The water that flows from the faucet is green.
I call to my great-grandniece, who comes running. She laughs at my confusion, and explains that the utilities have the technology to spin water molecules in a way that reflects one color more than others. She slides a hand into the stream. The water runs clear as it flows over her skin.
Hot is red and cold is green, she explains as a towel extends itself from the rack and wraps around her hand. They do it for all the holidays. In October it runs orange, and red, white and blue on the Fourth of July.
She leaves me to my ablutions. I stare at myself in the mirror. The face looks reasonably like me in my thirties. The bio-polymer flesh is a little too pale and perfect, and the standard-model chassis beneath makes my cheek-bones look weird. It doesn't matter, I tell myself. I won't be in here long, then the polymer will be recycled and the chassis stored in the attic until my great-grandniece invites another guest from the great beyond. I wash my hands and face, as I have done before every family meal, as I taught my children to do. For a moment I try to remember them, but the memories will not form.
The meal is excellent. Culture-vat turkey and ham with an assortment of sides. It’s nice to see the family stuffing recipe is still in use. My great-grandniece's children ask me about computers and LEDs and other obsolete relics they learned about on the school feed.
My great-grandniece hands me a cup of coffee and we watch the children unwrap presents, the discarded paper sucked up by roving wastebaskets. I do not recognize any of their gifts, and I can only guess at their functions.
For a moment I remember my youth, and it's shocking how clear it is. The family room, fake spruce at one end, fireplace at the other. The sour-sweetness of eggnog. The thick smell of gingerbread. The texture of Grandpa's Christmas sweater. The thrill of holiday TV specials when they were new.
It is an excellent day, and I truly enjoy myself. Once the children are asleep, I prepare for my departure. But I can tell my great-grandniece wants to ask me something.
"What's it like?" she asks, "When you're…"
She doesn't finish.
I tell her it’s like a dream.
I, Deirdre Uddiq-Sandoval (deceased), having been of sound mind (specifically, a digital auxiliary approximation of sufficient resolution and agency to hold and exercise legal status), did commit a portion of my worldly resources to be held in perpetual investiture. Proceeds of this would be utilized to maintain my auxiliary on the Internetwork Array. Freed of social and biological imperatives, the patterns that comprise me can interact with other uploads, partake of the countless virtualities, or simply spend processing cycles contemplating my own thoughts. It was the same arrangement my husband made when he died a few years ago. No doubt he is off exploring futuristic vistas, or fighting monsters like the ones from the stories he wrote. It's the afterlife he chose.
And this? This is mine.
The agreement granted me access to short-term physical proxies, allowing me to visit the real world from time to time. I paid a sizable premium for the option to embody myself during the holidays. The sole condition of this arrangement was that I file my impressions and observations as a displaced auxiliary with the Array, to better prepare others with embodiment.
My first batch of visits was spent with my children and their families. It was weird for them, initially because my departure was still too fresh in their minds, and then because I was a reminder of their own mortality. So I ceased those visits to let them get on with their lives. It hurt, but I found in the Array I could partition off certain emotional memories.
Perhaps that makes me less me. Who knows? Am I merely a copy? Was there any continuity of self when I was uploaded? I will leave those questions to deeper thinkers. I certainly remember being Deirdre, and that's good enough.
The disembodied life is, as I told my great-grandniece, like a dream. It has its own shifting logic, the memory of which does not always stay intact upon being compiled into a proxy. I'm fine with that. I'm only reentering the real world because I am interested in seeing how traditions change.
When I was young, Grandpa mourned the loss of the boar's head and wassail bowls, Christmas pickles and ghost stories. In my lifetime I saw Christmas crackers go extinct, and Yule logs reduced to screen savers. I find myself ridiculously curious about the evolution of traditions as the holidays, and their celebrants, evolve.
No more living in the past.
I shall be a plastic ghost haunting Christmases yet to come.
It takes me a while to get used to this body. In the intervening years the Array has become adept at simulating physical existence, and it is recommended that one practice before being re-embodied, lest the analogized neural pathways tasked with muscle control atrophy. We all hear stories of minds loaded into proxies, only to find themselves flopping about on the ground because they've forgotten how to walk.
