same as the first two.
Robert, my husband, my love, my creator, had lovingly installed a painting module in my control program. What I’d taken for talent was merely me following a predetermined set of actions. I was no Leonardo, no Frida Kahlo.
I was painting by numbers.
I applied logic to my situation. If there was a way in to Avalon, there had to be a way out. In fact, given that Ethan was jacking in to my virtuality through a back door, there had to be two ways.
Clearly the spectators in the arena – my Bachelors as Ethan called them – had plugged their minds into Avalon through normal VR suits. The sort you could buy in the shops. That was why their presence was so weak.
Robert had told me about the VR suits which had come onto the market long after I’d died. He sneered at their puny capabilities. ‘Next to what I’ve developed,’ he said, ‘they’re just toys.’
So I could forget the Bachelors. The means by which they’d entered Avalon would be no use to me.
But if I found out how Ethan did it, I could use his hacks to circumvent the Master Control Program’s security features and gain some measure of control over it. Probably not much, but maybe enough to turn the tables on my tormentor.
Before I died, I loved Robert. Truly. Perhaps not whole-heartedly or unconditionally. I don’t think I’d have loved him if he was a pauper or a moron. But he was neither of those things.
He made my life easy. And so I loved him and cared about him and wanted to make him happy.
But then I died and was resurrected and the love I feel for Robert is a cold love. It is the love of an addict for the needle or the bottle or the cigarette. I don’t care one jot for his well-being. I have no interest in his wants, needs or plans for the future. I need him the way a diabetic needs insulin.
Robert programmed me to love him unconditionally. And I hate him for it.
He said: 'I have a proposition for you.' It was after a board meeting where I had presented my thoughts on virtual reality to a roomful of stuffed shirts who were up on the Dow Jones Index but knew nothing of cybernetics.
Robert told them my ideas would add a few million to their bank accounts. They went away happy and no wiser than before.
The boardroom looked out over the Thames Estuary. Robert stood at the window like an Olympian God. ‘My marriage is failing. I need the company of someone who can understand me. Someone who understands what I do and why I’m doing it.’
Four days later, I was installed in a flat in North London. And I loved him.
Lovedlovedlovedlovedlovedhim. Or at least I thought I did.
Sometimes I see love as a defence mechanism. As a shield against the slings and arrows of despair. But if I’m honest, I have to say I don’t understand love at all.
< Previous Chapter
> Next Chapter