Several decades from now.
The ground was always moving in San Angeles. If it wasn’t one of the massive machines lumbering from one monolithic construction project to the next, it was another day, another earthquake. Yesterday, there’d been a quake strong enough to spill my coffee on the sleek stainless console in Sim Room 12, and just this morning, a smoke-belching earthmover went by and made the lights flicker. After thirty-two years in this city, I was used to all of that.
But every other Thursday at exactly fourteen thirty, my equilibrium went straight to hell. Whatever I was holding had about a fifty percent chance of tumbling to the floor, so I always made sure my hands were empty and, if I could swing it, I was sitting.
Because every other Thursday at exactly fourteen thirty, Aiden Maxwell strolled in through the simhouse’s front door.
And he always asked for me.
It was fourteen twenty-nine when Lacey leaned into my office. “Keith, you’ve got a patient.”
“Already?” I didn’t know why I bothered to act surprised, or look at the clock on the wall like I’d actually lost track of time. “Well. Where’s the day going?”
She laughed but said nothing. As I followed her down the hall to the waiting area, I wondered if she knew. But then, who cared? I’d never touched the man except as my job required it, and that meant gloves on. Just because he screwed up my breathing and blood pressure the moment he walked into the simhouse didn’t mean a thing. That much, at least, wasn’t illegal.
It’s the first step down a dangerous road, I reminded myself as Lacey opened the door leading out to the waiting area.
The door slid open, and every ECG in the building should’ve gone haywire from the spike in my pulse. Of course that was completely irrational. No such thing had happened on any previous Thursday afternoon when the same patient gave me that spike.
Across the room, Aiden Maxwell smiled and pushed himself to his feet, his skintight black-and-silver suit creaking softly.
Get your head together, Keith. It was the same suit every goddamned person in San Angeles—myself included—wore. I saw dozens of people every day, and they all wore the same thing. Neck down, covering every inch of flesh right down to wrists and ankles, leaving our hands and feet to be covered by formfitting gloves and laced-up boots. The suits were insulated to keep us cool in the summer, warm in the winter. Thin enough to move and breathe, thick enough to serve their primary purpose: prevent skin-to-skin contact.
There were thirty million people in San Angeles, fully half of them in the quadrant where I lived. I’d seen so many of these suits on so many bodies, they were as novel as pollution and pavement.
But the way Aiden’s suit fit him did things to me I couldn’t explain. It was like the damn thing was made to accentuate his narrow hips or the fact that he had shoulders that wouldn’t quit. Walking down the hall from the waiting area to Sim Room 8, it was all I could do to not sneak a few glances. It should have been a crime for a man to look this good. Especially since it practically was a crime for me to have the fantasies I’d had about him in and out of that suit. Experiencing those fantasies for real? A felony. Not worth entertaining even within the confines of my mind, but sometimes I just couldn’t help myself.
The skintight suit wasn’t the worst part. He was here for a sim session, which meant—just as it did for the hundreds of other people who came through this simhouse without making me bat an eye—the suit was coming off. So were the boots, the gloves—everything. Every layer peeled away, revealing the exquisitely defined arms and shoulders that a decade of heavy construction work had chiseled to perfection.
Since he always asked for me, I was the one who got to put the electrodes on him. On his neck. The insides of his elbows. His flat, flawless abs. Not to mention the equipment that went over his penis and testicles to provide the stimulation that would ultimately bring him to orgasm.
Good thing no one on staff had ever noticed—or questioned—that I always booked my own sim sessions for immediately after Aiden’s.
We stepped into the small utilitarian sim room. It was empty except for a couple of chairs, a horizontal sim chamber with its lid open and ready, and the control console.
As soon as the door shut behind us, my pulse was all over the place just like it always was with him around, but as always, I didn’t let it show. I went through the motions: pulling up his program, scanning the chip behind his ear to make sure he was free of diseases, and signing off on his records to state he’d been here for his prescribed session. A lot of patients avoided small talk at all costs, but not Aiden, and when he was around, I was never sure how articulate I would be.
As I entered his information into the system on my tablet, he said, “You’re doing well, I presume?”
“I… Yes. Doing fine.” I looked up, meeting his eyes. God, one look at him, and goose bumps prickled the length of my spine. “And you?”
