Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Age of Reception

by Zac Miller



The alabaster face floating over Amanda Reyes' belly smiled, blue eyes bright with enhanced coloration, silvery hair spread out in a corona. Amanda offered a wan smile in response, wondering if she should have adjusted her own image. Silly to do that with friends, though she'd always been motivated more by humor than by vanity.

"Amanda, you okay? You seem really out of it. What's on your mind?"

"Oh, no, I'm fine. It just feels so weird to finally graduate." A blinking blue light to the left of Stacy's face caught her attention, and Amanda raised her right hand to acknowledge it. Something happening in ThePop173, her personal entry into the personalized digital metropolises of CivTopia. At her bidding, the screen doubled in size, pushing her friend's video feed to the side and revealing an electronic wonderland, towers of light in the shape of blooming flowers.

"Yeah, it feels weird at first, but you get used to it," said Stacy. A message morphed into the CivTopia screen, Bill Colson wanting to build a skylight display in ThePop173 in his own style, an energetic mix of -- what, exactly? Amanda's brow furrowed, trying to remember her classmate's aesthetic. They all blurred together after a while.

"Right. I kind of wish college would just start, you know? This summer's just gonna be a bunch of drawn-out goodbyes. I hate that," she said, making a face. She checked to see if Bill was online, figuring she'd ask to see the design of the proposed construction. Generally she didn't care too much about clashing aesthetics; Amanda had always disliked the purists who thought a single style should dominate. Multiple styles in your city just meant you had more friends. Still, if it clashed badly, he'd need to offer compensation. ThePop173 could use some money; a quick glance at his profile showed he had a surplus, and Amanda pursed her lips.

"Draw them out as long as you can; I really missed my friends in my first year."

"I guess. Part of me kind of wants to get rid of them. I mean, I'll miss them, but at the same time, I want something new." With her other hand she shot off a quick boilerplate response: Colson's display for 5,000 CivCreds. Best deal he'd ever get. Bill wasn't a bad guy, but no one she'd brag about knowing.

"Yeah, I felt the same way, kind of. Just enjoy it while you can. Hey, I gotta run. Talk to you later?"

"Sure, bye."

The side of the screen holding Stacy's face went black, and Amanda closed it with a wave of her hand. The CivTopia screen followed, leaving her with an unobstructed view of the Roman plaza spread across her wall, bright and airy under the Mediterranean sun, the Trinita dei Monti presiding over the scene like some fantastical monarch. Amanda watched without expression as her own anachronistic addition to the program, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, sped across the flagstones on a Vespa.

She turned two of her fingers like an old-fashioned key, and a dial of lights appeared on her optical display. She turned the dial, her eyes relaying a dozen different panoramas: Bolsa Chica Beach, her 16th birthday party, time-lapse footage of a nameless Texan field... finally she settled on the beige surface of the wall itself. Blinking, Amanda wondered what to do next.

It didn't take long before she decided to leave the house, grabbing the keys to her mom's '42 Mahindra, a blue three-seater gleaming under the mid-afternoon sun. The door opened as she approached and she slid into the black vinyl driver's seat, panels in the compartment shifting as the car remolded itself to her preferences. Internal systems accessed her music collection, plucking out the playlist she'd been listening to earlier that day, Pinhead Inc's greatest hits, specifically their legendary single, Happyland. Horns, slow and sonorous, rang out from the speakers, the long melodic notes of the electric guitars following a few minutes later.

She pulled out of the driveway and drove out of the suburbs and into the endless California chaparral, trees and grass growing wild around the ghosts of shopping malls. Her mom always went on about that: how in her day she'd go with all her friends to a nearby shopping center, trying on clothes and seeing movies. Her ability at storytelling gave it a fairy tale feel, and at times Amanda could almost share her mother's enthusiasm for the bygone days. In the end, however, she could see it only as an abstraction.

Amanda didn't really know where she was going, other than out. Maybe that was enough. Hard to imagine that she'd soon be telecommuting to college, a world apart from the crowded school classrooms she'd known all her life. Government mandates forced the K-12 schools to operate the old-fashioned way, for the "social education of America's children," though plenty of districts subverted the rule. In college, no such rule existed.

