Discover more from A Flash in the Pan
Donna was experiencing the glories of Rome through new eyes...
Issue #29, Sunday 22 October 2023
“E-glasses, signorina? You must see the Forum through a head-set. Una meravigliosa esperienza! Only fifty euros for an hour. Program included!”
The young boy hiring out the e-glasses on the outskirts of the Roman Forum was only about 12 years old, Donna thought. His face was eager, his teeth flashing white in the bright sunlight as he smiled. She was sorry to have to disappoint him. “Mi dispiace,” she said, an attempt to practice at least a little of the Italian she had been trying to learn. “But I already have my own system.” And she touched her finger to her own special glasses, the lenses now dark in adaptation to the sunlight.
“Ah!” the boy said, sitting up straighter and looking at her almost with awe. “Is that the new Tiang Model X5, signorina? You have the contact lenses and the audio implants? May I see?"
Smiling, Donna took off the glasses and showed him the shining gold-traced contact lenses in her eyes. Then she tilted her head and pulled her long blonde hair aside to show the tiny plastic-coated disc magnetically attached to the implant behind her ear.
"Surely you must be very rich!” the boy said. His voice was excited, eager.
Donna laughed, trying not to look too smug. “Not rich, no.” Though no doubt by the standards of this poor urchin she was rich indeed. “My grandfather left me a little money a few years ago, and I spent it on this. Just a little indulgence.” Then, realizing that she was being too open with her personal information to a stranger (a continuing bad habit), she started to move on.
The boy quickly put up a hand as if to restrain her. He all but held her back. “Don’t go, signorina! Today is your lucky day! I have a version of the Forum program suited to your e-glasses. You can download it in a moment. It is not to be missed, it makes the Forum come alive!”
Donna said, “Well, it depends. How much?”
“Thirty euros only, signorina.” Then, as she hesitated, “But for you, pretty lady, twenty euros only. Special deal for today!” His eagerness was almost disturbing. He must be very poor to be so concerned not to lose a sale.
She laughed. “Oh, very well. Do you have the code?”
He nodded and opened a small bag at his side and, hands trembling a little with excitement, he selected a card and held it up to her view. It was printed with a complex 2D barcode. She saw it briefly highlighted by her augmented vision, and green text running along the bottom of her sight told her that the boy’s program was ready to be downloaded. It would have been checked for malware by the Tiang servers, of course, before any purchase or download was permitted. “All right,” she said, in the low soft voice she used to command the e-glasses, “authorized.” The payment went through and a moment later the ‘success’ icon flashed up.
“Thank you,” she said, and moved on past the boy and began to walk into the ruins. But he called after her:
“Signorina! If you have friends, tell them to come to me for their head-sets or programs! Tell them to ask for Claudio!”
She just smiled and went on.
Before her were the magnificent ruins of the old forum, a few columns and arches still standing, broken columns and carved blocks of stone everywhere. She commanded the downloaded program to begin. A sudden bright flurry of static filled her vision for a second, and then was gone. Puzzling. That didn’t usually happen. She blinked a few times and looked around again.
Now labels were cropping up as her gaze shifted from point to point, and the audio commentary began. Her e-glasses had automatically selected the English language from the options provided.
You are looking at the Temple of Saturn, of which only the columns of the front portico now remain. This is the third incarnation of the building, replacing the second version which was destroyed by fire in 283 CE…
Interesting enough, Donna thought, but a bit dry. She’d hated having to learn facts and dates in her history lessons at school. She was here in Rome to enjoy herself, after all, not to qualify for a degree or write a book.
To the left of her vision, two choices were presented. “Forum History” was the current selection. The second choice was “Simulation”.
