Struggling actor Henry Hoo is disappearing.
He needs a good role, and fast, or he’ll end up as invisible as the islander refugees living by the sea-wall. If only he could afford an augmented reality Lenz, then he could reinvent his career with a profile in the Lenz Channels and make everybody remember him.
So when Maya Studios offer Henry a Lenz and a role in their next mixed-reality project, he’s all in. But the deeper he’s immersed in the Lenz’s illusions, the more he’s confronted by Kai, a magnetic and unpredictable stranger.
The last thing his re-invention needs, however, is an inconvenient awareness or an impossible romance. He’s got enough to deal with trying to work out what’s real and what isn’t, because something even more magical than the Lenz, and more profound than love, is demanding he rise to his most challenging role—to be someone real in a world of uncertainty.
Hurrying along the crumbling footpath, Henry Hoo struggled to twist his disappointment into excitement, like a jaded party clown might wrestle balloons into a poodle. His careless footsteps splashed puddles reflecting the neon Real Toy Robotics sign overhead, shattering them into sparks that soaked his shoes and aggravating a thumping ache ambushing his skull. He cursed the hang-overs of unemployment freedom. He wouldn’t have had the extra glasses of whisky before bed if he’d known he’d be starting a new job that morning.
But as a Santa in a shopping plaza? I’m twenty-one, not fifty.
“They have a great suit that will take care of that,” his agent had reassured him. “And Glasshouse Plaza is fully augmented. The shoppers’ Lenz’s will adapt your face to the Santa of their dreams. And the ones without won’t know any different. This is a great opportunity for you to up-skill on tech-integrated performance. This gig might be your chimney back into the business.”
Huffing, Henry checked his watch—7:38am—and swiped to load the city maps.
Glasshouse Shopping Plaza sat on the other side of Shibido, up on High Scape’s western edge. He could avoid the expense of a direct bus ride by using the free moving walkways around the city—east to the sea-wall, north along the abandoned esplanade, and up the western elevators—to reach the plaza with plenty of time to get into character.
Ho Ho Ho.
Leaving behind the industrial district’s decaying concrete roads, he headed through a maze of electronic and junk shops.
He knew he should be grateful for the first role his agent had offered in months. Larry Larson had barely spoken to him since the ‘mishap’ on the set of One Man Dreaming two years ago, and Henry had begun to fear his re-invention was as dead as the polar bears. His financial situation was certainly on the endangered list, barely keeping his head above water relying on Work Assist and the meagre residuals from his acting (even if the last two payments had increased). With so many jobs automated in Shibido, employment was a prize, a treasured state of being, especially for an actor competing with entirely computer-generated films produced within a few weeks. Especially for an actor considered one of the most unreliable in the business.
It occurred to him it might be his very lack of a positive Outlook that delivered the disappointing Santa gig, rather than a lead role in a new film. Be specific with your dreams and wishes (he’d heard that on a channel, along with many other suggested disciplines that meant little without action). After all, each and every Shibidoan had a duty to contribute to the collective optimism, and to practice it with military diligence. Gratitude for the day, good cheer for your fellow citizen, and maintaining an optimistic spirit—these were the city’s values, the buoys keeping the city’s Outlook afloat in a rising sea of uncertainty. The compounding changes that caused The Shift still came in slow waves, so who knew if there would be another and what it might bring?
But as he now hurried to the plaza, a persistent cloud cover compressed the air with a humidity unusual for winter, which in turn squeezed the truth out of him—it wasn’t just role-disappointment bothering him, it was his jangling nerves sabotaging his confidence. He hadn’t performed in a year. Truth be told, he barely left his leaking apartment. When he wasn’t covering for malfunctioning delivery bots, he spent most of his days hiding at home in some sort of Hikikomori state. If just the thought of venturing into the world wrecked his nerves so bad, how would he pull it together to step on stage?
A ping sounded from his watch and a notification appeared:
Reminder: Your rental payment of $2450 is one week overdue.
Motivated out of his funk for the moment, he passed the Good Time Adult Store where he bid the companion yujin in the window a ‘Wonderful Day’—More new ones, business must be banging—and then he turned the corner at The Undertow and stopped. A crane-bot leant over the walkway to attach a briefcase-sized black box to a light pole. He crossed the road to avoid walking under the crane—not that he considered himself superstitious, but the last thing he needed was bad luck.
As he reached the other side, his watch vibrated, and for a second he expected to see Larry again. Perhaps with a better role!
Instead, Tomo’s digitized face appeared on the small screen. Colorful liquor bottles twinkled on glass shelves behind the barman, like he was a genie trapped in a tiny bar. A familiar song played its nostalgia in the background through Henry’s earpiece, and he could hear the squeak, squeak of Tomo twisting a cloth inside a tumbler.
“Morning, Chief. Just checking to see how the job search is going?”
“Hey, Tomo,” Henry replied, summoning a believable cheer. “You’re looking at an employed man."
“Alright! What’s the job?” Squeak, squeak.
