3380 words, short story
It’s the first day of December which means out goes all those pesky oranges—no more pumpkin pies, gobbling turkeys, and angular pilgrim hats. Instead, the world around Chunfei shifts to snow, piles of it on the ground and reindeer that soar across the azure skies, free of clouds. Rows of candy canes line her view. She marvels at the sight, sighing with a smile.
As she turns the corner, a wind whips her face, cold and sharp. Wet like the humidity of the city around her.
She blinks and a sudden bleakness befalls her surroundings. The colors feel like they’re leaking off her retinas. A pain in the back of her eyeballs gains momentum. She looks down at the gray granite and her flared work pants. A rat, no mini-elf, no rat, scuttles across her shoe. It wavers between elf and mouse, topped with a cute green hat in one instance and hissing with a tail swishing about in another. The rats have no fear anymore—and this one bounds across her pant leg, before scampering past the ripped-up plastic bags and into a garbage pile.
Decrepit branches hang over her, as she moves along with the well-dressed crowd. Others not in the crowd lie in tatters around her, some quiet, some crying out in periodic shouts. About guns and fires and bombs. And Hong who is lost. Or Tingting. For a few seconds, they become silent and motionless as marshmallows, and another second brings them back as grimy flesh, shouting, eyes quivering with PTSD. She turns away from the fearful faces.
Chunfei fishes in her purse, her hands trembling, and her fingers make contact with the soothing smoothness of the eyedropper. She steps to the side, avoiding a bent over street sign, and huddles next to an abandoned shop. It smells like sewage. She steps on a few pieces of broken glass and winces as she hears it crunch under her heels. She squeezes a few droplets from the eyedropper down each eye, blinks the wetness so it coats her orbital cavities—and the view is back. She calms as the connections course through channels of her nervous system. Her cochlea implants and olfacpierce do that buzz they do when they’re syncing up and again she hears the soft tinkling of the bells, discerns the sound of angels singing to Christmas carols and smells the faint scent of artificial nutmeg once more.
In the distance, gingerbread houses line the streets, with prominent white signs advertising for deodorant and hand soaps. The gingerbread houses are too beige and flaky. She knows it must be one of the Asian companies designing the ads, infiltrating the Canadian mock-up version she bought.
Curiosity draws her closer. She leaves the crowd of green and red robed Santa helpers (office workers on their commute), sidesteps a giant marshmallow (a sleeping man in an overcoat), and approaches the row of gingerbread houses (derelict pawnshop, abandoned liquor store, an empty space that used to be a bank). Her daily commute makes it impossible to not know what they really are, but with her contacts on, she smiles. She’s adept at masquerading, after all, now impervious to the cold and drudgery.
She bends towards one of the gingerbread houses and her face is up close, inhaling fragrant spices. She reaches out but doesn’t dare touch. You never know what will bite you, she thinks. She sees that the houses are made of saltines, white crackers, not the dark brown cookie slabs she knows from her homestay in Toronto to be the gingerbread that is associated with authentic Christmas festivities. It’s not a big deal, just a blip in the system, a piece of cultural ignorance that managed to pay its way into the construct. She taps her forehead twice to compose the misalignment report.
She notes the advertisements on the gingerbread houses are for the sweets shop, the chain at the other side of town. Fitting. No errors in the English translation for the Chinese as far as she can see. At least they got that part down. A series of addresses point towards popular streets beyond the lake. On that side, the factories produce for the war, with their lasting legacy being prosperity. On that side, she works.
No advertisements ever point to this side of town, where she stands now, with only smog as its tangible output. This is where you leave your contacts switched on and hop over anything unsightly.
A hum travels through her ear and the stench of sewage creeps towards her again. She experiences a moment of pixel distortion and a drag in the rendering. The angular lines of the spurious gingerbreads erected in saltines pull out and swirl like a van Gogh painting. The ads; they’re undoing, fading. They coalesce to a blur, and dissolve into the grayness of the chemical haze that permeates this once-vibrant city.
She pulls up a holoform, thumbs around and she sees the violent red flash of zero creds, and for a moment all she hears is her own sharp intake of breath. She tries to transfer creds to the environs. No luck. A furry bunny head shakes its head. Her next try draws a puppy who barks a “no.” A gentle voice tells Chunfei that she maxed out on her cutestock account on the last seasonal upgrade purchase. It prods her to add creds, showing her the trailer for the newest environmental updates. There’s a sinking feeling in her chest that gives way to irritation as she shuts it off midway. The holoform dissipates. Its colorful, vibrant twinkling disappearance emphasizes the ashen hue of what remains.
