This story appeared in the 1993 Miller Freeman anthology, Infinite Loop: Stories about the Future by the People Creating It, and was edited by Larry Constantine. It was my very first sale. Please see Rights and Permissions before redistributing it in any form.
"And we'll always stay together, right?" Rose's voice quivered with that young-but-old sound that Morris was coming to truly hate. Fifty-five going on ninety, she'd fallen on retirement with a vengeance, taking up bridge, bourbon, and country club politics, leaving Morris Creed with the unsettling sensation that his wife had suddenly turned into his mother.
"Right." He took her hand and smiled. "It's going to be fun. You'll see."
"And just base service. None of those fancy premium channels, and none of that . . . that filth." They'd gone over it a thousand times before. Morris smiled and nodded again, kissed her powdery cheek, returned to his own bed, and turned off the light. The only thing visible in the room was the friendly red glow of the Dream-O-Vision's Activate light, reflected in the tiny aluminum dish antenna. Battery-operated and wireless, the little black box looked ridiculously small for what it was, and could do.
"I think so." He heard rubbery sounds from her side of the room. Her voice quivered in the dark. Morris reached up and pulled the black neoprene DreamMask down over his eyes, checking that the tiny antenna was free of obstruction and firmly seating the electrodes at his temples, obeying the instructions to the letter.
"Good night, then," he said, groping for the nightstand between them, finding the little box and hitting the textured button, meaning to add something smart like "See you in my dreams!", but the effect rushed in like a breaking wave. The room spun, tilted, went blacker than the inside of the mask--
--and then blazed to white. Whitewashed adobe, to be exact, a wide balcony overlooking an ancient city on a sheer cliff above an emerald bay. Gentle whitecaps tossed many-colored boats across the water. Birds and butterflies, dragons and dirigibles, fairies, fireflies, and fighter planes all traced an unending aerial ballet from city to sky to water and back again.
Morris stepped forward to the worn railing, jaw agape. He'd heard and read incredible things, but this. . . .
This was out-bloody-standing, as his dear departed pa used to say. He could already see a thousand things he wanted to try, starting with saddling up a dragon, that one, the one that was toasting the tail off of that F-16--
--Christ! That was a humpback whale, breaching right in the middle of the bay! And the thing was wearing a huge wicker saddle filled with row upon row of screaming riders having the time of their lives! That. He wanted to do that first, and then maybe the dragon. . . .
"Morris?" She was right behind him, shivering in her patched old nightgown. Before turning around, Morris knew what he was about to see: the classic mouth-full-of-sour-owls look that meant Rosie was Not Amused. "I want some clothes. And a drink. And a cigarette."
"All right." Clothes. He looked down at himself and shook his head. Flannel pajamas would not do for whaleback riding. Something a bit more Cousteau-like, in rubber, perhaps. And suddenly, without a flicker, he was wearing an eye-bending yellow and orange O'Neill wetsuit.
Rose made a strangled sound and backed away.
"Don't do that!"
He giggled. This was fun. "Wild Turkey over ice, right, and a Virginia Slime?" He reached up and pulled a cocktail tray out of the air. Ice rattled in glass; smoke curled up from a heavy ceramic ashtray. She took an involuntary step forward, interested in spite of herself.
"How did you do that?"
"Just thought about doing it, and it happened. Nothing to it." He squinted one eye and sighted at her over his thumb. "And now--"
"No! Don't you dare make me over! And take that silly suit off--you look ridiculous."
An oak-framed mirror--twin to the one on the back of their bathroom door at home--shimmered into existence in front of him. She was right. He did indeed look ridiculous, a bald, fat old man crammed into a costume meant for someone a quarter his age. He handed her the tray, smiled at himself in the mirror, inhaled, and sucked in his paunch. His chest swelled, stretching the rubber tight. And, miracle of miracles, when he exhaled, the gut stayed gone.
