Cool Blues of Fresno Bay

            The decision comes easily. Tonight, I will be male.
            The choice is purely an aesthetic one. The silicon mote embedded in the neural tissue of my frontal lobe responds to the thought, shifts sections of meta-biomatter until the curves are there, the lines and the bulges. Muscles surge as I flex, observe, adjust. Meaty is what I'm going for. Strong, toned, but not too strong. Too strong, and I'm likely to attract the wrong kind of partner, something other than what I'm in the mood for tonight.
            Simple thoughts adjust the focus and cant of the smart mirror, show me every inch I'm uncertain about. Little adjustments here and there, thoughts that shape flesh, tailor the skin and muscle until everything is perfect, until my naked body is exactly as I want it to be. Clothes come on next– fashion apps that flicker through my mind like images in a catalog. Outfits, pieces of outfits– assemblers in my skin spin up the illusion of fabric, of plastic and leather. I try a shirt, a tank top, a beat-up vest covered in spikes. A dress, a skirt, a kilt– a dozen options pass before I flick back to a silver and blue suit that catches light, throws it back in odd, isometric patterns. My nails flicker through colors as I adjust the tie pin, the cufflinks, the little touches that the right potential partners will notice, will appreciate.
            My nails settle on silver, same shade as the accessories. The hair comes last, shifts through shades of silver and blue, dances into red, grows and retracts, all at the speed of thought. Brown is the final color, dark brown, almost black, same shade as my eyes. Simple business cut, sharp and precise. No curls, no frills, no errant hairs or cowlicks to muss it up, give it even the slightest edge of roughness. I take another look in the smart mirror, check all the details twice, then nod, lock the look down for later, shift immediately back into a neutral form.
            I try not to look in the smart mirror, turn it opaque with a thought before I catch a glimpse of what I look like without the suit, without the precise hair, the jewelry, the carefully sculpted maleness. Neutral forms are comfortable, easy to lounge around in, easy to travel in, but they aren't pretty, not to most potential partners or viewers. Gray eyes, gray skin, clear nails, all short and even. Hairless, totally hairless, with no curves, no bulges, nothing to flex, nothing to hide in the name of modesty. My mind flips absently through half a dozen fashion apps as I cross the apartment to the DomestiPrinter, drop a thought-order for a meal-shake and hook into the main highway of the global network. Certain outfit combinations jump out at me– ideas for later, ideas for cosmetic lures designed to catch exactly the kind of potential partners I might be in the mood for later, tomorrow, the next day, maybe. A quick ping from the DP and I reach out without looking, scoop up the meal-shake, press the printed straw in it to my lips, hardly register the flavor, the bouquet of fruits it simulates over the course of every few seconds. I'm in the network completely, gone completely, just another neutral looking for a lead on who might be where, what kind of people might be cruising what clubs, looking for a male like me, like the look I'll be wearing when I hit the street in just a few hours.
            And almost immediately, I find him.
            Two thousand points above me in the social rankings for the channels we're both looking to hit tonight, but the L4G boards are thick with newbies. Even with my ranking, I still stand out. There's only one other person with a higher ranking than me looking for a partner in our channel, but I don't sweat it. I've put a lot of time into my look, into my game, my network profile. Silently, playing it like I'm only half interested, I watch as the profile I want to partner with scans through a dozen or so newbies, takes a couple of serious looks at the only other the person who ranks higher than me, then settles in to scan my stats. I wait for him to finish, wait for him to soak in my details, then at just the right moment, I ping him with a partner request, wait for him to accept.
            This is the only part that ever gets me. If neutral bodies could sweat, it would be this part of the process that would leave me glistening, breathing heavy. The waiting, the wondering, cut off from all relevant sensory data, unable to peek into or see the mind of the person behind the profile, the person who will accept or reject my offer– it registers only as an uncomfortable quickening in the rhythm of my thoughts. In a moment, it will be over, I tell myself, breathe. In a moment, just a moment.
            And then it happens. The connection between us flashes green, links us as partners. Almost immediately, I hear his silky baritone in my mind, the simple hexcode address of the club he wants to meet at. A quick check while flipping through voice apps brings up a map of the club– other side of the bay, unfamiliar crowd. Could be a real winner. Quick thoughts select a voice only slightly higher than his, slightly younger, and I stream my vocal reply, my simple acceptance, watch it stick in his neural web, absorbed at the speed of thought. Two seconds later, and he disconnects, but I have a date. I have a partner for the night. I have a shot at raising my rankings.
            Night falls with the same ancient rhythm it has for billions of years. A little redder at the staggered, concrete horizon than it was for our ancestors in the time before the ocean rose perhaps, but still timeless, a rare constant in an ever-changing world. Fresno Bay glitters with the last rays of the sun, but I don't linger to watch it. I catch the mag-rail to Coalinga, lose myself in idle network research and finger practice as the shining ivory curves of the rail bridge rush past, usher me across sunken, saltwater valley to the shining spires just beyond Coalinga Beach. I keep my body neutral almost until the moment the mag-rail arrives at the station, then extract my consciousness from the wikisphere and load the look I built earlier as I'm rising, walking toward the door. By the time I step out on the platform, I'm perfect, wearing the body I've sculpted just for tonight. Silver and blue, I catch eyes as I move, as I make my way to the club, cross inside, find a seat, wait.
