The color around her was purple. Some people don't like purple. Most people do.
It wasn't just purple, of course. Nobody's color is just a color. It's not even just a shade. And it's never just one thing. In the ads they call it a quantum cloud. You can see the bits of it, and the space of it, flickering in and out, shades deeper and lighter, lights wrapping around each other and replacing each other and fading and burning into existence all at once.
But she was purple, all over.
The sun was behind her as she streamed in and sat at the bar. And nothing in the crowded room changed except that it was trying not to change.
I was sitting with some co-workers for a glad-to-be-unhappy hour—one of those satisfying gripe sessions that make you feel more agitated and less alone. I had had more drinks than I usually do in company. When I really drink, I do it alone. Your colors change. They say they shouldn't, but they do for me. I'm sure they do.
Ora's only supposed to show the deepest layer of your self. The moment-to-moment of your consciousness isn't supposed to appear before it's settled and incorporated into the vastness of your inner world. Your inner monologue is supposed to be like sand sprinkled on the sea, and the app is supposed to show the ocean floor.
But it's not like that for me. I'm sure it's not. Since the dryad update you've been able to see it yourself, in the mirror, and I can see how much it's changed when I'm really drinking, or really sad. There's a darkness to it. No, not a darkness; a ruddiness. An apparentness, like a fluorescent light on your whole soul.
Look at her soul. Look at her. I can feel it in my throat. She's an angel.
And suddenly my legs are moving, and I'm leaning on the bar like a cardboard cutout of a man, and I'm trying to talk to her.
'Hey.’ You can't, but I can feel myself flicker.
She has nothing but kindness in her eyes. No pity at all. Nothing but kindness. Nothing but.
'Hey,’ she says, and she smiles. Her light warbles to life. She responds to other living things like a welcome touch.
‘Can I keep you company? Or are you waiting for someone?’
'And are you...otherwise busy? I don't want to keep you from a date with a good book.’
An interested look. 'Do you like to read in bars?’
‘Best place there is to read. Enough noise to zero in. Lots of life around you. Makes it feel so...active, you know? So…part of life.’
She smiles, and this time it's for real. 'I know just what you mean.’
I was older than her, but my color was younger. There was less to it. I felt insubstantial. A tiny well formed in a corner of my light, and she noticed it one day, while we were under the full sun in a park. Of course she did.
'You're so beautiful,’ is the only way I could explain.
She looked down, looked up, held on to a smile. 'First time in history that I would be.’
Early on, Ora established a reverse correlation between physical beauty and ‘glotient’, as it embarrassingly still calls its algorithm-cum-graphical imaging tech—still proprietary and, it goes without saying, unregulated after over a decade on the market. Commentators have called it a new defining force, not just in aesthetics or social life or even ethics, but in evolution itself. First sexual selection goes, then our reliance on our own instincts, then begins a spiral towards complete moral and social disintegration. It's mostly pretty people who say that. In this age, a saying goes, newscasters are out of a job, and good riddance.
Why not rid ourselves of this mad artifice, this base lie that bone structure and skin smoothness and an attitude of emptiness should matter to people? Wasn't that a vestigial, animal horror worth leaving behind? This was a good evolution too, wasn't it? And for once, a technology that could actually make the world more beautiful?
I smile back, gazing at her. 'I'm grateful for penicillin, and I'm grateful for you.’
A train is rattling by with me in it. I'm thinking about her.
A man gets on the train with a cloud over his face. I try to pay attention to its pain, to the pinched skin around his eyes, to the shadow of his skull pressing through. To the vein raised over his temple. But how can anything really be seen this way? How can anything ever have really been seen this way? It’s like hieroglyphics.
There was all that time when a single frame of painting would have said so much about a human being that you could look at it for a thousand years and always see something new. There were two centuries when you could trap the light of a simple human face on a screen, just as it was, and see everything you needed to see about them. Now it all seemed like tea leaves, or primary colors.
Now everyone could see the deep cancerous blight of mushy grey dangling and weaving outside his head, blood red spurting out like a dying star. His light was sick, which meant he was sick. He had done terrible things. At least part of this man was evil, and everyone on the train could see it.
One by one, until it’s almost the whole train, people take their contacts out. A shuffling and a looking away.
The man closes his eyes.
They were on the lawn when we got there, in the fading light. My mother’s easy green looked paler; more insubstantial. My father’s mellow orange was motley, tired. Something had happened.
People of my generation just jump right into it, but older people like to act like whatever’s changed’s not there, or can be hidden, or isn’t anyone’s business. Or maybe they just think it should come up in conversation, the way it’s always been. The trouble is we know. And they know that we know.
My mother’s happy to meet Anne. I’ve been going on about her, but you can see in her eyes that she still hadn’t been expecting that purple, that weaving gold. It’s like I’ve brought home a movie star.
At dinner, my father seems subdued. Usually he leads the conversation, but tonight he keeps going back to the kitchen. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with his hands. Men like my dad aren’t the same around women of a certain age and beauty, and my dad’s version of that unwelcome energy is a kind of reserve. I’ve seen it before; he tries to say less so he won’t say more. But I haven’t seen it before around aura.
‘Everything’s so beautiful here,’ Anne says at one point, a shiver of gold tingling around the edges of her. It’s a house. She sees it, though. The worn wood and the smell of candle wax and my mother’s old books. The clean and the breeze and the avocado plant. She sees how exactly it isn’t.
My mother’s lips turn down. This beatification crumples the shell away. ‘Excuse me,’ she says.
I see her on the porch, standing just outside the sphere of too-bright light from the patio lamp above the screen door. There’s moonlight there. She’s smoking a cigarette.
When she turns, I see how beautiful her face is. I hadn’t thought of it in so long.
‘I’m sorry,’ she says.
I stand next to her. I take her hand for a moment and let it go.
‘Your father…’ she says. A long shuddering breath. She smokes again. ‘He just put his contacts back in tonight. He hasn’t worn them in six months. At least not at home.’
Trying not to cry finally makes her cry. Then she steadies herself almost immediately. Sighs. Closes her eyes. Breathes. Opens them again. Smiles.
‘I like Anne, sweetie,’ she says. ‘I mean of course I do.’
She looks up at the face of the moon.
‘I wonder what she sees.’