“I’m Santa at the Glasshouse Plaza. It’s no giant leap for an experienced actor, but it’s a small step for a struggling one.”
“Exact-a-mundoh, my friend. And a job’s a job. You know that, right?”
“I do, of course. I just… it’s been a while since I performed.”
“You shut down that bird noise right now. Keep your spirit high, okay? Tomorrow starts today.”
Henry cringed—wisdom just didn’t sound genuine coming from an artificial intelligence. He’d grown so comfortable with the avatar’s realism he often forgot Tomo was nothing more than a digital character simulating friendship, its calls generated by anomalies in his biorhythms. But Tomo’s merry-barman avatar was just what Henry’s slipping Outlook needed, and that’s why he’d chosen him.
“Still with me, Chief?” Squeak, squeak.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m just thinking about the role.”
“You got some good shine goin’ on there. You’ll light up the day, don’t you be worrin’, okay?”
“Don’t forget it. I’ll check in with you after. Wonderful Day.”
Tomo’s face flickered and pinched to a dot.
Determined to keep his Outlook on the upward, Henry conjured something of a film score in his mind, a gently-taut orchestral piece that synched his pace with its melodic gallop. A light drizzle joined in and pit-a-patted his jacket with the steadiness of drummers. He pulled his head deeper into his hood, picked up his pace and turned right at the main intersection where a clear view of the city emerged.
Fog wrapped the tips of High Scape in a cloak of semi-invisibility. The patchwork of elevated public spaces connecting rooftops with the sides of taller high-rises appeared to float above the ground, like a giant, odd-shaped piece of paper pressed half-way down upon the uneven grid of buildings. A living memorial to those lost in the tsunami, the elevated district overlooked the sea wall and the rising sea behind it. Glass and steel pod elevators dripped from its circumference to Low Ground. In the moodiness of the morning’s sepia light, the auto-pods sliding up and down inside the transparent elevators made Henry think of water cascading from the sides of a re-emerging Atlantis. He filled with the kind of spontaneous hope that arises when one believes something appearing in the real-world heralds some personal significance.
Increasing the pace of his imagined soundtrack, he turned right again. The footpath became sturdier as he joined other pedestrians on a moving walkway. Ashen low-rise buildings lined the street, topped by digital billboards shining in the morning gloom and illuminating the road ahead, the biggest of which read:
See more of what you want to see
The words morphed into a video of a fresh-faced teen tilting her head back and raising a silver vial to drop liquid into her eyes. The video zoomed in to the molecular level to reveal nano-bots colonizing the Lenz across her eye, before completing itself with a multi-colored ring around the iris’ edge. The video switched to the girl’s view of the world. As she blinked through a menu of icons in the top-right of her vision, the Lenz overlaid her view with images and information, turning a grey sky to bright blue, enhancing bland buildings with animated 3D extensions, and filtering how people looked.
An idea pinged in Henry’s head—perhaps the four weeks of Santa work could afford him a Lenz. He could set up a Livey profile on the channels, build up a following, and reboot his career his life, his whole world.
Inspired, he began imagining his account balance increasing with every pay. He saw a Lenzist handing him the silver vial, and after blinking in the nano-bot infused liquid, he opened his eyes again to see—
The travelator ended abruptly, forcing him to stagger forward awkwardly to regain his balance.
With his heart beat pulsing from the little fright—and still excited by his daydream—he strode toward the Esplanade district, where the north-south travelators awaited to glide him to his reinvention.
But as he turned left onto the road running parallel to the sea-wall, he was blocked by a detour truck parked across the road. Black and yellow striped barriers stood guard around it with hornet menace. Behind, temporary fencing enclosed the entire district, including the travelators, and stretched all the way back to the sea-wall.
A message flashed on the truck’s side:
Please use alternate routes.
Henry swore. He hadn’t visited the city in months and forgotten all about Maya’s mixed-reality theme park taking over the esplanade district. One of five, apparently, being built around the world. Sight drones hovered above the district, feeding video of the development into the Lenz channels.
Looking down the street, he swore again. A long line stretched back from a temporary auto-bus stop. Newcomers tapped their watches or blinked at their Lenz to book a seat on the next available bus—all smiling, no matter the inconvenience. A detour is a new adventure, he guessed they were thinking. But all he saw in his near future was a scrambling sprint and a breathless apology.
He loaded the timetables on his watch and swore a third time—with the backlog of passengers and extra stops, the next available seat would make him almost half an hour late. He considered walking all the way to the west side, but without the travelators he wouldn’t get to the Plaza any earlier.
He took a deep breath and resigned to joining the line. He stood behind an elderly lady wearing a semi-transparent floral poncho over an orange dress; a silver, fist-sized dolphin brooch rested on her generous bosom. Her gray eyes stared wistfully across the road at the barren district. The Lenz’s rainbow ring glowed around her iris, and she had the slight cross-eyed affliction Lenzer’s developed from permanently focusing on whatever the technology overlaid so close to their eyes.