His smile turned into a grin. He flexed his skinny arms and his biceps grew back, his shoulders widened by half a foot, and his waist narrowed into a V, pushing its leftover thickness down into his thighs and calves with a warm tingle. Hair--rich, thick, black hair!--grew like grassfire, running wild in reverse stop-motion from the crown of his head and down to his collar--
"Stop that!" shrieked Rose, dropping the cocktail tray with a clang and a crash. The mess spread to its fullest, sparkled, and sank into the warm adobe floor without leaving a trace.
"What?" He broke away from the mirror. She swayed on her feet, whitefaced, hands on cheeks. "I'm just having a little fun."
"You put yourself back right now or I'm done with this. I won't be seen with a . . . a teenager!"
"It's a dream, Rosie. We can do anything we want."
"I don't want you like this! I want you back the way you are!" Her eyes went wet with tears. "It's not a dream. It's a nightmare."
"Now, now. Don't cry, sweetheart," he said, reaching for her. She shrank from him, shaking her head, starting the tears on their way. He stopped, fingering the sleeve of the wetsuit, and turned it back into worn flannel with a wave of his hand. Relaxing his stomach muscles and slumping his shoulders let all the imaginary air out of his body, returning him to somewhat less Schwartzeneggerian proportions. "But I'm keeping the hair, Rose. And I'm not wearing the belly."
Victorious, she came into his arms, wiping her eyes on his lapel and hugging him tightly. He felt like a large, warm snake had wrapped him in soft, suffocating coils. Turning and meeting her eyes in the mirror, he saw her smile and noticed that his hair had turned gray once more.
Fine. It was gray, but it was still there.
They spent the rest of the night shopping. Immediately below their entry node was the Dreamland Mall, stretching the full length of the city.
At least half of the Mall was taken up by shoe stores. Jewelry shops, period-furniture stores, art galleries, and large-size women's wear emporia made up the bulk of the rest, anchored every hundred yards with a Sak's, Macy's, Nordstrom, Gump's, or Nieman-Marcus. Not a single Sears or Wards marred the landscape; the Mall aspired to a higher level.
No cash changed hands in the Mall. Everything went on a solid platinum VISA card and was packed into a magic shopping bag that would hold a family of elephants but only weigh enough to let the bearer know that something was in there. Morris had paid particular attention to the Mall section in the documentation; he knew that no money or goods actually changed hands on the Basic Service level, but the stores with franchises paid stiff rent without a quiver for the exposure.
Possessing a functioning Y chromosome in every cell of his body, Morris failed to spot the attraction of fantasy shopping. He held his tongue, however, since Rose was having such a marvelous time. He spent his first night in Dreamland waiting outside a thousand dressing rooms, holding her purse, and fetching a larger pair of whatever it was she was trying on. Nothing he or any salesperson could say would convince Rose to modify her potato-like proportions; she simply sniffed and said that there were plenty of stores in the Mall, and one was bound to have her size.
As advertised, they woke up fresh and ready to take on the day after nine solid hours of high-quality REM sleep. Morris went out early that morning and broke eighty for the first time in his life, in tournament play on a course he'd never seen before. Rose bounced around the house in a whirling cloud of energy, dusting, straightening, cleaning, shopping for dinner, and spreading Morris a victory feast the likes of which he hadn't seen in years.
They went shopping in the Mall for the next three nights. Then, as they were turning in on Friday, Morris put his foot down, gently. "We've got to at least see the rest of the city! It'll be fun--you and me in the back of a hansom in Dreamland at midnight. What do you say?" He locked eyes with her and did not back down. Like any proficient rider, Rose knew when to give her mount his head.
"Oh, all right. I'm missing two-thirds off at Tiffany's for this, but you've been so good the past few days." Chattering wasn't working. She tried breaking down instead. "I'm sorry! I was-- I was so scared of this thing! Scared I'd lose you to the first little slut that came along in a bikini." He moved to her, took her in his arms, and she sniffled heavily. "You had this look-- You were staring out at the water, the city, the people-- You looked like you were gone, Morris. Gone from me!"
