The Lucent Gaze
When Luciana created the Gaze, the world’s most popular augmented reality video game, she had no idea it would take over the world. Then the Chinese attacked. The Treaty was signed. And the people of the United States were forced to install her infernal, brain-bending eye implant.
Ten years later, reality has changed. Projectors are everywhere, bending light to hide secrets, to show pleasures, to re-skin the world at will. Now anyone can be anything they want to be.
Most people want to be Aer. They are the hottest celebrity in the Gaze, using jector power to gender flip at will. But even Aer has their moments of weakness. When they lose their biggest corporate sponsor, Aer is forced to go Outside—where they realize that the Gaze is far more insidious than they had ever dreamed.
It—and the government who runs it—controls people’s minds.
EXCERPT This is the cold open.
I once tried dying in front of sixteen million people.
It didn’t work.
The room was thick with energy, three jectors pointing at my brain, light and haze presenting a different kind of truth. But as I twirled and danced in blood-stained milky white, I could see them leaving me. My viewer count was through the floor.
I nearly panicked, trying to tease emotion from the brilliant dark. But it didn’t work. They didn’t love me. The world was theirs and ours and mine, but sometimes you just don’t connect. Sometimes it’s just you and the cameras and a show of laser light, and the only one you’re convincing is yourself.
That was how this one had gone.
Dying in infrared used to be so much more effective.
I got a jection from my sponsor within minutes, of course. They weren’t going to let that performance slide, and well they shouldn’t. Hell, I was just as confused as they were about why my viewer count was so low. Maybe I’d chosen the wrong dress. Maybe they’d wanted pants.
“Aer,” they said, slate flickering briefly before it turned into the image of a tall person in a dark black suit, thrusting their chest out and looking down on me with disdain.
I was used to it.
“Oh, fuck off,” I said, flicking my wall to an image of the news. At least the news wouldn’t lie to you. Usually.
But the projection didn’t move.
“Aer,” the image said. “What in the hell was that?”
I finally looked, finally deigned him with the pronoun he so obviously wanted. “It didn’t work.”
“No shit it didn’t work,” he said. “You realize that deathshows were a thing like…two months ago?”
I had to take a moment to appreciate how pissed off I was. “It was a moving performance.”
“It was boring. Seriously, Aer, you didn’t even bring in a fraction of your audience for this one.”
He was right. I should have had at least 200 million. I sighed, then immediately took it back and coughed instead. “It wasn’t fatal.”
“It cost you a hundred thousand followers.”
“Fuck.” I couldn’t help the curse that escaped my lips. His image was faltering, the jectors in the corners of my room having trouble tracking him as he paced. “Will you stop moving?”
“Look, Aer, you’re good at what you do.”
“You’ve been a loyal partner for years.”
Two years. A lifetime.
“And the SouthSea family has gained so much by having you here.”
Gained virtual shoe sales. Great.
“But that stunt just now…are you sure you’re okay, Aer? Do you need a mencom?”
A mental communicator would try to fix me, find the parts of me that didn’t belong. I didn’t need their virtual hugs. Projections of niceties weren’t the same thing as love.
“Well.” My sponsor seemed at a loss for words. “I guess that’s everything, then. I wish you all the best.”
He signed off, his avatar blending into a formless slate before fading away completely. The Gaze registered his absence next: SouthSea Digital Apparel, Inc. has unfollowed you. Great. Expected. Not really newsworthy.
Except that they were a quarter of my income.
I sighed. It happened, sometimes. My audience was fickle, like the lights outside my glass-paned windows. There was always something brighter out there outside the fringe, beyond the limits of my projectors. There was always something more: more urgent, more dangerous, more newsworthy, more true. Another avatar, another outfit, another lit projection that could finally make me belong.
But I didn’t want to belong.
So I flicked a switch, altering my image into something different.
He stood, looking down at his newly reformed body in the light. The Gaze had rendered him in browns and blues, a fancy leather jacket that held a fringe of purple around the edges. Nice.
