The presenter pulled a fistful of wires from his satchel. From them, dangled a pair of gloves and a visor attached to a stretch lycra thing that looked like a ninja mask.
"But don't just let me tell you about it. See the miracle for yourselves."
Smartly dressed employees milled through the crowd, filling the eager hands with Navigators. One planted a set in her hands.
"You ready to dive in?" he asked.
"Eh," Candace answered. "I'm not feeling great today." She rolled up her sleeves and stuck her arms out, wincing as her sore muscles screamed in protest. The bandages barely covered the mess of cuts and scratches on her arm. "Bitch fights dirty."
"Ouch!" the Yumatech guy said, "Well, don't let that ruin your fun. This is better than reality!"
Candace sighed and tugged the hood and gloves on.
"Alright... three, two, one, DIVE!"
The blazing heat drifted away, replaced with the soft winds of a spring day. The usual stench of the factory's by-products evaporated, leaving only the pleasant scent of nothingness. Her thirst vanished. One blink, and a new, more fantastic version of the town square filled her vision. Her neighbors were here, indulging in jousting, snowboarding, orgy piles twenty bodies high, and endless buffets of food and drink. Every fantasy was a reality here. Her friends, her co-testers, her ex-lovers, hell, even her mortal enemy, were here. Her mortal enemy, who tried to steal her bike, the bike she had worked years to earn, didn't give her the time of day. Her mortal enemy was nipples deep in ice cream.
Her mortal enemy pulled two fistfuls of ice cream from the mountain and shoved them in her mouth. Her eyes rolled back into her head, and she moaned with a visceral pleasure.
Joanne, Candace's next door neighbor, lounged in a pit filled with teddy bears. She held up a martini.
"Candy-baby, you gotta get into the spirit of things." Joanne shouted. She flicked her wrist and levitated a virtual martini toward Candace. "Better than the pruno they serve around the 'hives."
The martini glass wiggled before her.
"No good?" Joanne shouted. "How about an appletini?" The fluid in the glass turned green.
Candace reached for it, then stopped. Her shoulder was aching a minute ago. Now it wasn't.
"What. The hell?"
"Hey, you nut. Have a doughnut," shouted a voice to her left. Candace whirled around. Joe, a co-tester who shared a cube with her, was sitting on a purple dragon. He waved a pastry at her. "It's strawberry!"
It was covered with slices of bright red fruit, covered with seeds and topped with green leaves. This wasn't like the gooey pink stuff in her weekly rations. Candace had never eaten a real strawberry in her life, but she had seen photos in books her grandma gave her. She plucked one off the doughnut and smelled it. Sweet. Delicious. Juicy and ripe. She could practically feel the fruit against her tongue. Candace put the fruit to her mouth...
She looked at her arm. There should have been bandages on it. She pulled up her sleeve further. The scars on her arm from the bike accident were also gone. She pulled up her shirt. The knife wound from the guy whose ass she had to kick last week, gone. Her golden amber skin was smooth and flawless... and all wrong.
The martini glass sloshed around in front of her, its liquid cycling through a spectrum of colors.
"None of it is real," Candace shrieked. She dug her fingernails into her arm, where the bandages should have been. She pressed her nails harder, but the perfect skin would not yield.
Someone yanked the headset off her. Blood was pouring from her arm. Candace's vision fluttered and her stomach twisted. She stumbled. Someone grabbed her and wrapped a rag around her bleeding arm.
"Fuck it," Candace said. "At least this is real."