“Let’s have the simulation,” she said, and her view began to change quickly. In an engaging animation, all of the gaps of the buildings rapidly filled in, stone by stone, walls and columns sprouting up from the ground. Collapsed roofs were restored in a flash, murals painted themselves and tiles were laid out on the ground. In a matter of moments, it was as if she had been whisked backwards in time 2000 years. Even the other tourists in the Forum were painted over in her vision so that they appeared to be re-clothed in togas and gowns, their sunglasses, smartphones and tablets erased from Donna’s sight. She looked down at her own body and saw that her designer slacks and fashionable, top-brand sneakers seemed to have been replaced with a white robe and sandals. Now this is more like it! Donna thought.
The audio commentary shifted. You are seeing the Forum as it would have appeared in approximately 20 BCE…
“Mute commentary,” she commanded. The commentary was still boring. Much more fun just to wander around and pretend that she was some proud Roman lady, the wife of a Senator, perhaps.
The simulation was really very good. Young Claudio’s family must be leasing the software from some much bigger organization which had put a lot of effort and money into the production values.
The illusion was almost seamless. There was no lag at all in what she saw as her eyes moved around. Cheaper e-glasses like the ones Claudio was hiring out, which relied on an image projected from the frames, often caused a degree of motion-sickness if you moved your head too quickly.
That was the benefit of her own state-of-the-art system. The frames of the glasses she wore incorporated tiny but powerful processors which communicated with her special contact lenses and audio implants via high-capacity short-range wireless signal. The images she saw were generated by the processors and projected onto her retinas by the contacts. Similarly the audio she heard was generated by the direct stimulation of her audio system by the embedded chips near her ears. It was only really necessary for her to actually wear the glasses so that she could give voice commands, and communicate via tweets, phone calls or email. She could take the glasses off and the visual and audible simulation would still be there, provided the frames weren’t too far away.
Through this miraculous device, she looked in wonder around the reincarnated Roman Forum.
The simulation wasn’t perfect in every respect, of course. As an experiment, she approached the solid wall of a temple, and reached out to touch it. But her hand felt nothing, and it appeared to sink into the stone. The wall wasn’t really there, must have collapsed thousands of years ago. She pulled her hand back and moved it to a column. This, by contrast, was solid, and she could feel the texture of the stone, which must still be here in modern times. What fun!
She turned back and began to walk idly around the busy plaza of the forum, weaving her way through the crowd of people, all apparently dressed in a variety of what she assumed were authentic Roman costumes. Now she could even hear snatches of conversation in what she thought must be Latin. Was it doing an actual real-time translation of what she heard? Today’s software was astounding, so perhaps it was possible.
Part-way across, a tall young man approached her, dressed as a Roman soldier. He was very handsome, with dark, curly hair, and he wore the uniform as if born to it, his hairless arms muscled and bronzed. He had good legs, too, she noted, below the short skirt of the uniform.
He said something to her in what she presumed was Latin. In any case, she didn’t understand it. “Turn Latin translation off,” she said. It worked. At once she heard the voices of the crowd around her return to the babble of the many different languages being spoken by the tourists: German, English, Japanese, Chinese.
“I’m sorry,” she said to the handsome soldier. “Could you say that again?”
“Certainly, signorina. I hope I am not disturbing you.” His voice was resonant, with a slight but charming Italian accent. “I am with the local Tourist Bureau.” He flashed her an identity card and her e-glasses snapped its image. “I saw you wandering here, and wondered if I could be of any assistance.”
“Oh! No, no, I’m fine. I’m using my e-glasses, you understand.” She reached up and touched the frame. “It’s running a simulation I bought. Everything around me looks just as it did in Roman times.” She laughed. “In fact, I see you dressed as a Roman soldier.”
He grinned. “Ah yes. I have used that simulation myself, though I don’t think the e-glasses I hired were as good as yours. It made me feel a little dizzy, to be honest. Have you been long in Rome?”
“No, not really. I arrived here two days ago with my mother. We couldn’t do much yesterday, though. She seems to have caught some kind of stomach bug, or eaten something which disagreed with her.”
“Ah, poverina! That is unfortunate. And she is still unwell today?”
“A little better, thank you. But she still wasn’t up to coming out for a long time today, so she told me to go ahead and explore by myself.”
