Apologies – this is a long one but I hope you like it.
* * *
When Miira finally opened the door and stepped out into the huge drawing room where the staffers were waiting, she was wearing a calf-length camel coat over a tailored white pant suit. The cropped jacket had a Neru collar and came to two points just below her trim waist. The pants hugged her hips before falling in crisp white lines to just an inch from the floor. They would have dragged along the carpet had she not been wearing soft, leather boots with three inch heels.
She had done her hair in a french knot and carried a pair of suede gloves in one hand. The other hand was buried in the pocket of her coat. She looked understated and utterly elegant. Emmi would have approved.
The three men and two women lounging on the deep sofas all rose at her entrance and began to clap in delight.
Miira raised her chin and smiled at each one in turn. Emily, and a woman who must be Jane, stood next to a tall, slim young man with a neat goatee and dark hair shot through with silver. Charles McGrath? On the other side of the huge coffee table stood a handsome, athletic young man with a deep tan and sun-bleached blond hair. It was not until he gave her a shy smile that Miira recognized the young sound technician who had worked with her to make her digital voice sound just right. Next to him stood Kenneth Wu, dressed all in charcoal grey, like an undertaker at a wedding.
In real life Kenneth Wu was a whisker under six feet, making him the same height as Charles McGrath, but his slim build had always made him look taller. The avatar he had chosen matched his real-life dimensions perfectly but now he looked half a head shorter than either of the other two men. And of the five Innerscape staff, he was the only one who had not enhanced his appearance in any way.
“Ms Tahn,” Charles purred, as he strode up to Miira and brought her hand to his lips. “Allow me to welcome you to Innerscape. You look simply exquisite!”
“Thank you Charles,” Miira replied as she extricated her hand from his and turned to the rest of the staffers. “And allow me to thank all of you for the amazing job you have done.”
“We’re just glad you’re happy,” a voluptuous Jane said shyly as she came over and gave Miira an awkward hug.
“That’s enough, you guys!” Emily said as she tucked Miira’s hand into her arm. “It’s time to go. We can talk on the way.”
And with that Emily bustled them all towards the outer door of the suite, every inch of her slim, blue-clad frame radiating the authority of a charge sister used to bossing both patients and doctors around, for their own good.
As Miira allowed herself to be shepherded towards the metallic grill of the old fashioned elevator she glanced over her shoulder and gave Kenneth Wu an apologetic look. He smiled and gave his head a tiny shake.
For the next two hours Miira was so overwhelmed by the enormity of the Paris in which she found herself that she literally did not have a chance to talk to Kenneth Wu. Everywhere she looked her eye was snagged by tiny details that made her want to clap her hands like a child with a new toy.
The city was every bit as beautiful as she remembered it being, but it was the small earthy touches that gave her the most pleasure. Little things, like the odd wilted flower in a window box or the sudden appearance of a crumpled piece of paper skipping across the pavement as it was bowled over and over by the wind. Even the slightly rank smell of unemptied rubbish bins delighted her, and if Emily had not pulled her along at such a brisk pace she would have stopped at every street corner to admire a pile of fallen leaves or the hint of rust at the base of the antique, cast iron street lamps.
When the group arrived at the small, exclusive restaurant where they would have breakfast, Miira was amazed to discover that she really was quite hungry. It was not a gnawing hunger, but she most definitely wanted to eat something and that in itself was a delight. The tea she had drunk in her bedroom had been so familiar she had not really noticed she was ‘drinking’. At the restaurant however, she savoured every bite of the food that passed her lips. She had been told that she would be able to taste and eat in Innerscape, but she had never imagined that all those tests would result in food so delicious.
Only when her digital stomach signaled that it was full – another delight – did she have the opportunity to just sit back and watch the people around her. Apart from herself and the Innerscape staff, the rest of the tables were occupied by groups of the most beautiful people she had ever seen. The waiters and waitresses who threaded their way between the tables were only marginally less attractive.
When she and Gem had visited Paris together they had both been amazed at the elegance of the Parisians, especially the women, however these Innerscape Parisians were an order of magnitude more exquisite.
Miira longed to ask whether the people in the restaurant were residents or just computer generated ‘extras’ included to make the experience feel more real, but the staffers were making such an effort to act as if the whole thing was real she did not have the heart to spoil things. Only when they were walking slowly back to the hotel did she broach the subject with Charles, who was walking next to her. David, the young technician, and the two nurses were walking a few steps ahead of them while Kenneth Wu walked some distance behind.