Still, this proxy is incredibly light and durable. It feels like I am lesser gravity, a sensation that makes me a bit giddy.
The kiosk which dispensed me is in a city center. Pop-ups in my vision inform me it’s my home town, but nothing is recognizable.
What I do recognize are the signs of the holidays. Aside from lights and wreaths and decorations, every building front is an active display.
Half of all the people walking the streets are in proxy bodies like mine. Another pop-up informs me some are fellow temporary visitors, but most are being tele-guided by people who prefer to stay at home. Almost everyone has communication chips in their head making such things common.
Apparently armadillos and cacti are part of the Christmas motif now. No idea why. There has also been a franchise of immersive interactive entertainments featuring a winged Santa in a bowler hat. Everything else is fairly recognizable, though a stroll through a market shows no signs of candy canes or marzipan.
The media feeds are commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Trope War. I have not really paid attention to current events while in the Array. From what I gather (and what the pop-ups tell me), at some point ninth-generation social media mingled with the communications chips in everyone's head and had the unfortunate effect of birthing self-organizing hive tribes centered on an opinion or belief. These outbreaks became regular occurrences during elections and sporting events, leading to a wave of something called "embedded identity-enhancers." Despite that, a shockingly large percentage of the world population demanded the civil right to become part of a hive. It all came to a head at Christmas ten years ago when open warfare erupted in the western half of Ohio over real vs. artificial trees. Similar battles struck Europe on topics such as what songs to sing and whether lights should be white or multi-colored.
I find myself shaking my head at the whole affair and quietly thinking things were better when I was young.
No sooner has that thought completed itself when I hear echoes of it. I am pinged from all across the world by people expressing similar sentiments. Networked apps attempt to synchronize my thoughts with others, making dependence on ideological groupthink appear compellingly attractive. Fortunately, the proxy body is short-term and does not carry the same level of involved communication.
I've seen enough.
Finally, flying cars.
Unfortunately they all have pink and yellow strobes for headlights so it hurts to look at them. A strange, almost intuitive knowledge informs me that everyone has augmented eyes which require specific hues and frequencies to perceive properly. My curiosity about where this knowledge comes from is responded to by the instant understanding that the Array has become so advanced that every mind, be it real or uploaded, now carries a complete copy of it within themselves. How convenient.
The cars fly though a mountainous city of hideous architecture. The buildings are lit ultra-bright by floating light sources. There are odd droning noises emitting from everywhere, punctuated by buzzes and fricatives. It's shocking and annoying all at once.
I don't want to be here. I'd rather see my old neighborhood.
The thought is barely completed when the sidewalk I'm standing on begins conveying me away at great speed. Shimmering force fields wrap around me and decrease my wind resistance. It is exhilarating. I almost pity the people in the cars above.
I am carried out of the city, past towering arcologies which house the bulk of the population. I think about the instant availability of the totality of knowledge. There's no need for education. Learning about the past is simply a matter of expressing curiosity. I wonder how this development has impacted traditions, and am immediately aware that:
* The last one hundred days of the year are now wholly devoted to holidays, culminating in a massive year-end celebration.
* The North Pole is gone. The predominant legend now states that Santa's Workshop slipped beneath the waves long ago, like Atlantis. His elves now resemble the sea-monkeys of my youth. Dolphins pull his sleigh.
* The awful droning I heard filling the city is what constitutes holiday music.
I am deposited in a neighborhood that's half-abandoned. I have the unbidden thought to be wary of crawlers, relic decorative animatronics still running old automation protocols that roam neighborhoods like this. I am curious as to what such a thing might look like when one shambles into view from around the corner.
It is a tree, photo-active needles displaying light patterns. From its base writhe tentacles of garland and prehensile strings of lights which undulate as it drags itself towards the nearest abandoned house. Once there, it pulls open the door and insinuates itself inside like a hermit crab occupying a shell. Its limbs wrap around the structure, adhering to the corners and edges. In moments the house looks as festive as any I can remember. It's like something out of my husband’s stories.