“A generous lady. But being a tourist here all on your own is a little sad, I think. Perhaps I could accompany you around the Forum and show you the most interesting parts. Unless you wish to continue using the simulation?”
Donna hesitated, thinking of her mother’s admonitions about not trusting Italian men. But that kind of thinking was so last-century. This man seemed kind and helpful, and he was from the Tourist Bureau. Besides, he was very handsome.
Though perhaps that was just the simulation? “Excuse me a moment,” she said to the man and then addressed her e-glasses. “Simulation off. End running program and return to default menu.”
The scenes of Ancient Rome vanished and now she saw the Forum again in its ruined state. The crowd lost their Roman attire and she saw they were dressed in a variety of modern clothes. Her companion was dressed in a very well-fitting, stylish dark Italian suit. Armani? Versace? One of those top designers, anyway. His face was the same, but now he looked very elegant and assured.
“All right,” she said. “Why not? My name is Donna, by the way.”
He laughed. “You must know that donna is just the Italian for ‘woman’. I do not feel I can call you that, it seems so disrespectful. Perhaps I may call you belladonna instead? That means…”
Donna blushed. “It means ‘beautiful woman’. Well, all right. And you are…?”
“My name is Franco. Franco Mangiamele, at your service.” He bowed slightly.
He was so charming! “Well, then, lead the way,” she said. And he did, taking her around the ruins, pointing out features and describing their history. To be honest, Donna found his commentary suspiciously similar to that of the program she had downloaded into her e-glasses. But it was so much more interesting to have the words spoken in a delightful Italian accent by this handsome man at her side.
More than an hour later she said, “Thank you so much, but I’m exhausted! And I should get back to see how my mother is getting on. I’ve been terribly selfish, I’m sure.”
“A lovely young woman like yourself deserves the occasional indulgence,” Franco said with a smile. “But I must let you go, I see. You are here in Rome for a little longer, I hope?”
“Yes, for a couple of weeks.”
“Excellent. Then let me give you my card. I would be more than happy to show you around the sights of the Eternal City. Tomorrow, perhaps? We could visit the Coliseum, for example. I can bring you another program for your glasses, which will bring it to life in all its terrible glory.”
“Not tomorrow. I really must spend some time with my mother. But the next day, yes. Thursday. She is going to have lunch with a friend she knows in our Embassy here. That afternoon…”
“Then I shall meet you outside the Coliseum. At two o’clock, perhaps?”
“But surely you must be busy with other tourists…?”
He held up his exquisitely manicured hand. “Not another word. It will be my pleasure.” And she saw that it would be. Charmed, she smiled and agreed.
Donna spent the next day pleasantly enough with her mother, who had recovered from her stomach upset.
She had said very little to her mother about meeting the handsome young man from the Tourism Bureau. She would just get another tedious lecture. So she had simply told her mother that she’d been guided around the Forum by a helpful attendant. That wasn’t a lie.
Together, Donna and her mother spent a long time that day in the Capitoline Museums on the Palatine Hill overlooking the Forum. Her e-glasses were useful there, too, of course, but less so. She was relying on the software provided by the museum management. It was really very stilted and not very interesting, with no simulation features. She might have done as well with a printed brochure.
At the end of the day, her feet ached again. Donna felt as if they were going to be worn down to the ankle-bones if she kept up this amount of walking every day over the next two weeks.
It was on the way back to the hotel with her mother that Donna first thought there might be something wrong with her augmented vision. As they walked to the hotel from where the taxi had dropped them, there was a sudden shift what she was seeing. Everything became a little less bright, as though a shadow of a cloud had passed over; yet paradoxically everything she saw became a little sharper and clearer. It was very odd, and she stumbled a little. Her mother caught her arm before she could fall. Then her vision cleared again and was as normal.
“Are you all right, dear?” her mother asked.
“Yes, I’m fine. Just something went wrong with my lenses for a moment, I think.”
“I wish you wouldn’t wear those things all the time. I’m sure it’s not natural.”
