The Stranger

Cherry Zheng

At five-thirty every morning, she puts on her morphsuit. Hers is newborn pink, its sensors so miniaturised that her hairs lift in a static rush whenever she moves with too much violence.  

Her head always comes last. After downing a flavourless broth of Nutri-ah!, rinsing her mouth, and wiping down her skin until her pores squeak for mercy, she bends over the sink. Her face floats like a lily pad in the sweet solution. She nudges it on. Liquid sluices through her fingers and leaves them dry. Nanofabric clings; sensors pulse online, hot pink. 

They run in parallel lines along her cheeks, her forehead, though they are only visible from low angles, in flashes, like the dazzling floaters one gets from staring for too long at the sun. Mesmerising, like the ideal Fluent. 

She takes her place two minutes early. Her tongue and nostrils, overlaid by soft nanofabric film, feed her a cascade of five-second fine dining tasters. She sweeps away a stray hair, leaving her with a clear view of the bedroom. Adblocked vision—worth every cent.

At six o’clock, her eyes fly open.

‘Hello world!’ she sings, coming to life from her throne of cushions. She arches her back until the tips of her hair skim the marble floor. ‘It’s Throwback Thursday and I hope you’re as keen as I am for our special date!’ She holds out a hand, winks at her bejewelled middle knuckle. The disguised flashgun winks back. Her free hand twitches across the controls beyond her field of vision. Filters, meta-filters, overlays, sense-points—it will have to do. The vidclip tears free and ricochets across the web. Nets up a small catch of early risers. Too small. A young Fluent has broken the ranks lately and their saturated, sense-bloated streams are pulling her audience.

‘But first, can we just appreciate this flair morning. Flick open your windows, jewels, because the sun is looking gorg today and yes, AQ is a green light so suck up a lungful of au naturel air while you’re at it! It’s flash for the skin.’ She centres a small jar in her vision, letting the label catch the sunlamps. ‘I’m feeling like peach blossoms, because it brings me back to that amaaazing garden in Tokyo on Sunday—right, we got pree lost in there, a scant dirty even—wasn’t it so realistic?’ She dabs the cream beneath the red circles twinkling on her cheekbones like an extra pair of eyes. ‘Feel that? Cool, but not too cool, and it just melts into your skin.’ With a tap of the hand, she rewinds the stream. ‘Before. After. Feel the difference?’

She pirouettes to the floor-to-ceiling windows. Daybreak meets the skyline in the gouache style of the painter Le Shayi. According to the swipe, this morning’s sky is a visualisation of Top Ten activist Candle Lam’s neuron pattern when she was finally freed from digital arrest. Simply inspiring. E-Scape is expensive, but their designs are hyperspectral. High-def detail. Nothing is random about their random generation. See below: the streets smoulder with beautiful people. Stylish partners in arm, dressed in colours that complement the logos on the high-rises and crisp-pressed cuts that will fill the Zara stores next week.

‘Another way to make a difference to your mornings is a bit of light stretching. Remember the wise words of IttyFitty—five minutes of exercise a day for a healthy heart, so let’s squeeze in some hearty goodness right now! One, two, one, two…’

Her script rolls on, as naturally as the ebb and flow of the tides. She speaks and acts at one-point-five times speed, slightly faster than the industry standard, she was proud to learn. She covers her fifteen live hours in only ten, leaving her a few more hours to edit. To keep her brand polished. And, of course, to indulge in a little self-care.

Pings are firing through her feed, so many and so fast that they tickle her eyes. She brushes them aside as she steps out onto the smoggy street. Forty-nine minutes of livestream are accumulated in the banks. She switches on the morphsuit’s hearthskin—the winds are as chafing as ever—and works a bead of floral oil into her nostrils. A minute later, she is all warmed up. She gulps HoneyDo water and resumes recording.

She booked the table an hour and a half early. Words and Cross is a top-class establishment for Fluents at work. Even as she sweeps her visor down and dives into editing the morning for those who will relive it tonight, the booth caresses her senses. The plush seat accepts her weight softly, without complaint. Though the booth is noise-cancelling, hidden speakers run a background track of carefree conversation, interrupted only by dignified laughter.

Half an hour before they are due to begin, she confirms her order. A brand-stamped salad as part of her deal with IttyFitty. Bluefin tuna for the nostalgia (‘Half the proceeds will go towards repopulating the oceans,’ she mouths solemnly, ‘may we one day serve the real deal.’). As she samples the wine menu on her tongue while tapping through her visual feed, she also draws up a fan poll, accepts some invitations, beta tests filters and, at the back of it all, starts worrying about when he will arrive.

Fifteen minutes before they are due to begin, her heart is pounding. The most irritating part is that it is making her hands clammy. If she is uncomfortable when recording restarts, her audience will be too.

He appears ten minutes early.

‘You—’ She shoots up. ‘You didn’t even come in person?’

He is too tall. Hair too shiny (he prefers it natural). His face, of course, is entirely a stranger’s if you have studied it like she has.

‘Sorry,’ the actor says huskily.

‘He doesn’t even sound like you.’ She glares into the lower corner of the stranger’s eyes. Straight into his feed.

‘Look, I really need a day off. I’m at the launch of Sylphsuits as we speak. If I can pack two days into one, then—’

He cuts off abruptly. She tunes into his stream. ‘Three! Two! One!’ he shouts. The crowd clamps in around him. It is a sold-out event, but she is not surprised to find him close to the front, his gaze never straying from the stage. That means most of the auditorium is empty. Why trouble yourself going out the door, into the sticky world, when you are hooked up to a dozen full-experience streams? As long as we coax a ticket out of you first, everyone wins.

