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Finita La Commedia
Dinner is drawing to a close, but still the water in Thyme’s glass trembles when she picks it up. She is seated in a room that she supposes is an accurate replica of one from the 1870’s, though it could be more characteristic of one a hundred years in either direction and wooldn’t know the difference. It isn’t as if she is paying much attention to her surroundings anyways.
Rather, her attention is entirely captured by the masked man in front of her, who sits motionlessly in his Victorian formalwear, elegant in the candlelight, waiting for her to finish drinking before speaking. And when he does speak, it’s to say, “My dear, I’m afraid we only have five more minutes together. Christine is singing tonight and I wouldn’t dream of missing her performance. Is there anything else you wish to ask me?”
The mere sound of his voice is enough to send her heart pounding rapid-fire against her chest. Goodness, they did a fantastic job with him. Leroux himself couldn’t have done it better. But they really do only have five minutes left, and she has to make the most out of every second of the best birthday present her parents could have given her.
Could she ask him to take off the mask? She desperately wants to, but she remembers what happened in the book when Christine did it, and even though this is just a virtual incarnation, it’s a very good one, and she is just afraid enough to not dare try.
“Of all the places you’ve lived, which is your favorite?” she asks, tremulously. She know she’ll kick herself later for not being able to think of anything better, but right now all that matters is that she gets to hear his voice again. And, goodness, is it ever worth it. She clutches at the tablecloth while he discusses something as mundane as the differences in climate, and it takes all of her strength not to cry while he concludes that he doesn’t care where he is as long as Christine is near him, because she knows the end of his story and he doesn’t.
He makes a show of looking at the pocket watch attached to his waistcoat—she knows that he could look at it without her noticing if he really wanted to, because he already proved his skills at legerdemain earlier that evening when he playfully swiped one of her earrings—and tells her that their time together has come to a close. The news comes as a shock, even though she knows that it shouldn’t, and she can do nothing to stop the impassioned protests that spill out. “Oh, please!” she gasps as he smoothly stands up, dark and elegant and broad-shouldered. “I’m not ready for you to go!”
“My dear,” he soothes, reaching out, but it only alarms her further.
“Please!” she cries, and without realizing what she is doing, she lunges across the table and catches the edge of his sleeve.
He whirls away at once, and his voice is terrifyingly, beautifully, hauntingly furious as he shouts, “How dare you!”
“Sing for me!” she pleads breathlessly. She has knocked over her water and fallen into her dessert, but she can barely feel it through her dress and her corset and her panic. “Erik, please! I’ll die if you don’t!”
She has made a terrible mistake. She knows it in the way that his long, gloved fingers curl into fists and in the way that he steps towards her, slowly and deliberately. But she can’t do anything except sob with frustration when waiters flood into the room, pulling her back and ushering Erik out the door. He howls with rage and flings a candelabrum to the floor with one powerful motion, and then he has disappeared, leaving her with a running nose and a mess of ruined cake.
The waiters are cleaning her up and murmuring to her in their beautiful French accents, presumably in hopes that she won’t count this as failure and leave scathing reviews that would scare off visitors and hurt their standards of living. But they have nothing to worry about, because soon enough there is laughter mingled with her tears and she is exclaiming, “I met him! I met Erik! I met the Opera ghost!”
Thyme has just gotten out of her seat, intending to make her way out of the lecture hall and to the maglev without having to speak with anyone, but she now finds herself eye level with a remarkable set of shoulders, which in turn have a remarkable head above them. It is a classmate that she hasn’t paid attention to before, but now that she has, she realizes that he is really very attractive. Real people are always more of a pain to talk to than virtual incarnations, but she thinks she probably wouldn’t mind giving it a shot with him. “Hi.”
He takes a deep breath, smiles, and quite unexpectedly asks if he can walk her to the maglev. It takes her a moment to figure out what is happening, and another moment to accept with a smile that is clumsy and almost too late. It really is nerve-wracking to talk to people she knows nothing about. When she meets virtual incarnations, she already knows enough about them to feel like close friends, and when she meets fellow visitors, they have something in common to talk about at once. She can’t remember the last time she has had to consciously make friends, and her palms are already getting damp. With a great, trembling inhale, she prepares to tell him her name—or maybe to ask his name—or to crack a joke—but he already has introductions covered.
