“The Libertine’s Lament” – Fiction by Rob Hartzell

Máquina De Coser Electro-Sexual - Oscar Dominguez, 1934
Máquina De Coser Electro-Sexual – Oscar Dominguez, 1934

Our Spring 2016 issue is perhaps our sexiest issue yet, thanks to pieces like “The Libertine’s Lament,” Rob Hartzell‘s highly stimulating short fiction on the future of virtual pleasures.

{ X }

I REMEMBER THE OLD VIDEO-STREAMS I used to collect of Japanese women making love to each other in cramped Tokyo apartments, or of Americanized women from various parts of Asia kissing languidly at poolside in California, or caressing each other in the hotel rooms used to make so much of the pornography of that era, and I remember thinking even then that the actual Japanese women were much less arousing than the Americanized fantasy women when they kissed, the Japanese women almost violently groping each other with their mouths. Even then, the semblance was better than the real thing—but the point is moot here in the Cloud, where there is neither real nor illusion, nothing but perception, whether the sense data comes from cameras and haptic devices or experience files stored on one of the local servers. For those of us who have uploaded, anything can be real enough; the question is, does it make us feel enough? At this particular moment, it is still not quite possible to produce a satisfying dinner-experience: taste is the last frontier of the digital divide, though there are other pleasures open to those who have left their inhibitions behind with their bodies…

{ X }

Playmate #3—we are known to each other only by our numbers—is my current favorite. It’s considered bad form to ask personal details of another playmate, but it’s nearly impossible not to imagine the stories behind the scenarios we enact with each other. She has a fetish for Japanese rope bondage, which is why most of #3’s fem-dom scenes find me floating in a snug cocoon of ropes, like an embrace that grasps me everywhere. Her latest refinement: she does not permit me to see her or her toys of choice until we’re well into the scene, even if it is the cat she usually uses first, snapping and flogging my back awake, as if the tendrils of the whip pass through the rope on their way to my (virtual) flesh.

{ X }

Our developers are nothing if not clever code-monkeys: once intoxication routines had been hacked, orgasm was only a quick hack beyond that. The hard work was getting it to sync properly with sense data, to make it happen the way it did in the flesh. It wasn’t long before someone hacked an orgasm button, but we agreed amongst ourselves not to use it. The point of our little club, after all, is to prolong and refine our pleasures, not to crassly flip a bit-switch and get a little jolt of the old petit mort the way one might order a coffee. This is something the moralizers, who accuse my kind of seeking instant, constant gratification, will never understand: the difficulty that’s involved in achieving real pleasure. That it is difficulty itself which, more often than not, defines real pleasure, especially among connoisseurs such as us.

{ X }

I have been playing with #3 for a little more than a year now, longer than most play-partnerships last in our particular cluster. Can I say I know #3? I know what turns hir on—gender is but one part of the costume we put on for the scenarios we share with each other—and zie knows what will do the same for me. This is a situation that’s harder to find than it may sound—#7 was my first partner when I joined this electronic Hellfire Club, and we only lasted a week before it was clear we were beginning to grate on each other; it was a good three years or so before I met #3. We have played out our erotic psychodramas almost daily for a year, and zie understands how to play the dominance and submission games we both love to play of late. I know #3 as well as I can. I know #3 as well as I need to. Whether our games find me hanging in a web of ropes, or applying a crop to the lush globes of her backside (zie prefers to take a female role in our games, whatever hir actual gender might be), what we share is an understanding of each other, one that is deeper than words and more naked and vulnerable than bodies.

{ X }

When we had bodies, we knew that we had them for only a short while, like the snap of a crop’s tip compared to the life the Cloud gives us now. This knowledge gave our games a bittersweet urgency—a need to seize our pleasures before they could be taken from us—that we no longer have. For the most part, anyhow: The network is the network, after all, as subject to viruses and glitches and blackouts as it ever was. We can be restored from backups should the worst happen to us, but how much of the selves we are now—the “I” that I see through at any given moment—survives that transition? Are we as transitory as our bodies were? The question is still debated, with no clear answers in sight. If we are less fragile than we were before, and our pleasures less urgent as a result, we are compensated by at least this much: the laws of Nature herself that once bound and constrained us are now ours to flout as well.