"Now, now. You know I could never leave you." He reached back and pulled the little black box off the nightstand. "This thing is a toy. It's a radio. A TV set. A video game. Not real, not where it counts. Not right here." And he hugged her again. "What do you say we unplug it tonight, give it a rest?"
She pulled back, shocked out of her tears. "What?"
"Sure. A night off, that's what we need. Hell, if it's causing you that much grief, we'll send it back!"
Her mouth worked silently, fishlike, failing to keep pace with her thoughts. Finally, carefully chosen words emerged. "No. No, I'd really like to keep it. And you will, too, once we get out of the Mall. We've been doing my things all week; it's your turn tonight."
Sinatra was amazing.
Young, slick, and magnetic, he moved like a big, restless cat, prowling the bandstand, working the balconies, finally settling right in front of their ringside table. Rose basked in a small piece of the spotlight, relishing every word, every sip of bourbon, every tiny gleam of reflected light from the thousand tiny black sequins on her richly brocaded shawl.
After Frank they danced. Alone in the spotlight among the dark, faceless mob, they swooped and floated like graceful birds in formal wear. Even Morris had to admit that the dancing was fun; all he had to do was think of a move--or copy one he saw being done in the shadows--and they'd glide right through it like they were on tracks, be it spin or grapevine or sweetheart or whatever.
And after the dancing they caught a two-horse taxi to Electric Park, in the middle of Nightside, the quarter of town where the sun never rose and the moon stayed always full. The night had just enough of a nip to make them snuggle close together, Rose in her mink and Morris in his wonderful tweed topcoat. Gaslit jugglers, musicians, magicians, and mimes mingled with the colorful flow of smiling passerby, all flowing by them in a river of night people. And the women . . . Morris went crosseyed trying not to stare at the women on the street. Were they hookers? He'd heard things, read things in the paper, but this-- This was unreal!
"Honey," said Rose, nuzzling deeper into his chest, "do you know what would make the evening absolutely perfect?"
"What?" Morris jumped and did a quick take to make sure Rose hadn't caught him peeking. She hadn't.
"Well. . . ." She gave him her best coy look, gently caressing the side of his face. "I know we said we weren't going to get into any of the premium services, but I found something I really want to do."
"And what might that be?" Morris began to hope.
"When I picked up my fur at the salon in Macy's the other day, I happened to hear some talk. Two of the clerks were going on and on about Family Values, you know, my stories?" He nodded. Next to absolute domination of her bridge club, the soap opera was the closest thing she had to a hobby. "I'm afraid they caught me eavesdropping. But guess what? The producer of the show--you know, that bald little Tommy Ammiamamo fellow from TV Guide--was standing right there, just when I spoke up and said that somebody should open a Family Values store in the Mall. Well, to make a very long story short, we did lunch with his people and they're actually going to do it! Can you imagine? Every fan in the world will drop in! And, best of all, they want me to play Phyllis DeBeauvoir!" Even Morris had heard that name before; the aging but still-regal head of the most elegant chain of department stores in popular fiction had been the star of Values since forever, twenty years or maybe more.
"Mmm. Did they say how much it was going to cost?"
She snapped instantly into business talk, reciting a fact she'd memorized. "Base plus premium rate two. Nine-fifty an hour." And then back into melt-your-heart mode. "But you know how time stretches out in here--an hour seems like a week." Especially in the Mall, thought Morris. "And I'm sure I could get you something. They said that Trevor Black and Jason Kennedy were already cast, but they'd have to do it for me--I'm the star, after all--"
"--I mean, the plot has to evolve here, too. We'll just kill off one of the men. Rutger. We'll drop Rutger down a manhole. He's such a smarmy little worm--"
"--Rose!" She fell silent. He made his voice as gentle as possible. "I don't want to be on Family Values."
"What? But-- But they've cast me already--"
"Rose. Listen to me. I don't want to be on Family Values. You go ahead and do it. Have fun."
"But we'd be together!"