“Oh, Mother! There’s not much we do that’s natural these days. Ordinary sunglasses aren’t natural, are they?”
Still, Donna was a little concerned. She took off the frames and examined them, touching the slight bulge on each side which contained the processors. Did they feel a little warmer than usual? Perhaps. But that could just be the Italian sun.
There was a tiny on-off switch on one arm of the frames, there to help conserve battery when the glasses weren’t being worn. She flicked it off, waited a moment, and then turned it back on again. Wasn’t that what technical people always asked you to do? To her relief, everything in her vision seemed normal now. In any case, the system was still under warranty. She’d upgraded the frames just a few months ago to the latest model processors. There shouldn’t be any problem in having the system replaced if it stopped working entirely. Still, it would be annoying.
Donna lay awake that night, smiling as she contemplated her forthcoming meeting with Franco at the Coliseum. The next morning she spent longer than usual at the mirror, applying her makeup with special care, and took ages to decide what she would wear.
The weather, though, was a little disappointing. A dense cloud covered the sky, although the weather app in her e-glasses told her there was no real prospect of rain. It was dull, though, and the lenses adjusted to allow as much light in as possible to her eyes.
Reaching the entrance, she stood looking around for Franco, but he wasn’t there. Yet she realized that she was a touch late for their appointment.
A few older Italian men were hanging about, unashamedly ogling her and the other young female tourists. Typical! Donna tossed her head in disdain and looked away. Impatient, she checked the time, and looked around for Franco again. He still wasn’t to be seen, and she began to be a little anxious that he might have forgotten about meeting her.
Just then, the brightness of her view shifted once more. Dimmer, but somehow sharper. She suddenly became much more aware of the litter on the ground, and the streaks of dirt on the walls of the ancient building. Puzzled, she took off the glasses and felt the processors again. Were they any hotter than usual? She couldn’t tell. She was definitely going to have the system looked at. She flicked off the power switch, deciding to wait a little longer this time before turning it back on.
Still no sign of Franco. Then she realized that she had Franco’s business card in her purse. In fact, she didn’t even need to pull it out. Her e-glasses had automatically scanned it already. She could give him a call and see where he was, if necessary remind him of their appointment. She flicked the power switch, put the frames back on and made the call.
The phone was picked up instantly. “I’m here, belladonna. Just arrived, so sorry to be late. Look to your left.”
There he was, phone in hand, waving at her. Just as tall and handsome as she remembered. He came towards her smiling, putting away his phone in the inside pocket of his immaculate dark suit jacket.
“Well, here I am,” he said unnecessarily. “I have the software for the Coliseum for you.” He pulled out a card bearing another complex barcode and held it up to her. Her e-glasses scanned it instantly and began the download.
Donna was surprised that she wasn’t asked for the authorization of a payment. “No charge?” she asked. “The program I bought from that boy on Tuesday cost me 20 euros!”
“Ah, you were cheated, I think. A common problem. These programs are supplied free by the Tourism Bureau, a service to those visiting our great city.”
“Oh, I see. That’s wonderful. What a great service.”
“I could perhaps try to find that boy and get your money back.”
“Oh, no, no, that’s all right. He seemed like a nice boy, really. And I can afford it.”
“Well then, let us go visit the colosseo. Its real name, you should know, is the Anfiteatro Flavio – the Flavian Amphitheatre. But your glasses will tell you that.”
She smiled. “Yes, but it’s nicer to hear you say it.” He bowed slightly, with a smile, and led her in through the gate. They climbed up a couple of levels to where Franco told her she would get the best view. She was surprised to hear him panting when they reached the top, and wheezing a little. “Are you all right?” she asked, concerned.
“Fine, fine,” he said. “A little asma, how do you say it?”
“Asthma?” It seemed odd for such a fit young man to suffer from such a condition. But then children got it, so perhaps it wasn’t so strange after all.
He straightened up and seemed to have recovered. They stood looking out over the ruins and she commanded her e-glasses to run the simulation Franco had given her.