{ X }

The sense-routines that create our virtual bodies are not quite as fine-tuned as they can be; everything from a feather’s touch to a cane’s crack is available to us. Wiring the pain-receptors just so has been one of #3’s pet projects of late: the differences between a birch and a crop and a whip are subtle—more than a matter of tactile resolution, zie says. There is, after all, the neurochemical surges that go with those sensations, the virtual endorphins we still crave even though we now lack the bodies that required them. Is it habit? nostalgia? or is there some other reason we play our games using the old forms that belonged to the flesh? I do not pretend to have an answer, and to be honest, once #3 tears zirself away from zir work and comes to the playrooms with me, I do not care. The virtual body isn’t a perfect simulation, but it’s improving all the time. For what I intend to do with it—to it?—it will do nicely.

{ X }

There are but ten of us in our particular Hellfire Club, though there are other clubs out there. We come and go among them as we see fit, with only the change of virtual skins to reflect the change when one of us leaves and another takes over their number. Number 3 and I are the most senior members of our group, so far as we know: there have been rumors that the current #5 was once the original #2, but no one is certain. We do not ask after each other’s past, no matter how familiar one of us might seem to another. It robs our games of their purity, to have that personal baggage hanging over them. How long can that principle last? We already are tempted to read selves into the scenes we play with each other. We know that, even here, no secrets can keep forever, no matter what obstacles we put in their way. We know that what is forbidden is also erotically-charged—that at some point, we are almost certain to flout whatever rules we devise, even those which are designed to prolong our pleasures; this is what, after all, defined us in the flesh. But at that point, will we have tainted those pleasures?

They say that imagination is all that limits us; if so, we will eventually be forced to concede even that limit; that at some point, in theory, we will have run out of things to imagine, at which point we will begin to repeat ourselves, the intensity of our joys diminishing and collapsing in on themselves like dying stars until we are eventually sucked past the event horizon of boredom. It is not true, however, that our kind have already begun to resort to the end-game passions Sade described, simulating violence and murder and mayhem for the sake of our increasingly-jaded pleasure receptors (with some inevitably crossing the line into hacking another UI—or worse). If such creatures ever existed, there is no record of them in the Cloud, no proof that they were ever anything but perverse imaginings to begin with, and I have yet to encounter any in any of the Hellfire Clubs I’ve been inside. We are monitored too closely, if only by our engineer-caretakers, to play such games lightly—or to escalate them outside our playrooms without repercussions. Is this a bound on our freedom? Only for the unimaginative.

{ X }

If the bonds that form between players in a Hellfire Club don’t make a relationship in the usual sense of the word, they still resemble one in this: to lose a favored playmate is a grief like that of losing a lover. It may even be worse: what we lose with a playmate is an understanding of each other that may even go beyond the bounds of love. The prospect of losing a playmate—whether to system glitches or merely to boredom—is a fear none of us takes lightly. I myself have begun to worry about #3; when zie isn’t tinkering with code, zie is quieter than before, especially after a scene. And zie doesn’t play as often as zie once did; our twice-daily sessions have dwindled to every other day. It is also true, however, that #3 has favored the dominant position in our games of late; it could just as easily be true that zie is making me wait for hir, as she often does within scenes. The uncertainty is haunting, at least until zie finally sends out a playroom invitation, and even then, it collapses in the next day’s silence — an oscillation between fear and joy which, I must admit, is not without its own pleasurable spiking…

{ X }

img_7634ROB HARTZELL is a graduate of the University of Alabama MFA program. He lives and works in Morrow, OH. He is at work on a story-cycle titled “Pictures of the Floating-Point World”, from which “The Libertine’s Lament” is taken. Other pieces from the cycle have appeared most recently in the Upender,Milkfist, and the Startling Sci-Fi: New Tales of the Beyond anthology (New Lit Salon Press). You can find more of his published work at http://robhartzell.wordpress.com.

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