"At two times nine-fifty, almost twenty bucks an hour? A hundred and sixty a night! No. That we can't afford, not for something I wouldn't enjoy anyway. You know me, Rose--no taste for the arts. I'd rather be doing anything else, and there's plenty else to do."
She pouted, successfully reaching her goal but still maintaining pressure, just for form's sake. "You want to ride that silly whale."
"Yes! I want to ride the whale. And blow up the Death Star. And kill some dragons. And beat Nicklaus at the Crosby. And storm the Fuhrerbunker." His smile grew into a grin, matching hers. "You know me, Rosie--typical adolescent male to the very end." She smiled back, shaking her head. "So, when do you start?"
She shrugged. "Now, if I want."
"Go. Have fun. See you in the morning."
She kissed him, snapped her fingers, and vanished in a cloud of gold sparkles. Evidently she'd relaxed her miracle-phobia when she wanted to get somewhere in a hurry.
Blowing out a huge, relieved breath, he collapsed into the plush velvet seat. And then bounced back up and tapped on the driver's shoulder. "Hey! Where does a guy get a drink in this town?"
Morris woke up with a grin on his face and damning evidence dried onto his belly. He'd found his bar, all right, the Bottom Line, out on Front Street by the pier. The place had all the right amenities: loud brassy music, gorgeous strippers of truly stupendous proportions who still only peeled to pasties and g-string, and a pre-heroin Lenny Bruce introducing them. And, wonder of wonders, a small, steamy room in the back strewn with satin pillows and lit with a single red bulb, where a guy with a big enough stack of dream-Krugerrands could hire a dancer or three for his own very private party.
He got up and went quickly to the shower. Rose was still in Dreamland, wearing a predatory smile. Morris trembled as the hot water hit him, trying to remember a sexual experience one tenth as powerful as what had happened that night. He'd been with Rose for nearly thirty years; before her there'd been only a single steady girl who'd dear-johned him in boot camp, and then a few highly unsatisfactory teenage prostitutes in Saigon. And then Rosie, the banker's daughter. Instant career. Money. Cars. Fairway view estate. Separate beds.
Shuddering as he soaped off, he decided that once was enough. The temptation to return to the Bottom Line--especially since he had what looked like a permanent pass to do basically whatever he liked--would be far too great without scratching the itch even one more time.
No, there were bigger and better fish to fry, ones not nearly so hazardous to his marriage.
A pattern developed over the next two weeks. Morris and Rose would cruise through Nightside, eating dinner and catching a different show each night. And then Rose was off to Makeup and Morris was off to kill monsters.
The Dark Tower was visible from every open area in Dreamland, climbing up laser-straight into the sky from the center of the vast city and plunging downwards into a bottomless abyss. Entering from ground level faced the player with a simple choice: up or down. Rumor had it that the upper and lower ends met at some impossibly distant spot; existing maps, however, traced over a thousand floors in each direction with neither end in sight. Predating Dreamland itself, the Tower had its roots in several online computer games that had merged into a single Siege Perilous with the advent of broadcast dream technology.
Best of all, it was cheap. Base plus premium-one came to only three bucks an hour, making Dark Tower the number one drawing card in Dreamland.
Premium-level services brought to the user an extra sharpness of resolution and a longer time-perception; basically, the more you paid, the truer the experience seemed and the more subjective time you spent doing it. Dark Tower seemed realer, more solid than the rest of Dreamland; once he tried it, Morris immediately understood the attraction of premium service.
In a fortnight Morris explored seven floors, three up and four down, with the friendly help of several of his fellow player-characters. Morris's character, Asap the Swift, was a lean, wiry Swordsman with an unfortunate tendency towards recklessness. Although Morris knew intellectually that his chances of even annoying a third-level ogre in adamantine plate mail were dicey at best, Asap threw caution to the winds and waded right in, rapier extended for the kill.
Asap died a lot that first night.
