The image adjusted itself again. No, not the image. He had to remind himself of that. In order to capture his best performance, he had to think of this as reality, because it was. He couldn’t think about the sensors and the technology that allowed him to step into an image like this. This was the world now.
The Furies blurred and vanished, and he waited to see what would appear in their place. Fatherly. That had been the title of the image. He wondered again where it would take him. Everything around him was a blur, like the static that used to appear on antique televisions, back when analog signals had still been a thing.
“Can you hear me?” Annie’s voice cut through the haze.
He smiled. “Loud and clear. Is everything functioning correctly?”
“Are you ready for your last, great performance?”
“I’m dying to get started,” he quipped.
“I’ve been thinking about that. You never told me how long the doctors gave you…?”
His arm ached. He glanced down and noticed that the scratch was already puffy and red.
“I had the luxury of three different opinions. The first said six months. The second said three months. The third said somewhere between those. Regardless, the clock is ticking and the camera’s rolling. It’s funny…we live in an era where humankind has begun to colonize Mars and the Moon, where we’ve mapped the human genome and begun to cure things like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, and yet cancer is still a thing.”
“Dying is always an absolute,” Annie said.
“Perhaps. But if I’m going to die, then it should be as I lived. My death should be art.”
“Is that what all those films were? Art?”
“Of course! Don’t tell me you have doubts at this stage in life?”
She didn’t respond. He turned his attention back to his surroundings. The image was still blurred.
“Annie? Are you still there?”
“I’m here. I’m just . . . thinking.”
“Well…” She spoke slowly. “I’m the director this time, correct?”
“Then it occurs to me that your death performance should begin with an accounting of your life. A trip down memory lane, as it were.”
“Yes!” Gesturing with excitement, he danced around. His shriveled penis banged against his thigh, flaccid in its cancer-induced uselessness. “What a wonderful idea. I like it. Sort of a career-spanning retrospective.”
“I wasn’t thinking of a libertine greatest hits collection.”
“No?” He stood up again, trying to hide the disappointment in his tone. “Then what did you have in mind?”
The electronic fog began to swirl and gel into new shapes.
“You’ve taken from women your entire life.” Annie’s voice was devoid of emotion, as if she were reciting what she’d had for breakfast. “You use them to create your art.”
“That’s not true,” he protested, watching figures form in the mist. “My art was always consensual, even if it sometimes depicted the opposite. That was the whole point—to portray imagery and acts that people fantasized about but would never commit to in real life.”
“Is that what you tell yourself?”
“It’s the truth! My actresses consented. I have signed release forms from each and every one of them, stretching back over my entire career. I still have yours, Annie. Did I treat you poorly when we performed together? If so, you’ve had decades to complain, and you never did.”
“Oh, you poor fool. I felt sorry for you when I learned that you were dying, but I think I pity you even more now. I’m not talking about physical violence. You’ve taken from every woman you have ever met. Psychologically and emotionally. That’s what you use to create your art.” She spat the last word with derision.
“It was never about that,” he protested. “I found beauty in every form. I captured it! Immortalized it!”
Annie laughed, and he flinched at the sound. The shapes here in the image with him became clearer now, coalescing into human forms.
“You sound like Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Or perhaps Dorian Gray himself.”
“And you sound like the British book reviewers who said that Oscar Wilde merited criminal prosecution for violating public morality laws when he published it.”
Annie’s laughter grew louder. Frowning, he pressed on.
“I know what you’re attempting to do, dear. You want to frighten me, or perhaps anger me. Tease my emotions. You’re trying to coax a performance. Well played.”
“Is that what I’m doing?”
He nodded. In the corners of his...