She pulled to the side of the road and stepped out, dry grass ankle-high at the curb. Sparrows on the spreading branches of the elm trees sang in the early summer heat. Amanda tried to remember what had once stood there; when she was little, she used to know all her mom's old haunts in the area. Not able to come up with anything, she connected to the database, pressing the button to bring up all the info on her current location. Formerly the District at Tustin Legacy, dozens of stores built around a grand parking lot. She shook her head at the thought, wondering how her parents tolerated having to brave the long lines, the bad smells, the ever-present possibility of crime.

Fingers in the air, she entered the code to her optical receptors. She'd turned 18 a month ago, and had full control over how she saw the world; might as well use it. Amanda had postponed activation. She'd grown used to her perceptions. Still, everyone had to take the plunge sooner or later.

Going to the color wheel, she added a blue tinge to the wilderness, before abruptly switching to purple. She stuck out her tongue; it looked awful. Closing in on a fluttering sparrow, she opened up an animal traits database. Animal>Mammal>Bovine, she went, finding a pair of weirdly curving horns. Modify size to target? asked the computer, and she said yes. The same horns appeared on the sparrow, tiny and perfect, pearly bases terminating in darkened points under the purple shade.

No wonder most people just accept existing programs, she thought.

She got back into the car, the receptors switching off the moment she got down into the driver's seat. Hundreds of drivers had died, tricked into oncoming trucks or off bridges by their augmented realities, before congress passed a law requiring all cars to be programmed to forcibly deactivate receptors. A college kid living a few houses down from Amanda had gotten himself charged with a misdemeanor for circumventing the program; a fine, a license suspension, and a permanent mark on his record.

Amanda drove until she reached the immortal stretch of PCH, a few restaurants and dance halls getting ready for the night. Parking her car, she got out, a light in the corner of her eye blinking.

Activate Newport Beach Reception Program? it inquired.

Shrugging, she tapped yes.

The lonely site surged to life, illusory storefronts offering nonexistent wares, people in the latest fashions walking up and down the sidewalks, the street flooded with headlights of zooming cars. Other senses did their bit, her nose picking up smells from long-demolished restaurants. Pale white coronas surrounded fictional shops and walkers like halos, letting her know what she could actually touch.

Not really that interested, Amanda walked down to the beach, perfect specimens of humanity gathering on the sand to catch the dying light as it bled into the sky. Canceling the reception, she saw a few beachgoers survive the vanishing. Taking off her shoes, Amanda rolled up her jeans and walked through the cool sand, stopping as the high tide washed over her feet.

Another winking light brought her back to reality, a message from Susanna Orosco.

Blinking, she accepted, surprised to hear from Susanna. The two had barely crossed paths during high school. Rich and beautiful, Susanna had known how to make her mark. Amanda hadn't.

"Hey, look to your left!" said Susanna.

Amanda did, seeing the girl walking towards her with two others, all dressed for the beach. Susanna waved, and Amanda smiled in response, repressing an overwhelming wave of insecurity.

"So what are you up to?" asked Susanna.

"Not much. Waiting for college."

"I know, totally, right? Where are you going again?"

"CSU Fullerton."

"That's such a good school. Hey, I'm holding a party a week from today, I'd love to see you there."

Why? Amanda wondered. Aloud, she said, "Oh, yeah, sure. I can make it." Who knows, it might be fun.

"Great. I made the best program -- well, I got some help, but I did almost everything. Anyway, this will make the party totally unforgettable, and I want everyone to see it."

"Cool. What kind of program?"

"You'll see. I'm sending everyone messages so they can get a general idea what to wear, how to look. You'll have enough time to program a really kickass dress."

"Wow, thanks! I don't know much about the receptors --"

"You'll figure it out, don't worry."

####

"So Susanna just invited you out of the blue? Why didn't she invite me?" sniffed Callista in mock chagrin.

"I thought it was sort of weird, too."

"Are you going to go?"

"Why not? Might be a good way to break in the receptors. She was saying that she had a great program."

"Who else is going?"

"Beats me."

Callista put a finger to her pursed lips, her eyes looking skyward in mischief.

"Frank Durant?"

"Uh, maybe? It's kind of over with Frank."

"You can't tell me that you still don't think about him."

"It was nice while it lasted, but it wouldn't have worked out. Anyway," she said, cutting off her friend before she could go on about Frank, "I need to program up a really kickass dress for the party, and I don't really know how."

"I can help! I helped my brother program the suit he displayed for graduation. He didn't know the tech or the style," she said, shaking her head.

"That'd be good. I know I can make something basic, but it seems like it should be spectacular if Susanna's party is as good as she promises."