On the next night, however, Morris hooked up with two other players, Tourmaline and Lovecraft--journeyman Healer and apprentice Mage--and extended Asap's useful life to the point where Dark Tower became an industrial-strength addiction. Rose, on the other hand, needed no assistance to carve her stamp into Family Values. Two weeks--six months of Dreamtime at base-plus-premium-two--of fierce negotiation, power play, backstabbing, and blatant flirtation expanded the fictional empire beyond the sponsor's wildest dreams. Rose's initial inspiration--why not extend her fictional store into the "real life" of the Mall?--sent the owners of several real franchises scurrying into action. Real Family Values stores were due to open in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, just in time for Christmas.
Three days into the next month, the bill came.
Should have known she'd ask for itemized detail, thought Morris, surveying the wreckage of the Dream-O-Vision set. It looked like Rose had taken his burglar bat to it, with spectacular results. Strewn across the nightstand and onto his bed, bits of shattered plastic, twisted wire, broken circuit boards, and crushed computer chips lay scattered in mute testimony to her rage. She'd pounded the fragile aluminum dish antenna flat and then folded it twice, forming a sharp spear that ran through the thick wad of billing detail and pinned it to his pillow. Heavy slashes of red felt-tip pen circled his transgressions:
The two-letter code stood for Adult Services, as pointed out in the helpful index at the bottom of each flimsy sheet. Location, date, time, service contractor, and price were also noted. Morris had spent a grand total of fifteen seconds realtime in the back room at the Bottom Line, for base plus premium rate ten, as high as it went.
The $56.25 was an insignificant pimple on Rose's thousand-dollar total for the month, and Morris had run up another three hundred playing Dark Tower. Still, he didn't think that Rose was pissed about the money. The money was nothing.
Control was everything. For a span of fifteen seconds, Morris had run completely wild and free, pouring gasoline on the hidden flames of Rose's deepest paranoia. And now he had to be punished.
Television was in turns stultifyingly boring and hellishly teasing, consisting of old reruns interspersed with new commercials for all the neat things to be done in Dreamland. Radio and the papers weren't much better. Morris resorted to bringing home armloads of paperbacks, anything even remotely interesting he could get his hands on.
Nothing helped. He missed his new friends. His golf game went south. He slept badly when he slept at all. His dreams were twisted reflections of the Dark Tower, orcs and ogres and trolls, all wearing Rose's face, chasing him naked through miles of satin-lined corridors lit with flickering red bulbs.
Finally he started hitting the Wild Turkey. Two stiff shots did the trick, putting him down for the night with no troubling dreams.
Rose blamed him for everything. His "infidelity", the loss of her role in Family Values, the smirk on the face of the delivery boy who came for the bits and pieces of the Dream-O-Vision set. She even dredged up a piece of truly ancient history: the time he'd flipped through an adult pay channel on his one and only solo business trip. He'd sat there transfixed by the vision of Marilyn Chambers being ravished on a pool table just long enough to get charged for it.
And, worst of all, she told her family. Not everything, of course, but just enough hints to get the idea across. Morris was having problems controlling himself. Morris never could resist temptation. Morris had to have someone watching over him all the time. It was such a shame that Morris had to go and spoil everything. Morris was so impulsive, so untrustworthy, such an immature little boy.
Little boy, perhaps. But a tough little boy, with a mind armored by many years worth of mental callus; he'd endured freezing cold spells like this before. And this one was made easier by the knowledge that her pangs of withdrawal were far worse than his. So Morris tucked his head between his knees and prepared to wait this one out.
It only took a few days.
The pirate box came from a mail drop in Elko, Nevada. Via Federal Express, it showed up one morning while Morris was shooting a disastrous 97. From the entry date on the invoice, Morris figured that Rose had ordered it about twelve hours after smashing the old one.
The only outward difference between it and the original they'd gotten from DreamCorp was that it carried no dire warnings about what would happen if you tampered with it. It looked like Rose had torn it straight out of the FedEx carton, inserted batteries, and turned it on. Sprawled on her back on the bed among the styrofoam packing peanuts, she lay fully clothed, sweating in the heat of the afternoon. Scowling into the black rubber mask, she did not appear to be having a good time.