            The automated club administrator drops me a note even before I sit down, and as I place an order for a drink that will augment my look, I check the club's schedule. Twenty minutes. Enough time to catch the final few songs of the Thai-Metal Fusion band that dominates the stage while I wait.
            Twelve minutes pass, and then he arrives. Sleek, suave, with older fashion apps that seem less out of date and more classic in their look. I ping him and he turns, offers the kind of tired smile that fits perfect with his “old jazz man” inspired look. His drink arrives before he does, and as the Thai-Metal Fusion band hammers down the last few notes of their final explosive, screaming riff, I sip for the sake of appearance, watch as my partner raises his martini, gums the edge of the glass, sucks gin with so much authenticity I can't help but envy him.
            And then the call comes in from the club administrator. As one, we rise, cross to the stage. My partner gives me another smile, more reassuring than tired this time, and for a moment I almost find myself believing that he might have worked all day in some sweatshop job, that the performance, the act of losing himself in the music is the one highlight in an otherwise gritty, bitter life. No one works anymore, not like that, but somehow. . .
            His hands open first. I take it as a cue and immediately follow suit. He's exactly what I'm looking for– the emitters in his palms carve an upright bass from a flash of light as his fingers take up familiar positions on the neck and body of the luminous instrument. By the time it's solid, real, I'm shifting my stance, raising the saxophone my own palms are still weaving, lips seeking the mouthpiece.
            And then he starts to pluck the strings of his bass, sets the tone with an unplanned, resonant rhythm. Quick exchanges of ideas sent silent from his mind to mine augment what's already in the air, and when I start to play, when my fingers start to move across the keys, I close my eyes, let myself sink into the music we weave together, simple and rich, timeless.
            As cool as the breezes which blow in off the Central Valley Sea.
            Someone joins us a few minutes in; a simple, silent query, a scanned portfolio, a recognized body of work. Neither I nor my partner miss a note as we decide, send invites, welcome him to our local network. Fashion apps still settling around the lines and suit-fabric of the body of a wiry old jazz man, the newcomer crosses to the stage behind us, spreads his arms. In an instant, his clothes flicker, fly out like streamers, banners, and then he becomes a vista of color and light, becomes a view, a montage of sunken cities, of memories from centuries so long past they exist now only in the monochrome frames of grainy documentaries. Our playing becomes a ballad for the deluge, for all the inland seas with their concrete relics, their silent streets thick with silt, cracked with time, and as a trio we work together to weave a tapestry stunningly beautiful in its complexity, its sentiment, its spirit.
            And then, sooner than I'd like, it's over. The man with the upright bass has other partners to meet with, other looks to adopt, other instruments to play. I wipe the faux sweat of genuine exertion from my forehead, check the weathered watch-app at my wrist as the last few notes float in the air. Hour and a half without a break.
            The gathered crowd applauds, so many of them in speakeasy specials, quick-set fashion app kits that only disguise the neutral bodies underneath with a simple textured overlay of a suit or some modern take on a flapper dress. It's a courtesy, something I appreciate, but I take the time to nod only to the few souls in the crowd who show up with real bodies carefully carved by apps, bodies like mine, like those of my partners. Kindred spirits. Without exception, they smile back, nod knowingly.
            A nudge from the club administrator opens me up to our stats, our ratings for the performance, and at the same moment that I see the man with the upright bass smile only slightly, I find myself grinning. A sharp spike in my social rating, in my network visibility. Two hundred million people caught our stream, felt the way we sought to make them feel. My two partners are more visible than I am– their network rating has risen too, but only a little. It's spare change to them, nowhere near as memorable an experience as it was for me.
            In the dying applause that follows, I shake hands with my partners, thank them, smile as they tip hats and leave for other shows, other gigs. Briefly, I envy them, wish that I'd booked something else for the night, but the feeling is fleeting. To me, the music we wove, the experience we created was transcendental, cathartic. I feel satiated, purged. Even before I leave the club, I shift back to a neutral form, lose myself in the streets, in the countless gray bodies moving from club to club, station to station. Only when I notice that both my partners have silently bookmarked me as a preferred partner for future gigs do I smile again, wide and genuine.
            I smile, and it sticks all the way back home to Fresno Bay.

You can find this story and others like it in the collection entitled Astride Twin Seas. Click on the cover below to read more:

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