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Age of Reception

by Zac Miller

part 1 of 2

The alabaster face floating over Amanda Reyes’ belly smiled, blue eyes bright with sharpened 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 customizable 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, her former classmate 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 Bill’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 Amanda didn’t care too much about clashing aesthetics; she 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 Trinità 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.

With a turn two of her fingers like an old-fashioned key, 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 beneath the electronic decor. 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 on the compartment shifting as the car remolded itself to her preferences. Internal systems accessed her music collection, the long melodic notes of the electric guitars following a few minutes later.

Pulling out of the driveway she 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. Receptors around Amanda’s eyes activated at her bidding, unseen filaments connecting her vision to the worldwide database.

“What used to be here?” she inquired, the answer loading the moment she finished.

Where she stood was once 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.

Closing the window, she opened up access to her own faculties and 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 sat down in 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 the Pacific Coast Highway, 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. Receptors for 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!” played Susanna’s voice.

Amanda did, seeing the girl walking towards her with two others, all dressed for the beach and physically present, rather than mere representations. 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?”

“Cal State 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? “Oh, yeah, sure. I can make it,” said Amanda. 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 ƒinvite 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 nice 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 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 just wants to show off their programs.”

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2013 by Zac Miller

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