Gee, maybe they gave Phyllis to somebody else, thought Morris. Poor baby. Then he showered, taking a long time to get the accumulated grime out of his hair and his miserable round of golf out of his mind. Twenty minutes of very hot water, set on maximum blast, left him feeling much better. The eighty-degree air felt almost cool against his pinked-up hide when he emerged, ready to meet the boys at the Nineteenth Hole for the postmortem.
Rose hadn't moved a muscle. If anything, the frown on her face had cut even deeper. Probably having a great time fighting for her life, thought Morris. And then he dressed and walked back to the clubhouse, hopping his back fence and cutting across the fourteenth fairway.
Six beers, two shots, and an ill-advised daiquiri later, Morris stumbled back into the house, waving at his buddies as they swerved down the street in their custom-built golf cart. Barely able to walk, he collapsed into bed, not even thinking to look over at Rose.
In the morning she still hadn't moved, and the Dream-O-Vision set was still set on Activate. Shaking her produced no response. And her face still held that look of angry disgust that he'd seen the night before.
Hacking blindly through the choking jungle of his hangover with the freshly sharpened blade of fear, Morris began to hunt for the manual. He vaguely remembered reading that switching off a Dreamer was supposed to be like waking a sleepwalker, dangerously disorienting at best. That was why the sets were battery-powered, after all--so the power couldn't go off in the middle of the night and shock the Dreamer into wakefulness.
After ransacking the house, he concluded that the manual must have accompanied the pieces of the original set back to the factory for burial. And there was nothing included with the pirate set but a few lines of foggy text that looked like it had been translated from English to Chinese and back, and then faxed and photocopied into grainy oblivion.
Returning to the bedroom, he felt indecision kicking in. What if he'd simply missed Rose's wakeup during his unconscious period the night before? Boy, would she be pissed if he cut her off in the middle of something good!
On the other hand, she was still wearing her shoes, for Chrissakes. There was no way in hell she'd go to bed with her heels on, unless. . . .
Unless she was in the middle of regaining her empire when her nine-hour clock ran out. He just *had* to give her a little more time. Eight. He'd wait until eight. That would be just about enough time for him to get human again.
So he brushed his teeth twice, showered, shaved, and choked down two English muffins with honey butter. Looked at the clock. Read the paper. Looked at the clock. Watched yesterday's highlights of the Lakers pounding the Sonics. Looked at the clock some more.
Eight-thirty found him hovering over Rose's lumpish form, listening to her gentle snore. Five more minutes, he thought, pacing. He gave her fifteen.
Then he reached over and gently pressed the Activate button. The tiny red light went out.
And Rose released a final snoring breath, and was still. Too still. Not breathing at all. He grabbed at her shoulder roughly, shaking her. "Rose?" He peeled off the sweat-filmed sleepmask, grimacing at its warm sliminess. Underneath it her eyes were open, rolled back in their sockets to show veiny whites. "Oh, God." He rolled her onto her back, trying to remember his CPR. "Rose!" He felt her throat for a pulse. Nothing.
Okay, you know what to do. Pulse first, then breathing. Tilting her head back, he shoved a pillow under her neck. Rearing up, he gave her five quick chest-compressions, trying not to crack her ribs with the heels of his hands. And then a good long breath, pinching her nose shut and blowing everything he had into her lungs. Then the pattern: one-two-three-breathe, one-two-three-breathe. Check her pulse. . . .
Nothing. Damn it.
Think. She was fine just a second ago; what happened? Look around you, idiot--what's different? Oh, dear God. The box. It was doing something to her, so you better get her back online and see if it helps.
Fumbling, he hit the Activate button again and swore at its flashing Not Ready Error. The mask, of course. He settled the mask back over her eyes and tried again.
Rose's chest hitched and spasmed. Finally, she took a long, gasping breath. And Morris let one out, not realizing he'd been holding it in. The sound of her snore was beautiful music.
