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“Avi, I just want to say again… like, I absolutely love this theme,” said Indira, while gesturing towards his outfit. “You really trying to be a FirstOut, huh?”

“Stahp! This fit is all thanks to my parents… but I don’t think these bits are going to communicate well online.” Avi took a slight step to the side and twirled to reveal the back of his black denim jumpsuit, the shoulders of which bore dozens of constellations of white rhinestones. “They got carried away.”

“I can see that!”

“Yeah. I feel like a goth Christmas tree at Dollywood.”

“I think that vibe is perfect for your Mask. Black denim, country camp.”

“My Mask is actually black denim, rhinestone decals, thank you very much,” Avi intoned with fake exasperation.

“I think any boy who reads those four words will fall head over heels. FirstOut status, who? You’re going to elevate the game by being the first person to get an Unmask request on the basis of name alone. God, could you imagine your parents reac-”

Indira lost her train of thought at the sight caught of Tomoya over Avi’s shoulder, cake in hand. “Ooof, you needed to give me at least a ten minute warning, Tomoya. These vocal cords need to be warmed if I am to serenade Avi on this fine day that is his Masking!”

“The good omen Avi needs is you shattering our window with your runs, so I think it’s better that I surprised you both,” replied Tomoya. His mouth opened as if to add another witty remark, but any sound he was to make was cut short by the collective scream-singing of the small party assembled in Avi’s apartment. It was his 24th birthday, meaning the pinnacle of his Masking Ceremony was mere hours away, waiting for him at the strike of midnight. Until then, Avi was to bide his time - engaging questions about his outfit, his sister’s recent LockingIn, as a RealLifer at that, and his hopes and nerves regarding the massive change that was about to take place. He had decided to enter the Masquerade.

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As is customary for a Masking Ceremony, Avi found himself alone in his bedroom at 11:55 PM on the eve of his birthday, face illuminated by the bright white light of his phone screen lying on the bed in front of him. A Masking Ceremony would not be complete without leaving the person being Masked enough time to prepare before opening The Survey. One needed clarity and quiet to do such a task, though it was becoming more common for friend groups to insert their presence and a round of drinks in this process.

Avi’s parents had been part of the first cohort to use The Masquerade after its reopening in the late 90s. This fact had become a fixture of conversation amongst Avi’s friends, as his parents had come to serve as a sort of paradigm for the model life offered by the platform. Happily matched and Unmasked as ThirdOuts, that is to say on their third try in the system, Ronan and Liezel’s courtship moved so quickly online that they arranged for a LockingIn ceremony within a single day of leaving the Masquerade. As they make sure to tell everyone when cocktails or cameras are around, Ronan and Liezel were “in love at first sight and married in eight nights” - a witticism concealing the fact that their LockingIn actually occurred just 34 minutes after the first time they made eye-contact in the real world. Such an insight was bound to become instant fodder for quips the moment The Hosts made it public during their first campaign with Avi’s parents. Press outlets and comedians speculated endlessly about what those 34 minutes could have possibly entailed to bring about a LockingIn ceremony, while Avi’s classmates pushed to test if he could work his magic in half the time. As the screen in front of Avi’s face continued projecting its monotone glow, he found himself returning to this memory. Was he the proof of the system’s ability to construct desire? Or of the desperation that spawned its existence?

As if purposefully trying to cut this train of thought, a flash occurred on his screen, accompanied by the following words:

Welcome to the Masquerade

To begin configuration, please point your front-facing camera towards your face. Don’t smile. This is to verify that you are "Avi Carrs."

Avi picked up the phone and held at arm’s length from his face. In this sweep of motion, the screen changed to show him his mirror image. Face to face with himself, he could see the glittery eyeshadow he applied had been smudged throughout the night, with several lines of sparkles trailing off towards his left ear. He felt lucky when the server recognized him, passing the only test in this process that would ever require the use of his RealLife face.

Hello, Avi Carrs.

You may now begin the Survey.

Step 1: Please enter your Driver’s License # - __________

Avi reached for his wallet, wondering how much of this step was mere formality - an extra banner used to signify the Survey as the official business of the State. In fact, all it took was a governmental report in the 80s evidencing the plotting of a coup on a bulletin for all computing to become a matter of the State. In response, the State drafted a series of laws that invented the System, the term taught in schools to describe the complex, multi-tier system constructed to route all online communication to government mainframe computers. A consequence of this was the expansion of the State into the tech industry, in order to ensure that all products were compatible with the System. That is how Avi’s phone came programmed with the ability to match his fingerprint and his face to his name… and why this question itself felt like a bit of an unnecessary process of reauthentication.