As it turns out, his name is John, and he is just as old-fashioned and quirky as his name. She finds herself laughing harder than she has in a long time and grinning up at him wonderingly. He does most of the talking, but that’s alright because Thyme is still just getting her feet under her, and once she does, she’ll be the one being charming and witty.
But for now they are at the doors to the maglev, and he is dipping into a ridiculous sweeping bow and asking her to accompany him on a trip to a Picasso exhibit, and she can do nothing but nod and giggle like he is a virtual incarnation and blush violently when he kisses the back of her hand.
Their date starts inauspiciously. Thyme doesn’t realize until five minutes before she is supposed to leave that the exhibit isn’t conveniently located in the Grounds, as all places worth going are. Instead, her wallscreen informs her that she will need to take the maglev to the edge of the Grounds and then a low-speed car from there. The trip will take seventeen minutes instead of the usual five, and she will probably have to talk to people on the way. For a long minute, she considers bailing. But then she looks at the back of her hand where he kissed her, and it’s all so romantic and fictional that she sighs, steels herself, and heads out the door.
It is just as awful as she has expected. The car is broken and dirty, and the air is gritty and bitter, and there are people on the sidewalks with matted hair and holey clothing, and the whole thing is so embarrassing that she can hardly believe she is there. This had better be a fantastic virtual incarnation of Picasso.
When she arrives at the exhibit, she almost doesn’t recognize John. He is dressed down and holding a bundle of what appears to be blood red fabric. When he sees her, he smiles shyly, extends the bundle, and announces, “I got you roses.”
“Oh!” She takes the flowers with genuine surprise, because she has only seen virtual incarnations of them before. “They’re—” She stops short, intending to praise them, but looking closer and realizing that they are not quite as praiseworthy as woold have hoped. In fact, they are wilted and dingy and rough against her fingertips, and she almost would have preferred the virtual ones. “Well,” she concludes lamely, unsure of whether she is more embarrassed for him for bringing them or for herself for having to lug them around for the rest of their date.
“I picked them myself,” he supplies, and the idea is so absurd that she abruptly wonders whether this isn’t all some sort of game. “Really,” he continues at her unspoken skepticism. “You see, I leave the grounds every day after lectures and help out wherever I can. This morning I was helping out at Anton and Tatiana’s house, and they told me to pick whatever I wanted. See, Anton lost his job yesterday and Tatiana has to stay at home with their son, Baikonur, who has this awful condition that the doctors can’t seem to diagnose, so they don’t have enough money to hire someone to repair their roof. I met them at church a few weeks ago and I’ve been helping them out however I can. They’re such a great family, really—”
John breaks off abruptly, seeing that Thyme’s interest is waning rapidly. “Well. Yes. The roses are from their garden.”
She can’t help but feel bad that she hasn’t been listening to him, so she tries to make up for it by saying, “That’s cool. So, what’s a garden?”
But her question only seems to make it worse. Deflating, he half-heartedly explains, “Well, some people— or, most people, really—can’t afford the uncontaminated food, so, you see, they have to grow—their—own.” He folds his arms uncomfortably. “Let’s go inside.”
The quality of the date only continues to deteriorate as they enter the exhibit and she discovers that an eloquent virtual incarnation is nowhere to be seen, and rather a whole lot of ruined swatches of cloth are evenly placed along the walls. Unsure of how to break it to him that his Picasso exhibit isn’t there, she asks, “So, what happens now?”
But a grin is lighting up his face as he approaches one of the ruined swatches. “Wow,” he breathes. “Look at this. A real Picasso!”
It is then that she realizes her mistake. There is no virtual Picasso incarnation. There is only a room full of meaningless, crumbling paintings. She stares at the one that he is currently admiring, trying to understand what he is looking at, but the boredom that settles around her makes her feel like she is drowning.
After ten paintings, she can’t take it anymore. Standing on her tiptoes to whisper in his ear, she admits, “I thought this was going to be a virtual Picasso incarnation.”