She gave a gasp as the confusing jumble of broken walls below were covered over in a moment by a layer of wooden boards, creating a huge floor. This was then liberally covered with a deep layer of sand. Around her, the broken walls of the Coliseum seemed to be being rebuilt in every detail, stone by stone. Above them, wooden masts sprang up at the top of the walls, and were then strung with a net of ropes and sheets of canvas to create a vast awning which covered two thirds of the arena.
“Oh my goodness,” Donna said. “I never imagined it would look like this.”
“The program we make is good, yes?”
Now, through the e-glasses, the stands were filling with virtual spectators, and she heard yelling and cheering. On the floor of the stadium, groups of gladiators fought bloody battles. She saw one man fall to a stab wound, and then another lose his head to the swing of a sword. Blood spurted up amazingly high from the stump before his body fell to the ground. Wincing, Donna was forced to look away. “Ugh, that wasn’t very nice. Too realistic by far. I think I’ll turn off the simulation.” She quickly issued the commands to do that, and her vision returned to normal. The Coliseum, even in ruins, was still just as impressive.
“How about you just tell me about it, Franco?” she said. “I… I love to hear your voice.”
And so he did. He told amusing little anecdotes as they strolled around. He joked about the number of tourists holding up their smartphones or tablets in front of their faces, apparently preferring to record what their cameras saw rather than to experience the place first hand. Donna, who had done a little recording herself through her e-glasses, though rather more discreetly, had to laugh and agree.
She found herself liking Franco more and more. He was charming and witty. To hell with what her mother would think.
Towards the end of their visit, Franco’s phone rang and he answered. “Pronto! Sì?” A pause. “All’ospedale? Sì, sì, vengo subito.” He put it down, looking grave.
“What’s the matter? Did I hear you mention a hospital?”
He hesitated for a long moment before speaking. “Yes. My mother. She has an illness. Sometimes it is worse than others. Today, unfortunately it is worse and she has been taken to the hospital for treatment. I should go see her."
“Oh! That’s terrible, I’m so sorry.”
"Thank you. She has a rare cancer, and the best drug to treat it… well, it is very expensive, I am afraid. We are trying, my sister and I, to save up. But my salary is not a large one. She works as a school teacher, which is also not a very well paid job. Still, we are trying. We hope to have enough soon.”
“Oh… well I could…” Donna stopped herself. This could be precisely the kind of thing her mother warned her about so often. Franco hadn’t actually asked her to help with money, and he seemed quite genuine. Nevertheless, she restrained her first generous impulse. “Well, I hope that you can get there,” she said, honestly enough.
He nodded, his face clearing. “Enough of this gloomy talk. Are you free tomorrow? I could take you to see the Basilica of St. Peter’s, the greatest church in the world. Not to be missed.”
“Yes, that would be wonderful. But you’re spending so much time with me. Don’t you have other tourists to look after?”
He laughed. “I will be honest with you, belladonna. Tomorrow is my day off. But I would love to see you again.”
Donna had to lie to her mother on the following day, saying that she felt unwell.
“I might have a touch of that bug you had earlier in the week,” she said. “But I’ll be fine here. It’s your turn to do some exploring by yourself.”
“Well, dear, I don’t much like wandering by myself. But I might catch up with Clara again. She wanted to show me the Villa Borghese. That’s a huge park, I understand. We’ll go see that.”
“Yes, you do that. I’ll be fine. If I feel better later, I might stroll down the street. Don’t worry if you don’t find me here when you get back.”
“All right, dear. You call the hotel reception if you feel really sick, you hear? Or give me a call, and I will come right back.”
“OK. See you later.”
As soon as her mother had gone, Donna made herself ready. She put on a pretty new lemon dress she had bought in Milan and checked that her makeup was perfect. Then she went down to reception and had them order her a taxi.
A surprisingly large number of people were walking down the narrow street toward St. Peter’s from the point where the taxi dropped her off; many of them nuns, but lots of other people too. She worried that she wouldn’t be able to find Franco in the crowd.
