She hesitates at the edge of the dancefloor. The Rococo ballroom is excessive, intimidating – alabaster, gold leaf, crystal chandeliers, and mirrors. There’s stylised acanthus in every design, its twisted asymmetry disturbs her. Too much. Too much. Her feet are hurting. Her stomach is queasy. She remembers the advice Elvie gave her, stretches her arms out to balance herself, shuts her eyes against the sensory overload, and breathes in.
She had a feeling she wouldn’t cope.
She opens her eyes and searches for a focal point. The mirror won’t do. When Elvie asked her what dress she’d like, she’d reached into her teenage fantasies and the princess movies she’d watched over and over; the gowns of tulle, shimmering satin, and organza in bridal white with spangles; the widest leg o’mutton sleeves; the tiara. Now, her reflection thrusts her so deep into the uncanny valley she can’t bear to look at herself. She spots a nearby clock, fixes her gaze on that.
Curlicue hands in an Ormulu case show a quarter to midnight. The clock chimes for the first time. She recalls Elvie saying there’d be three warnings. She’s been standing paralysed for forty-five minutes. This won’t work unless she moves.
She touches the parquet with the tip of her shoe.
Immediately, the dancers part. A dark-haired man approaches, his hand extended. He is perfect in every way – from his frilled white jabot and blue superfine frock-coat, to his ribboned breeches and leather hunting-boots. They do not speak, only waltz. She finds herself stumbling across the glowing oaken floor feeling like a fraud, while at the same time exhilarated by the fact that she is in his arms, his eyes are green, and the room is a whirl of wedding-cake colour.
The clock chimes again.
Then they are on the moonlit terrace because where else would they go? The transition from indoors to outdoors makes her giddiness worse. She clings to him – clutching the lapels of his coat. This is where they should kiss. Except they don’t. As he brings a hand up to touch her face, the clock strikes midnight and everything goes dark.
She gags, sits down heavily on the floor. She can feel a hand on her face but it is not his. Suddenly there is light and Elvie.
“Just stay still while I get the headset off.” Elvie is crouching over her, tugging at the straps before lifting the visor completely away.
Elvie walks across to the desk where she has set up her lap-top, the VR unit, and the 3D printer. She places the headset back in its case.
“I did warn you,” says Elvie, “that coming suddenly out of the program would be unsettling. That’s why we put in the three alerts. Do you need a bowl or something? You look a bit green.”
She’s in her living-room, in the space they cleared by pushing all the furniture up against the walls. She checks herself. Bitten finger-nails. Tee-shirt. Jeans. Yes, she is back.
“Mate, you took forever to get going. I did tell you that accessing the dance-floor activates the romance level, didn’t I? I hope you at least got a dance.”
A Viennese waltz in a wedding-cake room.
Elvie is disassembling the array, disconnecting cables, packing her gear up.
“So now what?”
Elvie pauses. She looks puzzled.
“What do you mean ‘now what?’ That’s it. You wanted to go to a ball. I designed your perfect ball. You went. And she lived happily ever after. The end.”
“Oh. It just doesn’t seem like much for $1500.”
Elvie huffs. “Do you have any idea what it takes to develop an experience like that? To make it magical? How many hours of code need to be written, how many state-of-the-art cameras we need to film for VR, plus what we have to pay performers to do motion-capture to create the avatars? Our 3D printer is revolutionary – there isn’t another one like it in the world, so you got the benefits of that. Then there were all the customisations you insisted on. Ballroom, dress, handsome stranger, the lot.”
She struggles to her feet, wincing in pain. She can feel the tears starting.
“Look,” says Elvie, sounding more sympathetic, “if you want to try again sometime, I’ll give you a discount. Only $1400 for the second access. Plus, you get to keep the shoes. A gift from Codemother Productions to you.”
Elvie slings her kit-bag over her shoulder and picks up the two equipment cases.
“I’ll let myself out. After-care instructions are on the table. Take it easy, make sure you keep hydrated. Call me if you’re interested in another go.”
But Elvie has already disappeared.
She tries to follow, but the pain makes her stagger. Looking down, she sees her feet are bleeding, destroyed by razor-like cuts from the 3D-printed glass slippers.