The publishers had covered John’s plane fare to the celebration. He was actually back in the same city as the gaming convention, though in a different part of town.
He was wearing a black suit and tie and followed the directions through a swanky hotel lobby and into a lushly decorated event hall that was exactly what he had expected.
Every detail was soft, sensual, glimmering: burgundy curtains, velvet-covered tables lined with hors d’oeuvres, shimmering golden candelabras set out amongst the tables. Overhead were crystal chandeliers, glowing only dimly, so that the majority of the light was from the candles.
The hors d’oeuvres were a global tour of classic aphrodisiacs, including chocolate, caviar, oyster, strawberries, and pomegranates. There were others that John hadn’t heard of before, like bull testicles.
Each with their own little label, gold script on black, explaining their origin and purported effects. Some were ethical nods at their historical counterparts, like a sugar powder for “rhinos horn”, or legal nods at their more illicit counterparts, like CBD-infused chocolate truffles.
The drinks followed a similar theme, including red wine and ginseng tea.
There were something like a hundred other guests in the event hall. The place felt pleasantly populated but not crowded. They were all also dressed in black tie attire, a mix of suits and cocktail dresses. The tone was hushed, and all in all the event agreed even with John’s introverted sensibilities. He found himself relaxing.
Or, maybe that was the combination of the ginseng tea and CBD chocolates. Regardless of aphrodisiacs’ actual effects, the idea of a food or drink being able to induce arousal was itself arousing, and so the stories around them were just as important of the properties of the foods themselves. It had a similar appeal to the dial game and John made a mental note to write a scene about that, later. For the time being, he stood at one of the cocktail tables by himself, with a plate of chocolate covered strawberries.
“Oh my god!” A feminine voice called out nearby, “You’re ‘Just John’, aren’t you?”
John hadn’t initially thought she was talking to him, but that was the brand that he wrote his reviews under, so he turned to see.
Her nametag read ‘Mary, she/her’. She wore a strapless mermaid dress, shimmering gold and tight around all of her curves, including a cute tummy.
“Yeah,” John said, “I’m great. Look. Uh, great. You look, um, great.”
Mary blushed and giggled. “Thank you! I didn’t mean to bother you, I just had to come say I’m a big fan.”
“Yeah! I’ve been following your work for a while, I really appreciate how you toe the line between giving an honest review, making it funny, and not totally pissing off the publisher. That’s not easy.”
John gulped. Talking to Mary was not going to be easy. She had a cute face, round cheeks and eyes that squinted shut when she smiled. “Thank you,” he said. “That feels a bit… flat after such a kind compliment, but I’m afraid I’m not so great at receiving compliments.”
“That’s alright!” Mary said, “Me neither. I also really liked your review for the Black Box.”
The review had just been published the night before, so Mary really did follow his work. It had overall been well received, and John’s Twitter link with his smut had seen quite a few click throughs. Wait, had Mary read his smut?
“I also, um…” she continued, her face flushing red, and she put one of her hands behind her neck, picking at her elbow with the other. “I really liked… the other stuff you wrote…”
“Oh! Um. Thank you.”
“I didn’t want to totally put you on the spot so I’ll leave it at that,” Mary said, talking fast, “But I just saw you and I was like, ‘oh my god, I have to say something!’ I hope you don’t think I’m a total creep.” She chuckled nervously.
“Not at all! I just wish I knew some of your work. Did you also get a review copy?”
“Yeah, I did! And I’m newer to the review scene, so don’t worry about it. I used to be a software engineer for EA, actually, but then I realized that I didn’t really want to make games so much as I wanted enough money to just buy all the games I wanted, so I recently transitioned to a tech startup. That’s been great, and then I’ve been doing reviews on the weekend for fun. So, I don’t have that much of a following yet, but I think they picked me because, um, well, I mostly review porn games.” Her skin flushed red again.
“That is noble work,” John said, “It’s hard to find good ones!”
“Yeah… until, this one, phew.”
“Just… wow. You summed it up so well in your review. And in your, um… appendices.”
“Heh, thanks. I always thought I’d be a game writer, not a… porn writer, but…”
“Well, did you ever think of writing for an erotic game? I actually have a few contacts for indie publishers! I could make some intros.”