But she needn’t have worried. Franco was standing on the raised plinth of one of the columns which ring St. Peter’s Square. He waved as he saw her and came forward to hold her shoulders and kiss her on both cheeks. But he looked embarrassed, as he waved towards the piazza. To her surprise, it seemed to be full of chairs, and between each column a security gate had been set up, with carabinieri officers checking the people entering.
“Belladonna, I am so sorry. A Papal audience. I should have known, I am so stupid. There is no access to the Basilica this morning.”
“Oh. Well, never mind. Non fa niente, isn’t that what you say in Italian?”
“Yes, you are right. Very good. But what shall we do? It will be several hours before the Basilica opens to the public again. I would suggest the Vatican Museums, but the queue is always so very long – that is the only way to visit the Sistine Chapel, you understand?”
“Well, perhaps we could have a coffee or something. Or go visit something else? Though I must say my feet are quite sore from all of the sightseeing that I’ve done already.”
“Allora, there is another possibility. Perhaps… perhaps I am being too forward, but…”
“But what?” she said, half-suspecting, half-hoping what he might propose. He was so good looking, so charming in his manners.
“Well, my apartment is not too far from here. A quick taxi ride only. I could offer you coffee there…”
“That sounds wonderful. Let’s go.”
On the taxi-ride, which proved to be not as short as Franco had suggested, Donna’s e-glasses glitched again. Just as the taxi pulled into a street lined with expensive-looking apartment blocks, her vision blurred, or shifted somehow. Again there came a slight darkening to what she saw, and the colors changed. It was as if the street-scape had suddenly been painted over in grey, drab colors, and the tops of some of the buildings seemed to have been erased. Then it was gone and she could see clearly again.
“Damn,” she said.
Franco put a hand on her arm, looking concerned. “Are you all right? Is there a problem?”
“These e-glasses are acting up. Something wrong with the processors. Or it could be some kind of software glitch. I’ll have to take them back to the store. But that’s back home, of course.” She explained to him the trouble she had been having with the system over the last few days.
His brow furrowed. “That’s a pity. But don’t worry, I know someone who is an expert with these devices. I’m sure I can get him…” He stopped speaking abruptly, puzzling Donna. “Yes, yes, he could probably help,” he finished in a rather vague voice, looking out of the window as though thinking.
They pulled up outside one of the tall apartment blocks, a beautifully designed building clad in a creamy stone. Franco paid the driver and they got out.
Inside, he led her through an elegant foyer, though it seemed very small for such a grand building. Donna did wonder in passing how he managed to afford such a place on his small salary from the Tourism Bureau. Or, for that matter, how he had been able to pay for his elegant suit. But then, she reflected, he would need to keep up appearances in his job, and she’d read that creating la bella figura was extremely important to Italians.
They reached the lift. A sign was hanging on it, and Franco gave a small curse. “I’m sorry,” he said, “the lift is out of order. But it is only three flights up to my apartment. Can you walk it?”
“Of course I can,” she said. They climbed up the narrow stairs and Franco, breathing a little heavily again, opened the door to his apartment
Should I be doing this? Donna thought. No. But damn it, I’m going to anyway!
The apartment seemed rather small, but it was very neat and clean, with white painted walls, some nice artwork, and modern-looking furniture.
Donna noticed a slightly odd smell, and she wrinkled her nose. Franco noticed her involuntary reaction and gave a shrug. “Ah, the drains here are not so good. What can you do? The city is three thousand years old. Now, sit down, please, while I make the coffee. I make very good coffee!"
He indicated a black leather-covered sofa and Donna sat down. It wasn't as comfortable as it looked, unfortunately. A lot of modern furniture was like that.
Franco went into the kitchen area, just an alcove with a bench, and started putting water and ground coffee into a stove-top coffee-maker.
As he did so, though, Franco’s phone rang. He swore colourfully in Italian, and put down the equipment. Donna laughed. “That’s OK,” she said, “go ahead and answer it.” There was plenty of time, after all.