"Did she give you any guidelines?"

"Just really vague ones. Something oceanic, I guess."

"Is this like a pool party?"

"She didn't mention that. I think everyone wants to show off their programs."

"Sounds like a trap."

"Oh, come on, it's not like I'm worth the effort to humiliate." Callista loved reading drama into the most boring situations.

"You never know. I heard Susanna tell Autumn that Jorge was dating Harriet, when he wasn't, because she knew..."

Amanda's mind went back to the job at hand as Callista narrated another convoluted tale of high school treachery. The party sounded fun, and she wanted to go; simple as that. Part of her just wanted to see her classmates gathered in one place again. The long years of adulthood stretched ahead of her, a life lived through screens reflected into her eyes. Attending classes she'd never see, working in offices she'd never visit...

She knew she'd meet more people, but never so many at once. I never really liked going to class, she reminded herself, but it was still all she knew. Never the most social adolescent, she'd still ordered her share of makeup, now gathering dust in the desk drawer. And I really hated putting that stuff on, she thought, and laughed.

"What's so funny? This is, like a serious story."

"Oh, sorry, ignore that."

"Look, laugh all you want, but Susanna's popular and she never does anything unless she gets something out of it."

"Why would she care? School's over. Look, go with me! There's going to be a million people there, she's not going to care that much if I bring along a friend --"

"Bring along like your little pet? Yeah, I think I'll avoid the party."

"Come on, Callista, don't be like that --"

Callista's face vanished from the screen. Amanda thought about sending her a message, maybe an apology through CivTopia. She remembered Callista wanting a new city block. Not worth the effort, she decided, suddenly very glad she'd no longer be going to high school.

Going back to the program table, the icons for a million colors on the screen, she tried to concentrate.

####

As she coasted in silence down tree-lined streets, the navigation light blinked twice: Susanna's house in 100 feet... 50 feet... 10 feet. Spotting a space between two parked cars, she cruised forward and told the car to move parallel. Wheels rotated 90 degrees, fitting her mom's car between its neighbors with mechanical precision.

An adobe wall surrounded the Orosco estate, the outer skin artfully peeled away in spots to give the impression of age. What was it that her parents did? she wondered. Amanda was pretty sure that Mr. Orosco handled boat tours out to Catalina.

When it came to her outfit, Amanda ultimately decided that simpler was better, going for a knee-length green skirt and a shimmering sea-blue top with transparent sleeves. The only real concession to modernity was the crashing wave animation playing on the back of her shirt. She'd debated the merits of that choice for some time, worrying that it was too ostentatious. Then again, ostentation seemed to be the style of the day.

What she truly wore, what actually touched her skin, was the height of comfort and dullness, a weathered t-shirt and a jean skirt reaching down a bit past where her illusory dress ended. As for physical characteristics, she focused on minor touch-ups. She'd reduced the size of her nose by minute degrees; still a bit bigger than ideal, but not quite as blatant. Likewise she'd tightened up the image of her stomach; again, just by a bit. She wanted to look good, but still recognizable. She'd read about parties that embraced the programming illusion to a greater degree, where people added antennae and extra limbs, reversed their faces and turned skin into scales. Susanna's didn't go that far.

She smirked when she realized that she'd spent far more time developing the program than she had ever spent when applying makeup. That was to be expected. It always took time to develop, and she knew full-well that she'd leave the party with a hundred nagging ideas on how to make herself look better for the next outing.

Why am I even here?

From over the wall's shingled top she saw garden lanterns gleaming in the soft summer night, the sound of a hundred voices gossiping and flirting. Stopping at the edge of the gate, she made the receptors accept the transmission. Nothing changed. Frowning, she turned the corner.

Amanda stepped onto a limpid path, ripples flowing outward from her soles, the water shimmering in the full light of a once-crescent moon. Fish danced in the water beneath her feet, rainbow scales reflecting the lamps. Stone planters turned to gardens of living coral, palm trees swaying amidst the pink and white growths. Flowers grew on vines wrapped around the trunks, petals shifting from one pastel shade to another in tune with the music.

