Up above them was the slowly rotating blue neon halo. It adorned the facade of the local Blue Madonna outlet, a post-modern glass and black stone edifice. Housed inside was a spacious salon. The front sold lower quality entertainment gadgets. The back hosted rows of immersive experience chairs. The upper level was were you could get more permanent options. George had avoided the place for years.
"I feel like I'm breaking a rule," said George.
"That's just ridiculous," said his friend Eldon. "You're just being stubborn. You wouldn't be a hater if you actually gave it a try. Come'on. It'll do you a world of good. Blue Madonna loves you," he said with a smirk.
The contrast between the friends was stark. Eldon was fit, well-rested, fashionably dressed, and employed. George, was overweight, slovenly, constantly tired, and unemployed. Eldon and George were, at one time, two peas in a pod, and Eldon chalked up his current state to his time spent inside the cold walls of Blue Madonna. George pondered these facts.
"Alright, fine," said George.
"Great!" said Eldon. He steered George through the glass doors and they were received by two incredibly fit greeters, a man and a woman in well-tailored white suits, who welcomed them warmly and offered them bottled French spring water. Eldon took his, but George refused, afraid he might have to pay extra for it. He looked down at his faded t-shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops, feeling suddenly, very out-of-place.
Eldon conversed with the woman, slightly out of earshot of George. There was light laughter. The male greeter smiled at George insincerely, and George began to look at the ceiling. After a moment, the woman motioned for Eldon to follow her, and Eldon motioned George to follow him. They proceeded through the sales floor and into the back where the chairs were. They were much like old-fashioned barber's chairs; they were made of brushed aluminum, and well padded white leather. There were a few other customers in some of the chairs, leaning back, motionless except for their hands which were resting on large clear plastic balls that they could rotated in place.
The woman showed them to adjacent chairs.
"Please take a seat," she said with a graceful smile. Eldon slid into a chair, then looked over at George expectantly. George went over to the other chair, and climbed in clumsily. He found it comfortable enough, but was a little cold.
"Would you like enhancements?" asked the woman to both of them. She asked it like a waiter at an Italian restaurant asks you if you want parmesan cheese on your food.
"Yes, the full spectrum please," said Eldon.
"What is it?" asked George.
"It's a series of experience-enhancing herbal drugs," said the woman. "You can get the basic version which includes B vitamins and melatonin, or you can get the full spectrum, which includes those as well as a super dose of caffeine, THC, and our special nootropic blend."
"When did THC become legal?" asked George.
"Last month," said Eldon, "but only in Blue Madonna outlets."
"Really?" said George. "That seems--"
"Sir, would you like them or not?"
"I don't know, does it cost more?'
"George, I suggest for your first time that you skip them, so that you can get an unadulterated experience," said Eldon. "But definitely get them later. It will blow your mind."
"I'll keep that in mind," said George. He was getting antsy. He started to nibble on his fingernails. "I guess not then, ma'am. Miss."
"As you wish," she said with a smile. She then went to a counter behind Eldon's chair, opened a drawer, and withdrew a sterile sealed pack of pills. She tore it open and placed the pills in a little glass cup. She brought the cup to Eldon.
"Thank you," he said, then poured all the pills into his mouth, took a swig on his bottled water, and swallowed everything at once. He washed it back with a second swig, then handed the cup back to the woman. "Thanks."
She deposited the cup back on the counter, and opened a lower drawer. She took out a stretchy cap that was attached to a thick cable. She put the cap on Eldon's head, and adjusted it. Then she put Eldon's hands on the plastic balls on the chair.
"When you're ready, let me know," she said, standing over him, with her hands on his.
"I'm ready," said Eldon smiling up at her. Suddenly she forced her weight down on his hands. Eldon's eyelids fluttered and his body went still. The chair slowly rotated into a reclined position.
"Why did you do that?" asked George. "Is he in it?"
"Yes," said the woman. "He's in the experience. It's takes two people to turn on the machine. It's a safety feature."
"Safety feature? Why do you need a safety feature?"
"The experience requires two hands to operate. You have to have both hands on the controls or you could end up in a sup-par experience. By requiring the switch to be turned on by weight, it ensures that the client's hands are on the controls."
"Sub-par? What do you mean?"
"A nightmare," said the woman.
"Does that happen often?" asked George, squirming in his chair.
"Only if you don't have both hands on the controls," said the woman smiling.
"This is my first time. I don't know how to use the controls," said george, biting at his nails.
"Don't worry about it. You're body will know what to do automatically. You won't even be conscious that you are using the controls."
"Oh," said George. He didn't understand how that would work, but he gave up the point.
"Are you ready?" asked the woman. "You seem a little nervous."
"Yes, yes I am."
"It's perfectly safe," said the woman. "And you are perfectly safe here."
"How long does it last?"
"You can leave at any time you wish," said the woman. "Some people stay in for five minutes, and others for an hour or two."
"Does it cost more to stay in longer?" asked George. "I don't have a lot of money," he added quickly.
"No, not at all. Right now you are on you're friend's guest pass, so you can go through the experience at your leisure, and for free. If you chose to purchase your own membership, your experiences can always last as long as you want, and you get a good discount on any home experience devices you wish to buy."
"Okay," said George. There was something about the sales pitch that made him anxious to just get on with it. "I'm ready."
"Good!" said the woman. She went to the counter behind George's chair and pulled out a cap and cable. She put the cap on George, and tightened it. She grasped his hands and placed them on the plastic balls.