Yamei lied, thinks Chunfei. Her little sister, that weasel, must have used up her creds again. Yamei said she didn’t know her password this time, but she must have gotten her sticky hands on it. Chunfei seethes, feeling a scratchiness clawing at her throat. She sneezes at the touch of suspended particulates tickling her nostrils. It’s her sensitivity, dulled by the digital filters, returning. She slips on a cloth face mask that envelops her mouth and nose. The elastic bands press tight against her cheeks. This won’t do, she thinks, adjusting the bands.
She faces the world as best she can. The world all the commuters hide in their virtual perfumes, their virtual veils, and virtual sounds. She misses the candy canes infused with messages about minty toothpaste brands that substitute for jagged, broken signposts. She longs for the translucent, sugared gumdrops floating on sidewalks with insurance mascots standing in for scuttling cockroaches. Now she sees the street undistilled: cockroaches dart; the craggy edges of signposts pointing towards a humorless city sky. She rushes along with the well-dressed commuters, tucked into suits, buttoned up, crisp. A second ago, they were her elf-buddies ready to head to the toy shop. The upbeat march has become a hurried trudge. She traipses along with them, their feet no longer spirited, no longer pointy-toed conviviality, but solemn, as her insides itch for digital mediation.
She hears a bell ringing and her heart leaps; maybe she hasn’t drained all her creds after all. Maybe someone has passed along a free cred or two over to her? Maria, perhaps? she thinks. She still owes me for lunch on Tuesday—when she rounds the bend and sees a man in a stained red suit, a distended belly that makes the red look pink in that area, so diffused are the bristles of faux fur stretched across his bulging abdomen. She blinks; it’s too drab to be a mock-up, (no such thing as a dull cardinal hue in the mocks) but she kind of hoped it was. Ruddy, sooty cheeks. Wrinkles.
Droplets don’t help, she decides, after she dribbles some in and bats her eyes. He’s really there.
He’s holding a rusty bell, faded in the handle where many previous costumed Santas must have grasped it. He must have caught her looking, really looking, not the glazed-over expression of remote concentration on the transient denizens of layered mock-ups, but real human engagement—and it’s too late to pretend otherwise. His cracked lips part, emitting a breath of stale air like fermented cheese. The sound of the ring, of a clapper hitting copper, so loud and vibrant, rushes into her ears and interacts with them in ways she hasn’t experienced for who knows how long. The ring reverberates in absurd decibels, past the broken glass windows, looted stores, and bored-looking itinerants, some of whom were mumbling. She realizes she is approaching this costumed Santa, despite herself, despite her rush to work. She moves at an oblique angle, approaching but pretending to go somewhere else.
As she trips over a keeled-over rat, she feels it—the nausea. A stink of decay accompanies the intense queasiness. Hypervirtuale, they call it, but she knows it’s psychosis-speak for your mind renouncing jarring transitions. She wonders how long it’s been—she couldn’t have possibly OD-ed on the mock-ups this time. She barely had them on that long.
The shift to reality punches her in the gut; fills her head with a searing pain, just as the Santa laughs a “Ho, ho, ho!” She takes her hands from her gut and looks up. He’s right next to her now, his puffed-out crimson suit filling her view. She quickens her pace and passes him in a few quick steps.
Something in his presence is disgusting and attractive at once. Makes her twist around, face him, rubbernecking like people did at traffic accidents decades ago. She can’t help but look. Everyone else passes by, ignoring him as if he isn’t there—and to them, he isn’t, maybe a Christmas tree or a giant cube of a present—but she sees his dilated pupils and his mouth poised in mid-hearty laugh. He chuckles twice again. He rings the bell and slaps the can. She eyes the red can hanging from a tripod, unevenly painted, now swinging side to side. An invitation for something. The sign says it’s for charity.
Charity, charity! She laughs. Not an ad selling hair removal products, hair clips, or toenail fungus treatments. Not an ad to teach her how to market her brand effectively, not one of fifteen steps to success to be uncovered only when she draws from her mockcash account. It’s so quaint, oh, charity, she thinks.