"Okay. I get it," said Morris, addressing the hateful little box on the nightstand. "I have to come in after her, right?"
Through the pirate interface, the streets of Dreamland moved at a snail's crawl. Walkers stood stock-still, flyers hovered unsupported in the air, even the waves in the bay hung suspended in mid-crash. Everything was spookily silent; only oddly distorted echoes came back when Morris yelled into the air.
The pirate box had apparently had all speed filters removed. When Morris popped into his balcony apartment, every area, including Basic Services, seemed to be running at premium rate ten, around ninety-to-one compression.
Paging anyone at that speed was impossible, since he couldn't exit to realtime. He was going to have to look for Rose the hard way.
He quickly tore through the length of the Mall, checking the offices of all twelve Family Values stores. Unchallenged, he sauntered past security guards frozen in midstep. In the plush back rooms he witnessed silent tableaus of greed, intrigue, murder, surgery, careful sheet-covered sex, and domination games of every other possible stripe, but no sign of Rose. Not that he expected to find her; she'd be just as invisible as he was outside of the premium-ten areas.
But she had to be somewhere. At her rate she'd been online for something like three months subjective, time enough and more for her to get bored with watching people stand around like statues. He cudgeled his weary brain. What if she'd gotten caught somehow? Where would they take her? More important, what would they have done to her for those ninety days?
He had to get some help. And he knew of only one place in Dreamland where time ran at premium-ten.
The leather-clad bouncer saw Morris coming, grinned, and opened the door. Unbelievably loud heavy-metal music blared forth into the eternal night, riding a thumping beat that shook the otherwise silent street. The Bottom Line looked to be under new management. Nasty new management. Morris wet his lips and tried to ask for help.
"What?" The doorman couldn't hear him.
"Manager! I've got to speak to your manager!" bellowed Morris. The doorman shook his head and pointed to his ear, starting to pull the door close. Morris caught it and stepped through just in time.
Not a sign of the Bottom Line's previous incarnation as fifties-vintage strip bar remained. Red flock wallpaper, proscenium arch, and orchestra pit had given way to floorlit plexiglass runway with wraparound bar, strobe lights, and a mammoth robot CD-jockey. Where there was once a single girl onstage there now were twenty, all young, beautiful, worse than naked in heels, hose, and--oh, God!--appliances. Collars. Harnesses. Chains. Clips, clamps, pinchers, and pins. Latex and lace. . . .
Tearing his attention away with a major exercise of will, Morris searched for somebody, anybody who didn't look to be a part of it. The floor, if possible, was worse than the stage. The waitresses were part of the show as well. He could see . . . things happening all around him. Tall black twins in spandex rode the face and lap of a suit-wearing businessman sprawled atop the back bar. A sweet-looking blonde in a tight rubber bra delivered a foaming beer to a hulking biker sitting three feet away from Morris, listened to a request inaudible through the din, giggled, and dropped to her knees. Averting his eyes, Morris headed for the rear door.
The back room was different, too. No longer a red-lit boudoir, it contained a small stage surrounded by a crowd of shouting, shoving men. On the platform rested a large steel cage.
Inside the cage was his wife.
Rose wore the impossibly perfect body of a porno queen: tiny wasp-waist, generous buttocks, and huge, creamy, high-riding breasts, covered only by a light sheen of sweat, stiletto heels, and a studded leather belt. Three pairs of handcuffs held her nearly immobile, one pair looped over the top bar of the cage to force her arms straight up, and another connecting each shapely ankle to the sides, spreading her legs wide. Her hair was a fiery red mane, moussed into a floating cloud of sparkles and air. Her mouth was an open wound, wet and pouting. Her eyes--
--were locked onto his. She mouthed his name and writhed, rolling her hips, arching her back and shimmying--
--and screamed, a hoarse cry that Morris heard clearly, even over the blare of the music and the roar of the crowd. Fat blue sparks leapt from the bars, connecting with her cuffs and the metal studs on her belt. She jerked and twitched, muscles standing out in sharp relief against the velvety smoothness of her skin.