“Call Boyega,” he said, and the wall system obliged.
Soon his boyfriend was standing in front of him.
“Ayr,” Boyega said, blushing visibly despite the projection on his skin. “I…uh…wasn’t expecting your call.”
“I just lost a hundred thousand followers. And my biggest sponsor.”
“Oh,” Boyega said, floundering. “Fuck.” Something was flickering at the edge of his image.
“What’s going on?”
“I, uh. It’s just a bad time. I’m sorry about your losses. Was it a performance?”
“Jesus, Boyega,” Ayr said. “Get a grip on yourself. When will you lose the old mono act? We talked about this. It’s not cheating if you’re with someone else. Not for me.”
He didn’t say anything, but another person appeared in the projection. They were wearing a bra and panties and not much else. They were cute. “Hi,” they said, smiling.
“Hi yourself,” Ayr said. He was starting to get turned on. “I’ve kind of had a bad night. My whole death act didn’t sell a lot of shoes. Do you two want to come over?”
“It’s just that…” Boyega was having trouble getting his feelings out, apparently.
His friend wasn’t helping matters. “We’ve been told not to contact you,” the person said. Their cock was at attention, but they probably didn’t realize it. Ayr hit the censor button—he wasn’t in the mood anymore.
“Why?” he asked, feeling dread enter his system. “Who spoke to you?”
“Just be careful,” Boyega said, reaching forward and tapping something outside of his projector. The signal disappeared, and Ayr was left alone inside his glass apartment, his jectors idle, silent.
The world didn’t need him. Not anymore. Not now.
He sunk into the Gaze, images flitting before him, letting the jectors lapse into a pure, white slate.
I admired the shape of it, the sleekness where it met smooth skin, imagining how the light would play off the single piece of fabric. I could be anyone I wanted. I could look like anything.
Right now I would settle for a drink.
* * * * *
A jector triad picked me up in the hall as I left my condo, my personal system handing off to the public Gaze seamlessly as I walked. I’d selected a tasteful presentation, my slate lit with a pink polka dot dress, pink thigh highs, a pink top hat. But I wasn’t an idiot. I knew that pink couldn’t banish my mood.
That was what the wine would be for.
The glass elevator whisked me down from the 72nd floor, past the mid-level dining and spa, beyond the lower residential floors, into the four levels of retail, personal services, entertainment, and concierge. When it finally stopped, the elevator jectors handed off to the ones in a room I rarely ever visited.
I enabled anon mode, the Gaze blurring out my face. Then I donned my perfectly white mask, the jectors automatically blending it back into my facial profile. I nodded at the ai concierge, pushed open the great glass entry doors, and left my peaceful enclave for the wonderful weird world of San Francisco.
My slate was unaffected by the wind sweeping by, my clothes perfectly still as I made my way down the street. Market was busier than usual, jectors working overtime to style the passersby in their chosen ways. A child with Mickey Mouse for a head crossed in front of me, their shirt emblazoned with an animated DisneyV logo. I passed a person in a white suit, rippling rainbows cascading across its surface, their brown skin made improbably white by the light projected on it. Someone with a parasol crossed the street ahead of me, an advertisement for MetaGym painted on its surface. She was presenting as female, her slate showing nice cleavage, flowing hair. But as I watched, her presentation flipped: now she was a muscle-bound man without a shirt, abs rippling as he finished crossing. I smirked. Slate ads were so passé.
The Westfield enclave lit up as I approached, the former mall’s exterior changing to a beautiful series of drone shots, soaring through a thick jungle. “PARADISE CAN BE YOURS,” the elegant lettering read. “ALL YOU NEED TO DO IS GO OUTSIDE.”
I snorted. A political ad, dressed up as a vacation spot? The Outsiders were getting more clever by the day.
I turned on Fifth, passing by a couple arm in arm, slates synchronized to make them look like a single person: one had their face blurred to nothing, while the taller one had an exaggerated face. Cloth bridged them, and as I passed I realized they weren’t arm in arm. They were wearing a single slate. Interesting. Perhaps I could use that in one of my posts. I favorited their username, flicking a finger in a Like gesture. The jectors brightened them briefly, and the one with the face graced me with a smile.