He held the phone to his ear. “Pronto.” A silence followed, then he said, “Sì? Allora… Sì, va bene.” He hung up. “So sorry,” he said to Donna. “A little problem again with my mother, not too serious. I will see her tonight at the hospital.”
“She’s still there? Listen, Franco, you must let me help.”
Donna persisted. “I can afford to help you with a little money. A gift, that’s all. You’ve been so kind.”
Franco frowned, but then said. “Well, if you are sure… it would be a great help.”
Feeling triumphant, she said “It will be my pleasure. Now, speaking of pleasure, where were we?”
“So?” he said with a grin and a raised eyebrow, “perhaps you don't want coffee, after all?” Smiling, she shook her head.
Beaming with happiness, Franco came and sat beside her on the sofa. He leaned in and kissed her on the neck, pulling her close and running his hand down her spine. She sank into the warmth of his body, feeling absurdly happy.
“Should we take this somewhere else?” she murmured. Franco smiled and they moved into the bedroom.
Once there, Franco kissed her on the lips, her face and her neck again. He began to fondle her breasts, sending a thrill through her. She was surprised to find his face so rough, though he appeared to be clean-shaven. And his breath… well, it smelt rather strongly of garlic. Well, this is Italy, she thought, putting these distractions aside.
She stepped back from him and began to unfasten the buttons at the back of her dress. They were tiny, and she felt clumsy as she fought to undo them.
Meanwhile, Franco took off his jacket and shirt, revealing a well-muscled, hairless chest. Then he slipped out of his trousers and his underwear. He was well-endowed down there, and very ready.
She finally had the dress unbuttoned and quickly slid it off. She kicked off her shoes and removed her glasses, putting them on the bedside table. Then she reached up to remove the audio discs, which could sometimes be uncomfortable when she lay down. But Franco quickly seized her hand. “No, no,” he murmured, “don’t fuss.” He began to kiss her neck once more and reached behind her to expertly unhook her bra, dropping it to the floor.
That was when the vision system glitched again. As she looked over Franco’s shoulder the lighting gave another sudden shift. The room dimmed considerably and she jerked away from him in surprise. Then it all came back again, bright and clean. “Damn, I’m really going to have to…” she began.
“What’s the matter, belladonna?” he asked, stepping back, his face creased with concern.
The device failed once more, this time for much, much longer.
It took an instant for Donna to react. And then she cried out in alarm. She looked around in panic. It was as though she had been abruptly whisked away from Franco’s modern apartment and been dumped in a dingy, dirty room. Plaster was beginning to peel from the wall in one corner. Worse still, she turned back to Franco, and he wasn’t there. That was when she began to scream.
Instead of Franco, a middle-aged man stood before her, naked. His hair was receding, he had stubble on his chin, and his flesh was pale, with black hairs on his chest. With his nakedness full-frontal to her horrified gaze, she saw his slight pot-belly and his still-aroused genitals.
She put up her hands to cover her breasts. “Who are you? Get out, get out!” A second later, she recognized the stranger. He was one of the men who had leered at her outside the Coliseum. Her legs seemed to give way beneath her, and she slumped down to sit on the bed.
Then, just as suddenly as it had failed, her system fixed itself again. The room lit up with bright light, and she saw Franco standing there once more, beautiful and bronzed.
Donna had a moment’s realization. She grabbed the frames of her glasses from the bedside table and flicked off the power. The room dimmed instantly and the handsome young man was gone, changed back into the gross older one.
She stared down at the frames in her hand. “What have you done to them? What have you done to me?” she screamed at the man. His mouth opened and closed but for now no sound came out. She scrambled off the bed. Her clothes were scattered on the grimy floor, on a carpet which clearly needed cleaning.
“Where am I? Who…” But then she stopped. She knew, really. She just didn’t want to admit it to herself. She threw on her dress, not bothering with her underwear. Then she turned to glare at the man, her heart racing at what seemed to be hundreds of beats per minute.
The man bent his head and looked down, ashamed. “Belladonna, I’m so sorry…” His voice had lost the rich resonance that it had had when she was wearing the processor, but it was still recognizably Franco’s voice.