George looked over at Eldon, motionless. Then he looked around the room at the other customers. None of them had stirred since they got here. He wondered how long they had really been under.
"Let me know when you're ready," said the woman. George sucked in a deep breath of air and swallowed several times. The woman was leaning over, a few inches from his face, smiling beatifically, her warm hands gently covering his own. Under other circumstances he would have been ecstatic in this sort of position, but she creeped him out a little.
"Okay," said George. The woman smiled more deeply, then she pressed down hard on his hands. The controls gave, and then he felt the sensation of falling.
The room was suddenly black. He couldn't see his hands. An intense white light turned on, in what looked like the distance. He started falling towards it. It grew bigger and bigger. Rays of different colors shot out towards him. They glowed with intense light, but he could not see his body. He wanted to scream, but could not say anything at all. The white light grew into a ball, then a roiling star. He fell towards it fast, and soon the flares and spots took up his entire field of vision. He felt heat, then it grew in intensity, burning, then so hot it felt cold. He felt an involuntary orgasm somehow spread over his mind, for he had no body. It dulled the pain from the heat and he was grateful, but wondered about any embarrassing effects it may have had on his body in the chair.
Then the star enveloped him. There was nothing but white. And then there was the sound of wind. Dark spots flew past him. There were more and more and George struggled to make out the forms--they were winged people. A darkest ebony black, with shiny obsidian eyes and black feathered wings. They were taller than real people, and they were proportioned like superheros. Dark angels. They swooped in on George, touching his mind with their wings. Then they closed in and blocked out the light from the star. The pulled at him with their hands, and they turned him inside out, and then he had a body.
He found himself standing on a solid surface, naked. The dark angels flew up and away. The star was now a safe distance away in the sky now. He looked around. There was nothing but a gray plane in all directions. Then he heard padding footsteps behind him. He turned around. Walking towards him, tail wagging, was the dog he had as a child. He crouched and dog came running and leapt into his arms, licking his face and each lick was electric. George was overcome with the sense of being loved. He started to cry. The dog smelled just as she did when she was alive. Her fur felt exactly the same. He hugged her, but her form collapsed. With horror, he looked down at the loose fur he held in his hand. The wind picked up and it blew the fur out of his hand, and it disintegrated in the air.
He stood and looked around. There were trees now. The smell of the forest assailed his nostrils. He breathed in deeply. He could smell the wood and the rot of the forest floor. He felt moss under his feet. Then a path formed under his feet and led off through the forest. He looked at the path, and felt overwhelmed with sensation. He felt an intense urge to follow it.
"No," he said. The forest faded. The smells dissipated. The wind died. The Blue Madonna room returned. The woman was no longer standing over him. George quickly removed his hands from the controls, and instinctively inspected his palms. Then he looked over at Eldon's chair. It was empty. George looked around the room. Eldon was no where in sight. There were new people in the other chairs. George stood up, and walked to the front of the store. The woman was back to greeting customers.
"Where's Eldon?" asked George.
"He's finished with his experience," said the woman.
"I gathered that," said George. "Where is he?"
"You were in for a long time," said the woman.
"I was? How long?"
"About three hours," said the woman.
"That was three hours? You're kidding."
"Mastering your sense of time within the experience takes some time," she said.
"That's really weird," said George, "but nonetheless, could you tell me where Eldon is? Where did he go?"
"He purchased a premium membership," said the woman. Then she pointed up.
"No," said George. "I thought we were going to go to lunch after this. What happens up there exactly?"
"It's a premium membership," she said.
"You just said that," said George. Then the woman reached up to her hairline, and pushed back, removing a wig. Underneath, her skin was heavily tattooed with metallic lines that crisscrossed her skull. George could see all the capillaries in the scalp, because underneath her skull glowed. "What is that?" he asked with some horror.
"The skull is replaced by a composite implant. It contains all the processing power that we have in the salon."
"That's a really serious surgery--" said George, aghast.
"The tattoo is an imprinted antenna which is in constant communication with Blue Madonna."
"Um, with the store?" asked George, confused. The woman laughed lightly, then replaced her wig.
"No, with the Blue Madonna," said the woman, "she who helps you create experiences, who helps you create your dreams." George stared at her blankly, not sure what to say. He looked up at the ceiling, towards Eldon. "Obviously you haven't met her yet," she said. George turned back to the woman.
"I thought that was just a branding thing. Can I go see Eldon?"
"He'll be in post-op recovery by now. He'll be down in an hour or so."
"That fast? Really? To get your entire skull replaced?" George was getting a bit angry.
"I was skeptical at first as well, but it's an automated procedure. Computer controlled. You'll want one soon too," she said.
"I don't think so," said George. He turned to look at the chairs in the salon.
"You want to go back, don't you. Already you want to go back," said the woman.
"No..." George trailed off. He did want to go back. He took a step in the direction of the chairs. "I don't want to," he said, as she took his hand and led him back to the chair. "No..." he said weakly, as she eased him into the seat.
"There's no harm if you just sit here until your friend is finished upstairs."
"No," said George. She put the cap back on his head. "Tell me, what's it like, after the surgery I mean?"
"It's wonderful," she smiled broadly. "You feel the love of the Blue Madonna constantly. Everything is calm. Every problem is solvable."
"What is Blue Madonna?" he asked, as she placed his hands on the controls.
"Technically it's an algorithm. But in reality, She is God." The woman smiled, and pressed down on George's hands, and the room went black.