He smiled warmly, though there was always something devilish in the way the corners of his eyes crinkled like that. “Quite well, thank you.” He glanced at my hands on the keyboard. “Still no ring?”
My fingers froze a split second before I could tell myself not to react. I never realized how conspicuous that lack of a gold band around my gloved finger was until someone pointed it out. A lot of people did these days—I was thirty-two, after all—but when Aiden mentioned it, my heart pounded. I swallowed. “Oh. Um. You know how it is. Takes time for the government to, um…” Our eyes locked again, and speech eluded me. “Eventually. I’ll…” What were we talking about?
Aiden chuckled, that quiet, knowing sound that made me wonder if he could read my mind. If he knew how much just looking at him made my knees shake, or that I was still unmarried because I kept dragging my feet when the government matched me to a woman. Or if he’d read between the lines of my glances and my habitual speechlessness and knew damn well why I kept dragging my feet.
I cleared my throat and nodded toward his hands. “You’re not wearing a ring either.”
“No.” He looked down at his left hand, turning it over as if inspecting it. “I can’t say they’ve been very successful in finding me”—his gaze flicked up and met mine again, and the corner of his mouth rose slightly—“a good match.”
I gulped. Aiden grinned.
I cleared my throat again, just to get some air moving. “All right, that’s enough formalities. Your records are updated, so…” Without waiting for a response, I put the tablet down and moved to the control console to set up his sim program, but even focused on the monitor between us, my mind’s eye didn’t let me forget what he was doing. Such was the problem when I’d seen him do this so many times; all it took was the sound of the separating zipper and the faint squeak of his suit and the rustle of the under layer across his flesh to fill in everything I couldn’t see.
Once he was completely naked, Aiden lay back in the open machine. He pulled on the virtual reality goggles. I attached electrodes, one by one, to various erogenous areas, plus the extras he always requested: two on each side of his neck and an additional one on either side just beneath his jaw.
As I attached one to the inside of his wrist, my glove grazed his skin. Aiden sucked in a breath. Gooseflesh sprang to life around the electrode and the place my glove touched him, continuing all the way up his dark-haired forearm. I suppressed a shiver; it would have been a hell of a lot easier to ignore—try to ignore—my reactions to him if he didn’t also react to me.
With all the electrodes in place, I put on the larger device. I did this every hour of every day, and had for over a decade, and I’d long ago stopped noticing cocks, but Aiden’s—well, I supposed it was no surprise anymore. Other patients didn’t get any kind of reaction out of me, but with him, I’d never been able to place the equipment without feeling that familiar dull heaviness below my belt. By the time the machinery was fitted over his erection, I always had one of my own.
What was wrong with me?
Finally, I had everything ready to go, and moved to the computer to set up his simulation.
The screen changed to the partner selection program.
“Which partner do you want this time?” I asked.
“Actually,” he said, “I think I want to try a new one.”
I glanced at him. “You’ve got four saved already. If you save a new one, you’ll have to delete one of the others.”
“Delete all four of them.” He waved a hand, and the leads coming off the attachments clipped to his fingers rattled against the inside of the chamber.
“You sure?” I asked.
“All right.” I deleted them and started on a new one. “Specs?”
“Male, of course,” he said, and I made adjustments as he instructed me. “Light skin. Not so tanned. Oh yes, that’s better. Hmm, not quite so tall. About—” He paused. “How tall are you, Keith?”
My fingers froze above the controls. “I beg your pardon?”
“I’m not very good with heights,” he said with a grin I didn’t quite understand. “Give me a frame of reference.”
I cleared my throat, still eyeing him over the monitor. “A hundred and seventy-eight centimeters.”
“Perfect. Go with that.”
I threw him another look, even though he couldn’t see me, but then entered the dimensions into the system. “Hair color?”
“Brown. Dark brown. And short. Not quite military, but close to it.”
I entered the specification. “How about this?”
“That looks—” He lifted the goggles and glanced at me. After a second, he replaced the goggles. “Oh yes, that’s perfect.”
Is it, now?
As we continued adjusting the sim partner’s appearance—blue eyes, no, bluer—something twisted deep in the pit of my stomach. Thanks to the bright overhead lights and the screen’s slick surface, my mostly transparent reflection was visible. As if I needed something to remind me that his newly created sim partner bore an uncanny resemblance to me.