My destination was just ahead, in the haze-filled Mint Plaza. It was the restaurant Oliver, formerly three-stars, before Michelin had been disbanded. Now it was just a restaurant like any other, unassuming in brick. The brick moved ever so slightly as I approached, jectors making the building flex as if it were breathing. Subtle. Nice.
I pulled open the slender door, feeling warmth wash over me as the inside air took over. The ai greeter smiled at me, not bothering to say a word. I spit, my mask collecting it and sending the results directly to the restaurant system. Only then did the greeter speak.
“Welcome to Oliver, @Aer,” it said in a distinctly masculine voice, pronouncing the at symbol like some kind of Outsider. “Your party is waiting for you. I see you have engaged an anonymizing filter. Would you like to elect a privacy waiver for this visit for an additional $99?”
Jesus, privacy prices were high these days. The price you paid to keep the recording of your dining experience from ever being saved. “Yes.”
“Very well, @Aer. Please proceed to Private Dining Zone 9. You can follow the green lights in the floor.”
I followed the lights, passing enclosed dining spaces built from sumptuous white wood and leather, the whirring of their dedicated HVAC systems commingling into a kind of quiet symphony. There was no din of conversation, no clinking of silverware, no laughter. I had dim memories of restaurants Before the war, but not altogether pleasant ones. Things were certainly different now.
Perhaps the restaurant sensed my mood. “Would you like to enable Crowd Mode?” the ai asked, appearing at one end of the narrow hallway.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I get enough crowds at my day job.” Crowd Mode would have rendered the booth walls invisible, painting replicas of the diners and broadcasting their sound.
The greeter disappeared.
Private Dining Zone 9 was a bit larger than the others, situated at the end of the restaurant. Gaia was already in the booth, jector smile beaming on her mask as I approached. I slid the door open with a hiss, entering the cool chamber and sitting across from her.
“Priors?” I asked.
The system responded for her. “@Gaia last left Hyperion Enclave twenty seven days ago. No known contacts traced.”
“And you?” Gaia asked.
“@Aer has been in full quarantine for sixteen days.”
Silently, we both removed our masks.
“Full quarantine?” Gaia asked. “Really?”
I shrugged. “You know how it is. Blurring in public is a pain.”
“You’ve become a recluse.”
“You should come to the Serif. You’d become a recluse, too.”
Gaia smiled. “You know I can’t afford that enclave. It’s good to see you, Aer.”
I reached out, clasping her hand across the table. “You too. Female today?”
Gaia shrugged. “Felt right. Besides, carrying this baby in public always makes me a bit nervous.”
“Let me see!”
Gaia stood, slate clearing momentarily to reveal her bulging stomach. “Only two weeks left!”
“I’m so happy for you,” I said. “And who cares what anyone thinks? Men have been having babies for years now.”
Gaia laughed. “Afab men without a vagina? Only for about two years. I like your dress.”
“Thanks. I’m famished!”
“Did you file an order?”
“Before I left.”
“Great. So what happened?” Gaia’s expression got serious as she sat down, her outfit flowing back around her as the jectors reactivated. “This invitation was a bit of a surprise.”
“I’m sorry we don’t do this more.”
“I get it. You’re busy.”
There was a beep, the sliding door to the booth lighting up in pleasant cream. I slipped my mask back on, watching Gaia do the same. The door opened, a server in a black slate with black gloves and a black mask setting a bottle of wine and one glass on the table. Then they were gone, leaving us once again alone.
I removed my mask, reaching for the bottle and unscrewing the twist-off lid. “An entire bottle just for me?” I asked, one eyebrow raised.
Gaia laughed. “You’re telling me you can’t handle it?”
I smirked. “You know me all too well. Thanks for picking my wine, even though you can’t drink any.”