That thought surprises me. I think about my family. We had Christmas traditions when the kids were young, but those memories are stored back in the Array.
I wander around a while longer, but find this whole era rather depressing.
I realize I am overdue for a visit, but am informed by the Array that it is in the midst of a significant transformative upgrade. Fortunately, records from other visitors who embodied themselves for the holidays are available. I access them, and learn the human populations on the Moon, Mars, and around Jupiter have developed unique traditions of their own. The information is fascinating. I begin exploring, my visit forgotten.
I don't even know what I am looking at.
The night sky is like one of those lava lamps I used to buy at Spencer's. Huge globular shapes pulsate with light as they flow over a cityscape of domes and spires.
To be honest, I wasn't sure what to expect. I had not been aware how much time had passed. When the Array was upgraded it opened up great swaths of possibilities. The time I've spent spelunking the archived caches of human knowledge is like a distant memory. I suspect I became lost in there.
I turn to look around and realize my body is not solid, but rather comprised of millions of flitting forms like tinfoil moths. I become a swarm, rising up and across the city. The myriad points of view integrate into a sweeping composite vision far beyond the confines of visible light. I dance though the air towards the things filling the sky. They seem to slow in their movements.
I don't even notice the children until I register their heat signatures. They stand outside their houses and on balconies, looking up at the display in wonder.
The viscous shapes above congregate into a great circle. As they do they gain bristly texture, and cohere into a giant wreath floating above the city. A dazzling light bathes everything in radiance.
The children shine something like laser pointers up to the wreath. In response, countless small transparent bubbles float down. One each arrives at each child, popping into a wrapped gift. The eager children grab the boxes and rush inside.
I gather the tinfoil moths together and reform into something humanoid, and look up at the wreath. Its gifts bestowed, it breaks back into its amorphous components which begin to slide away across the night. No doubt other cities await their visit. I realize I am smiling.
If this is the form that Christmas takes, I approve.
Movement catches my eye, and I see one of the bubbles still hanging in the air. It approaches, coming to rest in front of me. When it pops, my great-grandniece is standing there.
"There you are!" She says and hugs me. "We've been looking for you. What are you doing here?"
"Visiting to the real world," I say.
She looks at me oddly. "This isn't the real world. This is thousands of years ago. There is no real world anymore."
She reaches out and takes my hand.
I immediately recognize the family room of my youth, filled with the scent of gingerbread. The fireplace crackles. The tree stands half-decorated.
"I found her!" my great-grandniece shouts.
My husband appears, and the children. And suddenly my memories of them return to me. There are hugs, along with all the emotional accompaniments.
"How is this possible?" I ask.
"When the Array was upgraded and expanded," my great-grandniece says, "a lot of the older uploads fell though the cracks. Centuries were spent searching and recompiling them."
"Recompiling them where?" I ask, looking around the room. Then intuitive knowledge illuminates me.
The whole of solar system has been converted into processing and storage, forming a giant spinning ring around the sun. A trillion-trillion human intellects dwell as code running on a giant hard drive, within simulations culled from memory.
Like a dream.
Carols begin playing as more figures appear. Grandpa helps sea-monkey elves decorate the tree. Tendrils of garland snake their way along the walls and around door frames. My great-grandniece dances with an armadillo. Generations of grandchildren chase the bubbles floating through the room. I see my old embodied versions: my bio-polymer body; my lightweight proxy; the swarm of tinfoil-moths. Ghosts of Christmases past.
Am I the real me? Are any of us? Aren't we all reconstructions running in someone's memory?
So this is the distant tomorrow, I tell myself, built from lives lived and lost, encoded in patterns of experience. I wanted to see how the passage of time changed our traditions, and in the end it brought me back here, surrounded by my past. I gaze at the scene around me and realize each of us is an assemblage of traditions. Some we keep close, others fall away forgotten as we rush onward towards the unknown.
Meanwhile the world, or something like it, goes on.