The faces of the crowd are raked with sensors, their irises Venn-diagrammed with vivicolour feeds. All Fluents, all enraptured by the lofty, light-filled stage, that paradise of popping pictures and sixty-second sales. The holographic presenter, as tall as a building, models the new suit on their flower-stem form.

Too loud. Too bright. She even feels the ghost of a blistered foot, a parched tongue. She winces. He has a whole night of edits in store.

‘Let’s just get this over with,’ she says.

She turns down the lighting, drowning their features with moody contours. Turns up some classical music to mask the wrongness of his voice. The clock ticks over into lunchtime. When her eyes open, she is brimming with smiles.

‘Hey! So good to see you!’

They twirl through the evening streets. The steps are his design, but she is pleased to execute her own choreography: knowing just where to look. Dazzling her audience with the starry lights. Avoiding the silhouettes clumped by the drains. Locking eyes with the stranger—fleetingly, of course. 

They land on his doorstep. Her feed is frothing, boiling over, and, and—and—she lets it. Her ears thrum with the track her fans choose—a synth-singer warbling about heartbreak, of all things—and she giggles when the polls say so, and delivers the lines they lend her with verve. She admires herself in his stream, her face fluorescent with the glowing lines of sensors on fire. 

She is light-headed with love. For him, but most of all for her fans, who have followed her through it all and who believe in her happiness harder than she ever has. 

Finally, to a chorus of screams across the web, she leans in. 

Their streams cut to black at the same time. With the weight of two hundred thousand pairs of eyes suddenly lifted, they sag against the doorframe.

Their feeds blow up. They are going off the charts. Two hundred and fifty—four hundred—half a million. Outrage. Bittersweet copy-tones. Hearts near and far, now melted anatomies, flushed into the garbage soup in the streets. 

They do not move. Their foreheads are still touching. Her face blazes with the hot cheeks of fifty thousand girls. 

She, too, has indulged in this moment. In those crumbs of quiet before she fell asleep, she sometimes forgot she was a Fluent and saw her life through the haze of a dream. Finally, she is living it. Exactly as they have imagined. Together. Yet, she cannot bring herself to move.

‘What difference does it make?’ he says.

‘I can’t do this with another man.’

Glee churns up from deep inside him. ‘Man?’ His arm elongates with a whir. Catches her wrist. Beneath his sleeve glints a band of metal, reflecting her open-mouthed expression. ‘I’m more than a man.’

The android’s voice changes. Suddenly, it is as though he is standing right in front of her. ‘I thought you would like that voice.’

She brushes the android’s face and freezes. She takes in the high, aqua-toned cheekbones. The smooth, silver bridge of the nose.

Are those old-fashioned features really her preferences? 

She cannot be sure. One sees so many beautiful faces in a day. If you send your streams to the avatar analysts, they can tell you how long your gaze lingers on people. They will graph the murmurs of your heart. 

‘Do you like it?’ it says.

‘Have you been mining my streams?’

It smiles. He is probably smiling as well. ‘They’re public.’

As she warms unconsciously to the soft hazel of its eyes, the crinkles at the edges, and finds herself falling in, the android’s lips part in a laugh. Is that programmed too? Maybe he sits in his studio right now, her sensors peaking and falling across several screens. So she plays her part, hands reaching for its neck as their lips meet, relishing this performance for a grand audience of two, until the end—

She twists its head down with all her IttyFitty might.

Its neck snaps in a popping chain. Its limbs flail like the legs of a partially-trampled spider. They both fall as the android unhinges sideways from the torso.

‘Hello world!’

It rises from its throne of cushions with a languid stretch, babbling as it takes them through her morning routine. Its mint green fingernails glint; it lifts its hand as though it has just noticed them. ‘I have fallen in love with this colour. Yep, candy applexapple.’ A fawning tone for her fans, who never miss a detail. ‘On top of it as usual, jewels!’

She unplugs. She meditates cross-legged in a white room, surrounded by looping vistas of edits in progress. Her morphsuit slumps in the bathtub like a dead body. She puts the final touches on her ambience track for pressure—a sense too often neglected—and lies back. Not even noon yet. It will be strutting through the plaza now, nibbling one or two meal deals (delivered in fifteen minutes), jingling with limited edition trinkets, capping off the day at a screening of Macbeth (don’t miss out on the zero-fat ghost burger!).

With the android taking care of her work life, she is free. 

Free, at last, to figure out who she is.

She sucks in stale air. Massages the knots in her shoulders. Her feed is the usual avalanche. If there is one thing she knows about herself, it’s that she has never been one to sit still for long.

So, for now, she does what she does best: mine through the trends of the year, the month, the minute. She marks out a course to stay at the vanguard and bookmarks destinations. Draws scenic routes. Plans the gentle sweep of the android’s gaze on its lovely path.

So, this is freedom, she muses, as she works—watching the stream in the corner of her eye, beaming at the squalls of fans coming online, reacting to a golden handful, sending a thrill through their hearts—and begins scripting the rest of her days.

Cherry Zheng is writing her Honours thesis in Asian Studies at the Australian National University. She edits for DEiFY, a QTIBIPOC collective based on Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri Country. She has previously been published in Overland.