“Perfect,” he said at last.
What the hell? But it wasn’t my place to question the patients, so I came around the console and reached for the machine’s lid. “Enjoy the ride.”
He grinned. “Oh, I’m sure I will.”
I lowered the lid, switched on the program, and dropped into my chair so I could monitor him. And catch my breath. And regain my balance.
I couldn’t see him or his simulation. The monitor where I adjusted his sim partner’s appearance—I was imagining the resemblance to myself, wasn’t I?—now showed the readouts of Aiden’s vital signs. His quickening pulse. The brainwaves reflecting the increasing levels of dopamine. His rapid, shallow breathing. He always liked his sessions to run long, enjoying every second like he was drinking a rare bottle of wine instead of dutifully taking the fastest route to his prescribed, rationed orgasm.
Did he know what he was doing to me while he took his sweet time with the sim? As I watched his vitals, I shifted in my seat. There was a suppressor in the pocket of my suit, and a single inhalation would ease this edginess and soften the erection that was making my suit progressively less comfortable. If I didn’t have my own sim session coming up shortly, I’d have taken a double dose, because holy fuck, I needed it.
I looked past the monitor at the chamber in which Aiden was currently lost in his fantasy, and that knot in the pit of my stomach tightened. They said every simtech was eventually tempted. Someone came along, some highly attractive patient, who encouraged the tech to take off a glove and indulge in a fleeting moment of skin-to-skin contact. It was a dangerous road, though. That kind of contact was a relatively minor offense, but still one that would cost a simtech his credentials. Worse, I’d heard a brush of skin on skin was enough to lure people into wanting more, and that led them to the highly illegal underground and its wireless lounges where people went far, far beyond touching.
I’d been a simtech for fourteen years. I’d hooked up plenty of patients who stuck around in my fantasies for a little while. But I had never—never—considered crossing that line.
Not until recently, anyway.
I shifted my gaze back to the monitor. He was coming down from his climax now, his pulse and respiration steadily slowing, and I was the one with sweat on the back of my neck. I grabbed a clean towel off the rack where we kept them for patients, and dabbed away the moisture on my forehead and above my collar. With any other patient, I’d have been hurrying to get the chamber open and machinery removed, since most people liked to get out of the machine and back into their suits as quickly as possible, but Aiden liked to savor the aftermath as much as he did the buildup.
So I was in no rush. The longer he took, the less likely he’d notice the dampness that was probably curling the ends of my hair, or the extra color that had no doubt appeared in my cheeks.
Eventually, though, I raised the lid. I disconnected the machinery and electrodes, and the whole time, Aiden didn’t move. His eyes were closed, his chest rising and falling, but aside from that, he was still.
“You all right?” I asked.
Aiden opened his eyes. His pupils were still blown, but the flush of pink was fading from his face and neck. Slowly, he sat up. He was always the very picture of blissful satisfaction when he left the simhouse. More than most people.
“Ahh.” He smiled. “I needed that.”
I handed him his suit. “See you in two weeks?”
“Absolutely.” His gaze slid toward me, and the corner of his mouth lifted. “You know, after a session like that, it’s hard not to wonder what the real thing would be like.”
I responded with a watery smile. “We can wonder all we want, but there’s a reason it’s illegal.”
“Indeed there is.” There was a note of something in his voice that I couldn’t quite define. Not sarcasm, but close. He pulled on his gloves and tilted his head to one side, then the other. “Well. Thank you for another…lovely experience, Mr. Borden.”
“Don’t mention it,” I replied a split second before I remembered what his sim partner looked like. I gulped, and Aiden gave a quiet, knowing chuckle before he left. He’d been here enough times, he knew the place as well as I did, so he showed himself out while I retreated on unsteady legs to Sim Room 9.
Setting up my own program was one of the perks of being a simtech. I pulled up my bank of sim partners, and chose the one I’d used every time for months, and tweaked him a little to sharpen his resemblance to Aiden. As the changes rendered, I glanced over my shoulder. None of the other techs would come barging in, but I was paranoid nonetheless. The closer my sim partner came to resembling someone my colleagues might recognize, the more dangerous this little game was.