“Don’t mention it. This is a pinot, more in the Oregon style. I think you’ll like it.”
I poured myself a small glass of the purple liquid, swirling it before raising it to my nose. It smelled mountainous, volcanic soil mixed with dark berries. Gaia had always known my taste. “Cheers,” I said. “To never losing sight of what really matters.”
I took a sip. The pinot was wonderful.
“What does really matter?” Gaia asked.
“This,” I said. “Friendship. Connection. God, we really have to do this more.”
But Gaia was frowning, looking at something above my head. “You’ve gained a lot of followers since I saw you last.”
Was she jealous?
“I lost my biggest sponsor,” I said.
“An hour ago.”
“You saw it?”
“It was pretty good. Who didn’t like it?”
“Oh, fuck those guys. They wouldn’t know a good deathshow if it…killed them.”
I gave her a courtesy laugh. “They might be right, though. I’m running out of ideas.”
“You’ll get there, Aer. You’ve always been one of the more creative gazers out there.”
I sighed, trying to banish the next thought before it came. No luck. “Mina would disagree.”
“Your ex?” I nodded. “You never talk about her.”
“And I don’t want to start now. Suffice to say that Mina got me into this business, but when we broke up, she almost got me out of it.”
“I’ve seen her posts a few times,” Gaia said. “She’s not bad, but she’s no you.”
There was that hint of jealousy again.
“She must be doing something right, to be number one.”
“Aren’t you number two?”
Was I? I checked my follower count, and sure enough, she was right. Somehow I’d attracted a million more followers, despite my failure of a deathshow earlier. A million more people that I could influence, plying whatever products my generous sponsors wished to sell.
I was one step closer to beating Mina.
“Whatever,” I said. “Let’s move on. After that failure of a show, Boyega broke up with me.”
“What? That’s crazy! Wait. Were you guys actually official?”
“I…well…no, I guess not. Not exclusive, anyway.”
Gaia was fumbling under the table, gesturing to the system. I glanced above me, saw her flicking through accounts. “He’s @Boy2015?”
“Kind of pretty.”
“I thought so.”
“Did he give you a reason?”
“No. But he did say something really strange. Or rather, the enby he was sleeping with did. They told me that someone had told them not to contact me anymore.”
“My thoughts exactly. It was weird.”
“Maybe some fan got to them. Someone you pissed off.”
“And a DM wasn’t enough?”
“You know that doxxing still happens.”
“Or maybe,” I said, twirling my fingers above the table, “it was the Chinese!”
Gaia laughed. “Dude. Aren’t you Chinese?”
“Only half. And everyone knows which half is better.”
“Now you’re starting to sound like an Outsider.”
“It’s not racist if you’re one of them.”
Gaia nodded, smiling. I took a sip of wine. It really was quite good, so I took another. “Nice choice, Gaia. You always were good with wine.”
“No, you’re right. It was most likely nothing. Honestly, he was probably playing me. Just wanted some excuse to get rid of me. I should have seen it coming. Boyega was never all that interested.”
“Let’s hope it’s nothing more than that. You doing okay?”
The food arrived just then, the beep announcing its presence. Moments later, I was looking at the most amazing veal in cream sauce over capellini.
I dug in.
“Do you know any of them?” I asked around a mouthful of pasta. Like the wine, it was delicious. I hadn’t had an external meal in ages. The cooking in my enclave was getting old.
Gaia snorted. “Used to. But you know how they get. All their conspiracy theories and communism fear-mongering. They’re impossible to talk to.”
There was a strange glint behind her eyes.
“When was the last time you were Outside?”
“It had to be years ago. I avoid it like the plague.”
Interesting choice of words.
“No reason to leave, anyway,” I said.
“We have everything we need right here. How’s the pasta?”
“Good enough to advertise.”
“Always thinking like a gazer. You think Oliver would sponsor you?”
“Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
“Are you going to call Boyega? Try to get him back?”
I smiled at her. “Wouldn’t hurt to ask.”
This excerpt contains:
- Strong language
- Sexual situations