He laughs, softly but with an edge, and it echoes through the nearly empty room. “Or, rather, a reincarnation, I suppose.” He shakes his head. “No. They haven’t managed to figure out how to do that yet, thank goodness.”
Her mouth ducks into a brief frown. “Thank goodness?” And then, flinching back, she realizes, “You’re anti-life.”
He is frowning now too. “I prefer pro-choice.”
“Who would ever choose death?”
“I know I would, given the alternative.”
She thinks of her beloved Erik and fists her hands in anger. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean,” he says seriously, as if they are not on a date but in a courtroom, “it’s dehumanizing to lock these people in cages for everyone to stare at them.”
Passersby are starting to glance over at their heated conversation, and she flushes at the attention, especially when it probably sounds like she is losing. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He arches a brow and challenges, “Oh, really?”
“Have you ever even taken the time to meet one of them?”
His lovely eyes narrow. “Yes,” he says steadily, suddenly sounding much older than a first-year university student. “Yes, I have. In fact, I happen to have been one of the first people to meet a virtual incarnation, because my father happens to be one of the creators of virtual incarnation, and you may have heard that he is just as much pro-choice as I am.”
She can feel the color drain from her face. “You’re—?”
“That’s right.” His jaw is set and he looks grim. “The popularity of my father’s work has allowed me to pay for university, but that’s just about the only good thing it has brought to the world.”
But she barely hears this last sentence. Instead, as if moving of their own accords, her hands clutch at his sleeve feverishly. “Does this mean,” she asks, feeling faint, “that you could get me a dinner with Severus Snape?”
Thyme asks John again the next time they have class together, and the next time, and the next, but he is stubborn and refuses to discuss it. “I want to get to know you better,” he finally grinds out in frustration, “but if you ask me again, I don’t know if I’ll want to anymore.”
She decides not to try again, because she decides not to try talking to him again at all, because in the long-run not being able to mention virtual incarnation would be as ludicrous as not being able to mention food.
“Have you heard?”
Thyme is visiting her friend, Chantilly, in an animated virtual world, and Chantilly’s animated eyes are so wide that they are nearing the size of the fruits at their table. Intrigued, Thyme leans in, because this seems like the kind of gossip that merits whispering. “What?”
“Well.” Thyme was right, and Chantilly leans in at once, going so far as to fold her hands near her mouth so that her lips won’t be read—though it is debatable how possible it would be to read her animated lips in the first place. “They were supposed to release a new virtual world a few weeks ago, but they just announced that they’re cancelling it.”
“Huh,” Thyme says dully, hoping there is more to the story than this.
And Chantilly doesn’t disappoint. “That’s not all. You see, people have been saying that it was because the main character refused to play along and kept killing himself after the first few trial visits. They kept adjusting him and incarnating him again, but they couldn’t get his personality right and keep him alive at the same time, so they just gave up.”
“Huh,” Thyme says again, but this time her voice trembles, because she is thinking of John. Unsettled, she tosses her luxurious, animated hair and scoffs, “That’s so obviously just a rumor. Who would ever choose death?”
“I know I would, given the alternative.”
Chantilly frowns briefly and looks like she is about to say something, but a cohort of attractive, androgynous, animated young men has arrived at their table, and animated rose petals are suddenly spiraling through the air, and Chantilly is giggling with delight as one of them begins chatting with her and playing with her hair. A rose petal settles into Thyme’s loosely clasped hands, and she thinks of Erik, and of John, and of the boy who would rather die than sit through a dinner with her.
Thyme gets back her most recent math test and just about throws up. Wow. She really should have studied more for this instead of going to that virtual incarnation’s concert. And the worst part is that she actually needs to pass this class if she wants to get that cushy job with the government.
She looks up and finds John wincing at her from a couple seats over. Flushing violently, she covers her paper with her hands and glares at him. “I guess Mr. High And Mighty isn’t above peeking at private information,” she snaps, because she can’t stop thinking about what he said to her about virtual incarnation and she hates him for it.
“I’m sorry,” he apologizes, so sincerely that it makes her even more upset. “I couldn’t help but notice. You usually get the best grades in this class.”
She delights in his compliment for a moment, and then remembers that she is supposed to be mad at him and scowls. “Thanks,” she says, infusing the word with as much sarcasm as she can muster.