At the other side of the plot, the Orosco manse stood in its altered glory, green moss on a mountain of volcanic rock, lava the color and texture of foam bubbling at the second-story caldera. Dozens milled about on the solid sea, glasses of soda or beer in their hands. And the clothes they wore! Less insecure than most, Amanda still felt the cold grip of embarrassment. She'd dressed nicely, while their programs matched the venue. Hula skirts paired with pearlescent corsets fashioned after shells. Hawaiian shirts where stylized palms swayed against eternal sunsets. Long gowns made of tides running down the body, sea-spray forming insect wings veined by delicate lattices of foam. Distracted by the splendor on display, it took her a moment to realize that she scarcely recognized anyone.

Maybe I should get out of here, she thought, at least put a little more effort into the program.

"Amanda! Wow, what's up? Haven't seen you since graduation."

None other than Fred, her ex from sophomore year. Not a bad guy, but definitely not for her. Judging by his appearance, he'd either undertaken a fantastic workout regimen over the past month, or he'd brushed up his physique beyond believability: shoulders wider, arms thicker, and so forth. Rather than walking, he jetted around the party on a neon-green surfboard, leaving ripples but no wake on the surface. She could still see the walking motion on his hips, but the image of his legs stood still. Amanda suddenly felt better about her own choices.

"Hi, yeah, how's it going?"

"This is a pretty cool party, huh?

"Sure. Who else is here from Woodbridge High?"

"I just got here, but I saw Jorge, Ramon, Andrew Yang... few others. Susanna pretty much invited everyone she knew in the area, and more are on the way."

"Great! Well, I'll see you around."

Making a quick escape from the perpetually surfing Frank, she headed towards a gathering at the other end of the garden, keeping her eyes off the solid sea. She wondered if it would be like one of those old cartoons, where the coyote stayed aloft by virtue of not looking down.

As she walked, circular frames appeared around the dozens of talking heads she didn't know, data and commonalities relevant to her streaming out from the colored outlines.

Larry Curtis :: Age 18 :: Huntington Beach High School :: Likes The Sanjay Jaiswal Band, CivTopia :: Drives '44 Khodro Immortal :: Certified AA+ GeneFix :: Accepted into CSU Los Angeles :: 1 DUI.

Donna Nguyen :: Age 19 :: Golden West College :: Likes Shanghai Summer, The Rio Gambit, CivTopia :: Drives '42 Toyota Lancer :: Certified AAA GeneFix :: Attends Saint Simons & Jude Catholic Church.

Buddy Hernandez :: Age 17 :: Los Alamitos High School :: Likes Shahnameh Force, Vengeance of the Widow Ching :: Drives '37 Ford Caravan :: Certified AAA GeneFix :: Accepted into UC Irvine.

And so forth.

Sending out a signal for soon-to-be CSU Fullerton students like herself, she was rewarded with two affirmatives, both standing next to a coral box of hyacinths. Tomas Lopez (dark-skin, jet black hair, tall and broad-shouldered... definitely handsome) and Jasmine Norman (wavy blond hair, looked young for her age). Jasmine displayed no genetic fix-ups, and Amanda frowned. Religious fundamentalists and New Age oddballs still tried to do things naturally, though Jasmine was lucky in what nature had given her. No flaws beyond flat feet and a predisposition to alcoholism, according to the profile.

"Hey, future Titans," said Amanda, referring to CSUF's mascot.

"Oh, hey. Me and Jasmine were just talking about our plans there," said Tomas.

"Yeah, oh my God, I can't wait! Our whole lives ahead of us!"

"Man, listen to this chick, she's crazy-brave. I'm like ‘no, don't take me out of high school'," joked Tomas.

"I'm kind of scared too, but also excited. You guys think about picking out a major?"

"Nah, not yet. Man, I've got the whole summer ahead of me; I don't want to worry about that yet," said Tomas.

"Computer science for me. College we can go into that all the way, not like in high school. Ugh," she said, making a face. "I mean, look around you! Ten years ago, nobody could have imagined this! Susanna made a paradise here."

"How do you two know Susanna?"

"I just play CivTopia with her. Never even seen her before tonight," explained Tomas.

"I know Susanna through her mom, who's an amazing person. She's one of my mom's biggest clients. My mom runs Earthen Charms, you know, the all-natural pottery company? Yeah, that one."

"Oh my God, that's so cool! My dad loves those," gushed Amanda. I really don't care about your mom's pottery, she thought.

"It's really amazing what Susanna's done with the place. I'm thinking about telling my dad about this program. It shows real talent."