The men around her went wild, whooping and pounding on the bar. The ones closest to her dug into their pockets, spilling coins and bills from every country onto the bar, forcing the cash down into several wide slots. Elbowing his way closer, Morris caught sight of a large voltmeter and a set of Tesla coils straight from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory. The needle on the meter jiggled and climbed as the men stuffed more and more money into the bar.
Shaking, Morris closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and wished--
--and suddenly it was very, very quiet. Only the sound of her ragged breathing cut the air. When he opened his eyes, the room was empty except for Rose and him.
The door fell away from its hinges with a weak rusty sound. The cuffs sprang from the bars at his touch. She collapsed into his arms, winding hers around his neck and pressing her full, glorious length against him.
"I knew you'd come," she whispered into his ear.
His pulse began to pound. This was too much. "Are you all right?"
"Oh, yes. Better than I've ever been."
"What? But you--"
"I've changed just a bit, haven't I?" Another undulation, ending in firm pressure, her hip to his crotch. "I've been waiting for you."
"I know, and I'm sorry about that. I didn't know if you needed help or not."
"Looks to me like you're the one who needs help." She stroked one fingernail across his cheek, down his chest and belly, and took him firmly in hand. "Why don't I show you some of what I've learned?"
"Agh. Uh, all right." Rational thought was no longer possible.
She smiled and the room wavered and changed. Post-industrial biker-bar trappings shifted back to pink satin sheets, and mounds of pillows, and a single red light bulb swinging in the air. Kissing him hard, she tripped him with a neat judo-style move, giggling and landing on top.
"Y'ever been tied up? No, of course not." She opened the manacle on her left ankle with a practiced twist. "Give me your hands." Morris obeyed, moving through a fog of lust, ready to burst at the slightest touch. She cuffed him professionally, straddled him, leaned him back into the pillows by pressing her chest into his face, and clipped the chain into some unseen eyebolt over his head. His clothes melted away, leaving him bare and throbbing beneath her benevolent gaze.
And then, of course, she changed. Her smooth young face and form shifted and stretched, mottling, warping, twisting and bloating before his eyes, back to the way it was before. Back to the wife he'd come to know: fat, gray, nasty old Rose. "I knew you'd be back. They always come back for more." He closed his eyes and wished, hard. Nothing happened. Shuddering, he tested the chain that bound him. Why couldn't he escape? "Go on, try to get away." He bucked and twisted but was pinned flat by her weight across his stomach. "See? Nothing works anymore, does it? You're caught. Busted. Under house arrest. Just like I was."
"Was?" He began working one leg free. Maybe he could hook a heel around her, remove her crushing mass.
"What do you think they do when they catch a pirate? What do you think they did to me?" She brought her face very close to his. Her breath smelled of rotting meat. "Where do you think all those pretty little whores came from? Central Casting?" Her voice lowered to a hiss. "I'm sure they'll find something interesting for you to do." She slid down his body, her clammy white flesh leaving a cold trail, prickly body hair tickling him like the legs of a spider. She grinned up at him from between his thighs, revealing a mouthful of teeth that belonged to a Doberman. "There's one small thing I'd like to keep, just to remember you by. . . ."
As the first weak flickers of torchlight came down the dripping stone tunnel, Morris stirred in his nest, wincing at the pain. He wrapped one green-scaled hand around the base of the blunt stick they'd given him as a weapon and hitched the other through the filthy hide that bound the wound between his legs. Happy, excited voices and the clank of steel on steel echoed down the passage as the light became stronger.
"--is so great! I don't believe I'm actually here!"
"Just watch yourself. If you stick to the main drag this floor's a cakewalk, but there's lots of nasty things lurking in the shadows."
Alone in the dark, Morris nodded in agreement, drool spilling between his tusks in anticipation. Nasty. You don't know the half of it, brother.