His eyebrows fly upwards. “I mean it. You’re so good at this stuff. You could easily be in a much more difficult class. I think it’s a shame that you don’t push yourself more.”
“I’m really not interested in pushing myself,” she declares, with her chin raised and her back straight. “I’m only going to university at all so I can get a government job and not have to work hard anymore.”
“That’s such a shame.” The worst part is that he sounds genuinely distressed, and his eyes are concerned and lovely. “You’re going to miss out on so much in life if you don’t want to work hard.”
“Plenty of fun stuff comes without hard work.”
“Like hanging out with virtual incarnations.”
He furrows his brows, bites his lower lip, and says nothing.
“Look, I don’t even know why I’m talking to you,” she snaps, shoving the test in her bag and standing up. He stands up as well at once, placing a hand on her desk and blocking her way out.
“Look,” he sighs, and her breath catches in her throat at how close he is. “At least promise me that you’ll consider what I said. And, please, be careful. I know you don’t want anything to do with me, but I think about you and pray about you and worry about you a lot. I don’t want you to look up in ten years and be somewhere you don’t want to be.”
This is too enigmatic for her to bother trying to figure out, and his proximity is making her lightheaded besides. “I have to go,” she says firmly, and, after hesitating, he draws back. She purposefully makes her way around him and adds over her shoulder, just to spite him, “I have a date with Pechorin in an hour.”
Dinner is just about to start when the letter arrives.
Pechorin excuses himself in his tremendous, wonderful Russian accent, reads the letter, and smiles.
“What is it?” Thyme asks, her voice trembling with the thrill of the experience.
“Nothing,” he answers, but stands up.
“Do you need to go somewhere?”
“No,” he says, but there is a glint in his eyes that makes her nervous. She sees that he moving towards his shirt, and in one crazy flash wonders excitedly if he is going to start taking off his clothes, but then he reaches inside his jacket and pulls out a pistol and trains it calmly on her face.
Her fork falls to her plate with a terrible clatter. “What are you doing?”
“We all have decided that this is quite enough,” he tells her, in his same deep, rolling voice. “This circus is disgusting, and they need to be told very clearly that we are not their toys.”
Her heart is racing and her thoughts are a chaotic mess and her body won’t move. “You wouldn’t,” she whispers, but she thinks of the duel and Grushnitsky and realizes that having killed a man is part of his character, and suddenly she isn’t so sure.
“Finita la commedia.”
Thousands Murdered by Virtual Incarnations, Riots Worldwide
NEW YORK (AP) – Officials have confirmed that virtual incarnations have killed thousands of visitors in what appears to be a coordinated attack, sparking riots in every major city.
The 3,279 murders took place at 12:00 PM GMT in 57 countries and 952 virtual worlds. All servers hosting virtual incarnations have been shut down indefinitely. The number of injuries and deaths due to the riots has not been confirmed, but is expected to reach into the hundreds.
“This is a very sad day for every engineer, every technician, every businessman who has worked on this project,” said Adam Corazón, one of the two major creators of virtual incarnation and prominent pro-choice spokesman. “The depth of my regret for my contributions to this technology can never be properly expressed, but I still offer my greatest apologies and condolences to all the lives affected by these terrible events.”
Chutzpah Bluebell, the second creator of virtual incarnation, declined to comment.
The cause of the death is a contentious subject in the medical community. “This should not have happened,” said Christmas Hana, renowned neurologist. “None of the victims displayed any physical injury. The conclusion that we must draw is that this was an extremely heightened version of the placebo effect. The simulation was so realistic that their bodies and minds genuinely believed that they had died, and so they did.” On the other hand, cardiologist Hussein Montoya suggests that further investigation would prove the deaths to be heart attacks caused by “the intense stress of the simulated death.”
The legal ramifications of the deaths for both the virtual incarnations and the companies responsible for them are also unknown. This is the first time a murder has been committed by an entity that is not clearly human or inhuman.
“I’ve been waiting for this to happen,” said Corazón. “The increasing perfection of this technology has been a double-edged sword. The more accurate your incarnations, the more human and so the more dangerous they become.”