“That would be… wow. Amazing. I’d love that!”
Before Mary could say anything else, the lights got a bit brighter and the Madame, which John recognized from the hologram, stepped out at the front of the room underneath a projector screen. She beckoned them to come and sit and enjoy the messages that their Black Boxes had prepared for them.
Mary turned, but hesitated, and said, “Do you want to come sit with me? I’m here by myself, actually.”
“Me too! So, yeah, that’d be great.”
There were velvet-padded chairs arranged in rows at the front of the room, and Mary and John settled in. They chatted a bit more as the rest of the room gathered, until the lights went dim and the projector came on.
The image used the same engine as the Black Box AR, a mildly cartoonish mirror of the event hall, similarly arranged with a bunch of seats. In those seats sat all of the characters, a significantly more colorful and chaotic bunch than the actual humans, and John quickly found Arya’s pink buns.
The characters included the hyper-masculine and the hyper-feminine and everything in between: skinny and fat, tall and short, black and brown and white, but also blue and yellow and every other color. There were even some anthropomorphic characters, a fox and a wolf and a lynx and others, some with full muzzles and digitigrade feet and others with just ears and tails.
One by one, they came up and shared in their own voice something they had learned about their player. The sentiments were poignant and thoughtful and occasionally silly.
“I learned that Stacy is really ticklish. She can even tickle herself!”
“I learned that Mike has been afraid most of his life. I’m really glad to say he’s not as afraid anymore.”
A male character stepped up, with a trendy haircut and a flower sleeve tattoo in a white t-shirt and jeans, and Mary perked. “That’s me!”
“I learned that Mary is brilliant with game theory. She’s had some absolutely incredible ideas for our time together. I also learned that she worries that her intelligence makes her less feminine, but I’m working on convincing her that that couldn’t be less true.”
John glanced over. Tears were running down Mary’s cheeks, and without even pausing to consider that his suit was rented, he handed Mary his pocket square. She nodded and wiped her face, dabbing carefully to avoid smudging her makeup. He leaned a bit closer and whispered, “He’s right.”
She made a show of hiding behind her hands. “I told you, I’m not good with compliments!”
A few minutes later, John watched with a mix of anxiety and excitement as Arya stood and walked to the front. “I learned that John is kind and thoughtful. He is deeply respectful of others’ rights to simply be themselves, probably because most of all, he yearns to just be able to be himself. I think, if I may be so bold, that I can say that John is quite a bit better at being himself, now.”
As Arya turned and returned to her chair, it was John’s turn to start crying. Mary offered him her cocktail napkin from under her plate with an understanding smile.
Even before the presentation had finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the whole place. John had never seen or experienced this kind of group catharsis before, this broadly shared emotion. Strangers cried together and hugged each other, patted each other’s shoulders and passed boxes of tissues around.
After the last Black Box said their bit, the Madame came back up to the front of the room, and she, too, was crying. Through her tears, she took a deep breath. “If you’re here tonight, you heard my hypothesis. I don’t know where you came from, or what you’ve held with you. I hope you find that my hypothesis has rung true, and continues to do so. Regardless, I do know one thing for certain. I am deeply grateful for each and every one of you and honored to have shared in a small part of your journey. That’s… all I have to say, really. You’ll each find a gift under your chair. There will be live music, and we have the venue until 2am. Feel free to stay as long as you like until then. I’ll be around until about 10, so do come find me if you’d like to meet or chat. There’s only one thing left to say, which is: bon voyage.”
The crowd moved slowly after that, stirring gently and thoughtfully, a bit like an afterglow after such intense emotional release.
John and Mary kept chatting as they went for more wine and strawberries. They sat and listened to the music, and even tried to dance.
John went lighter on the wine than he would have before. He found that he didn’t need it to feel comfortable, not even talking to Mary. More importantly, he didn’t want to miss any detail or lose any memory of the evening.
The swell of the music filling the space, the feeling of life in his fingers and toes as he danced, the ache of laughing way too hard at something Mary said, the softness of her hand in his, the way his heart skipped whenever her eyes met his.
It had nothing to do with the wine, the way he felt like he was sinking deeper and deeper into something warm and wonderful…