“What’s the cause?” she asks. Her voice sounds strange and husky without the mods. No tinkling cuteness and squeals accompany her delivery. The question hangs.
The stale breath comes her way and settles into smog, as the fake beard speckled in dirt answers. The mouth is subsumed by the curls of polyester, so it really looks like the beard is doing the talking. “Reality detox,” it says, “for the sick and the needy.” His eyes are strange. Clear and bright, not yet dulled by the incessant use of drops. More dilated, unlike the shrunken dots of those in constant virtual sunlight. Not watery and fishlike, like the rest of mocked-up mankind.
“Sorry, I’m out of cred. Mockcash basket is fresh out,” she says, holding her hands up. He shakes his head, “We don’t operate in cred,” the beard answers and the eyes smile, leaving her mystified. She feels an urge to contribute something. Maybe it is his pupils that draw her in, goading her on. She feels a rush of blood coursing through her veins, surging upward. She’s blushing and she doesn’t know why. Certainly, it’s not because this Santa is handsome. Far from it, bedraggled, disheveled with even a fake mustache of grime. Yet, his conviction. She can see the firmness in the eyes, the unwavering sense of righteousness. She shivers. It can’t be the first time she is interacting with a Luddud, as her friends call them. The ones who scorn the mocks. But, she realizes, well, perhaps it is.
She wishes again she could see the snow covering the tattered ground around her. Instead, she views the brick building lined with bullet holes that this Santa has backed up into and is now leaning against, his beard whistling a coarse tune.
She digs in her purse and finds tucked in its seams a golden coin, something she had hidden there years ago, on the rare chance her mock-up account got hacked. She never thought she would actually run out of cred. She holds it between her fingers, feeling its grooves.
A plane flies above, another one ready for war, no longer Rudolph the reindeer lighting up the sky, but instead, loud, gray, and demanding. She waits for it to pass.
As the plane’s booming sound fades, she drops the coin in the bucket. It clangs around, as if searching for the bottom of the can. It bothers her hypervirtuale and she rubs her temples as she steps away, closing her eyes.
“Hey, are you okay?” a voice of concern emanates from this costumed Santa. He steps forward. For a second, he reaches out and holds her hand, in thanks or in concern, she doesn’t know, but she feels a kind of warmth that something in her says could never be reproduced by a virtual engine. Hands have heat and oils and character, she thinks, with roughness that feels substantial.
She recalls when her parents used to hug her before the war, before she became an adult, before she got her job and before everyone became trapped in their own realities. She remembers the scent of maternal skin, the earthy trace of dad’s cologne. And the accompaniment of reassuring whispers that told her with all their indulgent confidence, that things would be different, better in her generation.
The warmth leaves an impression on her skin and she stumbles back, smiling, saying something silly to excuse herself, while still blinking her eyes open and shut. They hurt. Maybe even inflamed. A consequence of the hypervirtuale.
She turns around and trips over an—oh, she doesn’t even want to bother to look to see what it is, her eyes are hurting that bad. It squishes under her heels. She hears the Santa’s voice “Ho ho ho!” biting into her and her head rings. It rings in tune with the bells that pound from within Santa’s fist, so imminent, and she can’t for the life of her figure out why she gave away her last physical coin that she could have traded for some cred at a solidbank. She walks away, fast quick steps. “Blessed,” she remembers him saying. “You are blessed.”
She laces her right hand in her left, trying to feel the warmth, but it just feels cold. Maybe she was never born with such a warmth, or maybe it left her. She doesn’t know. To distract herself, she counts her steps: eight, nine, ten . . . she gets caught up in it, tapping her fingers, pursing her lips to form the number “seventeen” and, with the next step, a pleasurable fullness surges in her.
A buzz in her ear announces that she is back in the mock-up. She startles, loses count, but realizes she no longer needs the distraction.
The streets fill with snow again and penguins in festive red and green suits waddle by (what they are in real life she cannot even imagine, and decides she doesn’t need to, as she is off the course of her usual commute) and she hears the glossy chiming of her best friend Miki’s voice saying she has paid for half the creds she owes her now and that she’ll get the other half next week.
What? Chunfei pings back.
Her friend, now dressed in an angel costume and an animated kitten’s face says, “It was for the new mock-up outfits, remember?” Her voice is tinny and high, adorable to match her friendly feline face.