“Yes, dear lady?”
“Were the other diners at the restaurant residents, like me?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, it matters! Unless I’m expected to talk to a million AIs until I find a real person…”
“Oh, I see,” Charles said after an awkward pause. “Well, as a general rule the richest, most attractive people are usually residents. But really, you shouldn’t worry about it. Once you start chatting to people you will quickly realise who’s who!”
“Excuse me, I must talk to Emily for a moment…”
Miira was so surprised by Charles’ abrupt departure, she actually stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, hands on hips as she glared at his retreating back. She did not notice that Kenneth Wu had caught up with her until he took her hand and tucked it into his arm.
“Is it protocol not to answer questions?” she asked with a sidelong glance at his profile.
“Because the psych profilers believe you will integrate faster if you discover things for yourself.”
“Integrate? As in accept this as reality?”
“But then why are you and the other staffers allowed to be here?”
There was a short pause before Kenneth Wu said, “We’re your backup team. And we’re here to escort you to a series of social functions that have been arranged for you.”
“I don’t like social functions.”
“The psych profilers know that. That’s another reason why we’re here, to make you feel comfortable until you meet some new friends of your own.”
Miira did not say anything for a while but some of the joy had leaked from her day. How could she possibly make friends with people who had all been born to wealth and position? She had tried that, after Gem died, but had given up when she realised she had nothing in common with any of them other than the size of her bank account.
“Are there any ordinary people in Innerscape?” she asked in a bleak voice.
“If by ordinary people you mean people who have had to work for their place here, then yes there are. And we will be introducing you to quite a few of them.”
“During these social functions I suppose.”
“Everyone has to start somewhere.”
“I’m not sure I want to do this. Why can’t I just go straight to Durai?”
The hint of panic in Miira’s voice made Kenneth Wu stop and drag her around to face him.
“This isn’t like you Miira. What’s wrong?”
“All of this,” Miira said as she looked around at the loveliness that surrounded her. “Paris, and the Ritz and the people in the restaurant. Everything is too beautiful. Including me. This is not who I am…”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a fifty-four year old Refugee who doesn’t belong here. That’s who I am,” Miira said angrily.
“You are also the Lady of Durai,” Kenneth Wu replied with quiet conviction. “And as such, you have as much right to be here as any of the residents. But how you live your life here is up to you. You can live as simply as you wish, and trust me, you will find others like yourself.”
“In the Ritz?” Miira asked with scorn.
“No, not in the Ritz,” Kenneth Wu said with a sigh. “Come on, let’s keep walking or the others will come back to see what’s taking us so long.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes before Kenneth Wu starting talking again.
“I’m going to let you into a secret.”
Miira glanced up at him but did not say anything.
“All of this is as much for the staff as it is for you.”
“You want to hob-nob with the rich and famous?” Miira asked in astonishment.
“Not me, no. But they do.” Kenneth Wu said with a nod towards the small group ahead of them.
“Oh,” Miira said. “I didn’t realise…”
“This is David and Jane’s first time in Innerscape. As for Charles, well, he takes all his holidays here.”
“Emily’s husband and son are both here…”
Miira stumbled and would have fallen if the young man at her side had not held her up.
“Remember I told you that coming to Innerscape is one of the perks of the job?” Kenneth Wu asked.
When Miira bit her lip and nodded, he went on. “Well Emily’s family almost died in the big storm that hit Brisbane about ten years ago. Her husband would have died, and her son would have been a quadraplegic for the rest of his life if she had not fought tooth and nail to have them both brought to Innerscape. She visits them for a few hours every night. The avatar she wears is what she looked like before the storm.”
Shame made Miira flush bright red. She had been so wrong about Emily…
“And Emily’s family aren’t the only ones who aren’t rich and famous. In the fifteen years that Innerscape has been in operation, two of the Directors and three of the staff have had to come here because of their health, while two more chose to retire here to be with their partners. As for the rest of the residents, quite a few are simple, unassuming people who avoid the glitter and bright lights. So you see you won’t be alone..”
“I’m so sorry,” Miira said as tears pricked her eyes. “I just assumed…”
The young doctor did not answer. He simply handed Miira a square of soft white cloth.
She wiped her eyes and tucked the handkerchief in her pocket before saying, “I guess a few social functions won’t kill me.”