“You’re him, aren’t you? You’re really him? You’re Franco?”
He nodded, his arms slack, resigned. “Your e-glasses… they have stopped working.” It was a statement rather than a question. “A bug. He told me there might be bugs.”
“And we were going to… You were going to…,” she said, her voice cracking with disbelief and anger. “You fucking bastard!” She picked up a heavy lamp from the table – an ugly pottery thing – and threw it hard at ‘Franco’. He tried to dodge, but it struck him on the hip and he yelped with pain. The lamp shattered on the wall behind him.
“How did you do it?” Her voice was full of fury. “Oh, for God’s sake put your pants on, I can’t stand to look at you.” He bent and pulled them on – grey suit pants, a little baggy.
“How?” she repeated. “Tell me!”
He turned his hands away from his sides, palms uppermost, and shrugged, a very Italian gesture. “Allora, it was the software. The software Claudio gave you at the Forum. We…”
She was bewildered. “The boy? How do you know him? How could…?”
Franco, or the man Franco had become, shrugged again. “He is my son. He is a genius, I think. Very, very clever. He knows all about the software for your system. That model, with the contact lenses, is becoming very popular now among rich young… among young women like yourself. He hacked… is that the word?”
“Hacked? Hacked!” her nostrils flaring, “Claudio is your son?”
“Yes, yes,” he said, looking ashamed. “He subverted the simulation software. It really is from the Tourism Bureau. But Claudio found a way to forge the authentication… add his own content to the simulation and force it to run always in the background. He is, as I say, very clever…” His voice trailed off.
She bent to pick up the last of her things and slipped her shoes back on in two angry movements. “You bastard!” she repeated. “All that business about your mother… You were trying to steal money from me, apart from everything else. I don’t believe you have a mother, let alone that she is ill. You’re a thief and a liar, and I hate you.”
He straightened up then. “Yes, it is true. I wish we hadn’t tried that, now. But we truly needed that money. Claudio needs it. He should go to a good university, become a great engineer, not be forced to sell stuff on the street. It was my plan, I admit. I… I am sorry.”
“I do not forgive you. I’ll never forgive you,” she said, heading for the bedroom door.
“Donna, please don’t go!” he said. “This was the first time we tried it, I swear. You were the first. I would have paid your money back, taken it as a loan, only. Over the last few days I have grown to truly feel for you. I feel… you are not like any other woman. I honestly have come to have real affection for you. We could… once your device is mended, once the bugs are fixed… we could…”
“What?!?” She was astounded by his effrontery.
He reached out his arms, pleading. “What is reality but what we see and hear? Even now, if you were to turn your glasses back on, the software bug has surely cleared up for the moment. You would see the Franco you knew back again. After all, the simulation is just a kind of enhancement. You wear makeup, don’t you, to make yourself look more beautiful? Is this so very different? And were you not attracted by our talks, by my words? Everything I said to you was mine, truly mine. Or did you only like me for how you thought I looked?”
She gaped at him for a silent moment. Then in answer she threw the glasses down to the floor, followed by the audio discs. If she could have done so easily, she would have torn out her contact lenses as well. She stamped hard on the delicate devices, grinding them savagely into the floor and crushing the processors.
Not giving him a backward glance, Donna marched out. Without the system, she felt newly naked, stripped of something vital. But she went on.
Outside, reality waited. It was grubby and decrepit and miserable and dull.
She was going to have to get used to it.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About This Story
I think the genesis for this story was reading about a multimedia experience someone had built about Ancient Rome and I started thinking about how that kind of thing could be ramped up to the max. The story was published in the Real World Unreal Theme-Thology in 2014.
By the way, I know a little Italian but I am far from fluent. Non parlo bene l’Italiano! Any mistakes in the Italian in the story are my own, and I would be very grateful if they are pointed out to me so I can correct them.
If you like my writing you can support me by buying me a coffee.
And that’s it for this issue. See you next time.