Amanda was still trying to take it all in. She'd gotten used to standing on water, but the scale of it all still boggled the mind. And to think it would be the new norm for her! Whenever she went to a friend's house in the old days, she could only see it as it was. Sure there were the animated walls that she and her friends played with, but that was kids' stuff. Through her adult eyes, every house became a castle, a mountain, a construct of pure light, and God knew what else.

Not to mention the clothes. She still had to figure out something more creative for her next outing. Susanna really hadn't given her very clear directions, she'd reflected. ‘Something like you'd see in the ocean," could mean a lot of things. As if zeroing in on weakness, a predatory smile spread wide on Jasmine's face.

"I just wanted to say that's a really good program you're wearing," she gushed, her voice almost syrupy.

"Oh, thanks," said Amanda, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

"It's amazing for a first-time effort. All you need to do is make sure it matches what you really wear. It looks wonderful though."

"What doesn't match?"

"Oh, it's nothing, don't worry about it."

Amanda could guess. Her knee-length jean skirt restrained her movements a bit. No one wearing a fluttery dress would walk like that.

"How is it that girls always get along so well with each other?" chuckled Tomas.

"It's easy when they're programmers as good as Amanda, isn't that right?"

"Aw, thanks, you're sweet." Die in a fire.

They talked a while longer, Amanda forcing herself to smile. Part of her wanted to cut Jasmine down a peg, but figured it was a wasted effort. If Jasmine wanted to act like a high schooler during a post-graduation party, that was her loss. Amanda sent out another signal, looking for people she knew from school. That's why she'd come, at least originally. Scanners picked up a number, but spread out through the grounds, mingling with outsiders.

Disengaging from her future classmates, she began wandering through the party. Grabbing a Coke from a refreshment table, she wondered what to do next. Yolanda Smith was there, talking to a guy named William Garcia, from Mater Dei. Yolanda wasn't a close friend, but Amanda had always liked her.

Going towards Yolanda, Amanda didn't notice the too-subtle delineation in the clear sea, the faint kidney-shaped outline where no one stood, where no fish swam. Walking on water one second, she plunged into reality the next. Chlorinated water flooded her nose as she splashed down, her scream erupting as a torrent of bubbles. It took her only a moment to realize what had happened, that she'd committed the supreme faux pas of disrupting the program.

Embarrassed or not, she had to breathe, and pushed herself off the floor and to the surface, grateful at least that she'd at least fallen into the deep end. Bursting into the night air, Amanda pulled off the wet hair clinging to her face, blinking as she tried to focus on the dozen blurry partygoers all staring at her. Treading water as they watched, she felt blood rushing into her cheeks, her heart pounding.

"Pool party!" she shouted.

The crowd laughed, and someone shouted: "Sure!" A girl wearing a dress of kelp leaves jumped in the drink, followed by an athletic guy in an unbuttoned shirt. Bodies filled the pool in seconds, laughter mixing with the percussive splashes of new arrivals. Their clothing programs not designed to display wetlook, everyone swam in outfits that behaved as if dry.

Her dad had always told her to go for broke in such situations, that in times of embarrassment the best tactic was to feign confidence. Amanda hadn't actually expected it to work, but as she floated with an incredulous smile on her face, she started laughing, flinging waves at the giggling crowds bobbing around her.

She spotted Susanna at the edge of the pool, her hand over her mouth in astonishment, eyes widening in either outrage or amusement. The hostess resembled a pagan goddess of the depths, wrapped in a tight ankle-length dress made of golden scales, her arms graced with bangles aged by spots of verdigris, a halo of tiny fish swimming around her brow.

No more than a second passed, Amanda waiting for a reaction. Then Susanna shrugged and grinned. Standing on the shallow side of the pool, she stepped in, joining the fun. By that point, Amanda wondered if anyone even remembered how they'd gotten in there, but it didn't really matter.

About a half hour later, Amanda rested on a lawn chair, the party reaching new heights around here, people going in and out of the pool. Without knowing why, she switched off the reception. The artificial sea vanished, replaced by mundane flagstones, the Orosco house again just a house (albeit a fine one). Revelers walked about, some in drenched clothes, a little shorter, a little paler, a little pudgier than before. A few wore fancy wardrobes in reality as well; they'd generally avoided the pool, though they still seemed to be having fun.

Amanda began switching reception on and off, reality and illusion flashing before her eyes, a smile on her face.

THE END


© 2012 Zac Miller

Bio: Zac Miller is a lifelong science fiction fan with a B.A. in History who will soon earn his M.A. in International Studies.

E-mail: Zac Miller

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