It must be wonderful, he thought, imagining what amazing scenery the Lenz was showing her. All he saw was a row of generators and portable toilets lining the inside of the fence, and behind that, a ghost town of bland buildings and immaculate streets stretching three blocks to the drip-stained sea-wall. The dumped furniture that once littered the area had all been stacked into piles outside the fence and lined up at the end of the street. Except for one lone, over-turned chair directly opposite him—
Startling him, the chair moved. Henry realized it was a man sitting against the fence, stretching his arms in the air. By the look of the stranger’s lean, sun-darkened face and dirty, tattered clothes, Henry guessed the man was one of the islander refugees. There’d been an article or two about them—displaced by the rising oceans, they’d arrived on their own fishing boats and congregated with the homeless along the esplanade. There was some argument about letting them stay, but—
An auto-bus came around the corner and pulled up in front of the growing line, but it filled before Henry got near its doors. Getting edgy, he checked the time again—8:08am.
As the bus drove away, the man across the road rose to his feet. His pants were shredded up the sides to the knee, as if cut purposely, and he wore three singlets on top of each other. Even with the humidity, it must have been only fifteen degrees, but the cold didn’t seem to bother Singlets. With one eye on the line, he nonchalantly pulled aside a loose panel in the fencing behind him and entered the closed-off area.
Surprised by the blatant disregard for the law, Henry scoffed and looked to the others in the line for mutual disapproval. But the distraction of their Lenz’s blinded them to the crime in progress. They all stared into the air and swiped at things that didn’t really exist. Singlets continued unchallenged, detaching the cables from one of generators before wheeling it through the gap in the fence.
“Aren’t the sea-side sculptures beautiful?” the old lady next to Henry said, still gazing at the empty district. She pointed a bony finger directly at Singlets wheeling the generator down the road. “I remember meeting my Keith just there. I had my eyes shut, feeling the sun on my face, when a sea breeze blew up and snatched my hat. I whooped like a silly girl, but I chased it. I nearly caught it, too. Then this funny-looking fellow came running out behind and scooped it up from under me. Cheeky devil teased me with it, letting me chase him down into the underground parking lot. Just down there, it was. Yes, right there.”
The lady pointed further down the road to where the fencing and piles of furniture stopped at a rectangular, concrete shelter. Henry could just make out the large, faded letters of the words South Ramp on its side. Singlets wheeled the generator underneath and disappeared into the abandoned underground that held the old lady’s memories.
“I chased him down there,” she continued, “giggling and cussing. And when he let me catch him, he wouldn’t give me my hat back unless I promised to meet him again the next day. Cheeky devil.”
Her words trailed off as she touched her cracked lips, her augmented vision having completely transported her mind to the past, perhaps remembering a kiss she wouldn’t speak of.
Blocking the ramp from view, another auto-bus came around the corner and drove up to the stop.
Finally! Henry thought, taking a micro step forward in anticipation. But the elderly lady didn’t move, still staring at the empty ramp shelter.
“Hey, what’s the hold-up?” a voice yelled from behind.
“Excuse me,” Henry said, tapping the crepe paper skin of her arm.
“Keith?” she replied, looking at Henry with crossed-eyes. But the excitement on her face fluttered away, replaced by a blush of bewildered disappointment. “Oh, goodness me. I’m sorry.”
He smiled and let her climb onto the bus first. After patiently waiting again for her to ease herself into the last empty seat at the rear, he found standing room just beside her.
As the bus took off toward the High Scape, taking him back in the direction he’d come, he glanced through the rear window at the ramp entrance disappearing from view. Behind the district, the one-hundred-foot-high sea-wall cast its shadow over the colony of refurbished buildings. Murky clouds hung low above it, elbowing each other across the morning sky and holding the esplanade hostage in their Stygian gloom. The wall’s internal structure moaned like a dull fog horn as it strained under the ocean’s weight, its lament echoing across the city.
“Memories are funny, aren’t they?” said the old lady beside him.
“How do you know they’re not just something your mind wished up and forgot wasn’t real?”
She smiled as if she were casually commenting on the weather and looked back out the window.
The bus beeped and jolted as it stopped almost every minute until it finally parked at the base of a pod elevator. Unseen mechanisms clunked onto its wheels and ferried it up through the transparent well. The development area spread out below, its true size revealing itself, a semi-circle as wide as High Scape stretching out from the esplanade’s north end, around the Esplanade district, and curving back to the wall at the south end.
While the swarm of Sight drones focused on the development, Henry’s mind x-rayed the district in an attempt to imagine how the refugees could be living in the parking lot. But he knew so little about them or their situation—how many there were, or how long they’d been in Shibido. He shuddered at what it might feel like to be so invisible. For the first time in his life he felt thankful for being born on the Isle of Meti—the now-submerged island in the bay—and not some remote micro-nation like Agu-shi. An overwhelming gratitude suffused through him, and he promised himself, late or not, he would give the Santa role his all.
And then I’ll get myself a Lenz for Christmas.
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