I adjusted the hair color until it was as close to the dark blond tint as I could get it, and modified the color of his eyes just a little. They were still too vivid, too green, but after weeks of tinkering, I was pretty sure I’d nearly gotten it to that perfect shade that just bordered on pale blue.
The sim partner’s smile didn’t quite match Aiden’s, and the corners of his eyes didn’t crinkle the same way, but he was close enough. I never had learned to like sim partners’ facial expressions; they were little more than coordinated muscle movements, not the manifestation of a dirty thought or quiet amusement.
I glanced around, letting my gaze dart toward the door and then up to the camera bubble on the ceiling. Why I was so worried, I didn’t know. No one could possibly have known what was going on in my mind.
Paranoia is the hallmark of a guilty conscience, I’d heard time and time again.
Except I wasn’t doing anything wrong, damn it.
I got into the machine and hooked up all the electrodes. That was always a little clumsy and awkward, even after years of practice, but I managed. I glanced up at the security camera, then pressed two extra electrodes onto either side of my neck and another pair on the underside of my jaw. I had no idea if it would do anything, but Aiden liked it, so it was worth a try.
Once the equipment was in place, I pulled down the lid and started the program. A computer rendering of Aiden appeared in front of me. As it always was, the setting was a sparsely furnished, unembellished bedroom not unlike my own, and it had about as much personality as “Aiden.”
His suit was already off, and he beckoned for me to join him on the bed. I never could convince this version of him to look at me quite the same way, and though his eyes were beautiful, they weren’t magnetic like the real thing. Not quite so playful or hungry.
But I went to him anyway, and as he put his arms around me, the faintly chemical scent of pheromones tickled my nose. My eyes rolled back as the electrodes tingled against my nerve endings. The simulated version of Aiden ran his fingertips along my neck, and the electrodes there responded with featherlight sensations.
The virtual Aiden turned around and let me take him, and the machinery around my cock created just enough friction and pressure to convince my body I was really inside him. My hands slid over his hips, my fingers and palms tingling with the gentle brush of skin across skin. It wasn’t an exact match—I’d run my hands over my own flesh enough to know it wasn’t perfect—but it was damn close. Close enough it didn’t take long, especially after having been in the presence of the real thing, for me to get off.
I lifted the lid, carefully removed the equipment from my now very sensitive cock, and then unceremoniously shoved it all away. After I’d peeled off the rest of the electrodes, I got up, and the machine’s self-cleaning mechanism kicked on. Listening to it whir and hum, I was thankful for the millionth time that we were long past the days when everything had to be cleaned by hand. The interns we had now had no idea how lucky they were.
I sat up and rubbed my temples. My sim partner was still front and center in my mind, and he was quickly turning into a long-memorized image of the man he was based on.
Why did I keep tempting myself? This was dangerous. I needed to use a different sim partner from here on out. Maybe take a suppressor for a while instead of going through a sim session. It might even be a good idea to request a transfer to a simhouse where the world didn’t lurch out from under me every other Thursday at fourteen thirty.
Because the more I looked, the more I wanted to touch.
And if I touched, I lost everything.
Skin to skin contact is illegal. Sex? A felony. Insulated suits and gloves keep people from even the most platonic touches. Citizens line up in droves at simhouses for their rationed, prescribed orgasms in virtual reality machines.
Keith Borden has worked in a simhouse for years, and he's never been tempted to break the strict no-contact laws… until Aiden Maxwell comes along. The attractive and dangerously flirtatious patient invites him into the seedy underground where people engage in real, wireless sex. Though Keith stands to lose his career and his freedom, he's curious and Aiden is irresistible.
From the moment he sets foot in the wireless lounge, Keith is in a world of flesh and fantasy. He's hooked. On the sex, on the atmosphere, and most of all, on Aiden. Years of keeping everyone in his world at arm's length have left Keith craving a human touch, and Aiden offers all the contact—scorching sex, gentle affection, and everything in between—Keith can handle.
That is, until an unexpected act of betrayal throws Keith's world into chaos, and he finds himself more alone than he ever imagined possible…
This 55,000-word novel was previously published, and has been extensively revised and rewritten from its first edition.