Chunfei remembers the wardrobe now—winterfest. In preparation for the mock-up upgrades. Miki got the French one, not the Canadian environment. Maybe they’ll switch next week, so Chunfei can experience Miki’s mocks. She pulls up the remittance balance and smiles. Twenty creds. Enough to keep afloat for now.
Chunfei doesn’t know why, but after she collects the creds, she craves saltines and gingerbread cookies all at once. She pulls off her face mask, tossing it aside. “An implantation?” she says aloud. “Or was it that ad?” She hears one of the marshmallows talking, responding to her speculations. One of their typical rants.
“Passive ads and intrusive implantations now combined. Seamless facets built into mock-up design, provoking appetites, evoking desires. Used for massive military recruitment for the war, now reworked for civvies like you,” the voice said. It coughed.
A glitch. He should have been rendered inert. She waits for the audiosync. The mock-up still must be loading.
Strange to see a marshmallow cough, she thinks, as she tilts her head upwards and dribbles a few drops from the eyedropper.
A buzz and the silky voice from the mock-up administrator. “Layering complete.”
The marshmallow is still and silent again, as silent as a marshmallow can be. It regained a second layer of sheen and its characteristic sparkles, completing the festive scene.
Chunfei can’t help but feel uplifted. Her mind reels in a touch of ecstasy at the idea of saltines, as she licks her lips.
She sees the giant marshmallows that surround her, trying to pretend they really are marshmallows and not the slumped bodies of neglected veterans.
Her mind focuses. Yes, saltines. That sounds good. She imagines the grains of salt touching her lips.
No matter, I’ll make a pit stop, she thinks. I’m already late to work. What’s another ten minutes?
Just then she hears a faraway ring of a bell. An ominous ring. Flying through the air, one of the reindeers suddenly has Santa pulling it. The vision glides across the sky, obfuscating where a plane would be in the underlying reality.
It’s not too far off, she thinks, as she squints. They’re made to be visible, after all. She sees the splotchy beard, the uneven coloring of the mustache, the cutting eyes, while leaving behind a cloud of messages. Commodity or donation or charity, all the words fly about their head until they have no meaning. Have the Ludduds bought ads on the mock-ups? Or is this all some giant campaign for some other company? Maybe some hipster mod planting wrinkles from the solid sphere into the mock-up for comic hyperrealistic simulation juxtaposition? She’s heard about these groups before—these hackers bypassing roadblocks and taking you in and out of mock-ups seamlessly as a kind of sick entertainment.
Ah, I got fooled, she says, thinking of her light purse, which once held a single coin, which feels even lighter in this holiday air. Who did she even end up helping? She shook her head. Ah, but what does she care? Christmas and evergreen trees are in the air and not a trace of smog. She breathes deep and notes a hint of pine and what must be eggnog, a new release of smells she’s not quite familiar with yet.
She sidesteps around the marshmallows and skips over the little elves and enters a giant gingerbread house at the edge of the frozen lake. She smells the electric whiff of synthetic cinnamon and chocolate in this house and bags up a couple of perfectly circular disks of cookies. She sees the crackers from the Chinese ad, so innocuous. Square-chiseled saltines. She picks a few up.
Once she takes the exit at the other side of this giant gingerbread house, she knows she can turn off the mocks. Over there, the smog’s controlled and any itinerants are neutralized. It’s an agreeable space, not festive, but habitable. Maybe I’ll leave the mocks on, she thinks, even over there. The Christmas environment is really growing on her. She likes the chimes of the carols, she decides, as she bobs her head and counts the confections and crackers in her hands. “Five creds,” the mock-up admin says.
She looks up, out through one of the windows, and Santa’s gone, along with his stale breath and his warm hands. She pays for the cookies and saltines with acquiescence, wishing they were warm, but they just feel like a kind of static-charged pleasantness, like everything else in these mocks. Not exactly comforting, but agreeable. She picks up a few saltines out of the green gift bag and bites.
D.A. Xiaolin Spires steps into portals and reappears in sites such as Hawai’i, NY, various parts of Asia and elsewhere, with her keyboard appendage attached. Her work appears in publications such as Clarkesworld, Analog, Nature, Terraform, Fireside, Star*Line, Liquid Imagination, and anthologies such as Make Shift, Ride the Star Wind, Sharp and Sugar Tooth, Deep Signal, and Battling in All Her Finery. Select stories can be read in German, Spanish, Vietnamese, Estonian, French and Japanese translation.