Step 2: Please indicate the following in the spaces provided:

Gender Identity - __________

Pronouns - __________

Sexual Identity - __________

[Please put N/A, if you are Ace.]

Romantic Identity - __________

[Please put N/A, if this is the same as your Sexual Identity.]

Religious Affiliation - __________

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being of extreme importance, how much do you value shared religiosity in a match? - __

Cultural Identity - __________

On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being of extreme importance, how much do you value shared cultural identity in a match? - __

During the period before the re-release of the Masquerade in the late 90s, the State had made it a mission to create the Hosts, known in textbooks as the State Advisory Board for Ethical and Affirmative Coding Practices. As Avi could see now in the options listed for self-identification, the Hosts had continued to refine their role in the Masquerade since he learned about the server in high-school sex education. Just ten years ago, any thought of the State recognizing asexuality, let alone any form of queerness, would have been inconceivable. For, the very existence of the Hosts had been predicated upon the State’s longstanding, violent erasure of marginalized communities. In order to gain the public trust back after the catastrophe of the first version of the Masquerade, the State angled for displays of accountability and receptivity. The Hosts, in their intended form, were supposed to indicate such, though no one seemed to know who actually made up the Board, nor how to petition. Things just seemed to change with each Update, and Avi was lucky that the server now served him.

Step 3: Please read this brief description of the matchmaking process used by The Masquerade. Once you have finished, indicate so by agreeing to the process below.

The Masquerade - Love Presents Itself

As the first interface developed by the State following the Rupture, the Masquerade has long-existed as a critical part of Our Beloved System. Designed to combat the social ill that was the isolation resulting from modernity - most easily seen in the dramatic increase in divorce rates in the 1980s and the culture around bulletins leading up to the Rupture itself - the Masquerade is, above all else, about connection. Though the first iteration fell short of its intent, leading to the first High Court decision on the constitutional nature of code, the Masquerade re-emerged in 1998 as the best embodiment of its original intent: to bring Our People closer together, building a more Perfect Union across the State and in every home.

While your ability to take the Survey means you have completed a course of study, either independent or in school, regarding the mechanics of the Masquerade, we want to provide you a brief refresher of its features and its rules. Informed by cutting-edge psychological research, the State has determined that partnership is a necessity for the well-being of Our People. To this effect, as of the Partnership Act of 1992, all people are required to find a match before the age of 34, or otherwise be assigned into a State Assigned and Approved Partnership (SAAP). Furthermore, all persons over the age of 24 are required to show express compliance to fulfill this Act until one expresses interpersonal commitment through a LockingIn ceremony. Above all else, the State wants to ensure that no citizen becomes socially-ostracized or an outsider of any sort, as such can cause irreparable harm to the citizen involved and Our People. With this in mind, the Masquerade is built for others to be able to see you as you truly are (with as few preconceived notions as possible). In the Masquerade, we give you the power to become the Mask you have chosen. You are free to be you here.

As stated, entry into the Masquerade is one way of keeping in compliance with the Partnership Act, cutting out the extra hurdles RealLifers - that is, those who choose to pursue relationships without the help of the Masquerade - have to go through in order to prove their continued effort to finding partnership. In the Masquerade, your CheckUps from the State are inherent and non-invasive to your participation, which begins on the Monday following the processing of your Survey responses. Each week, you will be placed in a private message with an individual appointed to you by the Matchmaker, who will oversee that your conversations keep in line with the ethics of this enterprise. During this week period, you will have a scheduled frame for each day - whether that be free talk or a conflict resolution puzzle - which you will be notified of ahead of time. On the seventh day of communicating with your potential partner, you will each vote separately whether you would like to be Unmasked or not, indicating your desire to explore this partnership as offline. If both of you approve, you will be forwarded each other’s contact information to throw an Unmasking Ceremony. If one or both of you disapprove, you will be given the opportunity to take a rest week - requiring one short reflection on partnership - or to start a different potential partnership.

The Matchmaker will be in your chat to ensure the following rules are enforced. Failure to comply may lead to banning from the Masquerade and possible prosecution:

You may not reveal personally identifiable information, other than that paramount to your self-conception [in accordance with Amitav vs. The State (1994)].

You may not schedule to meet in person unless you are Unmasked.

You may not employ threats or hate speech.

You may not sell products through this service.

May you find the one who Unmasks you.

Have you read and considered these terms carefully? (Y/N) - __

In high school, Avi had participated in debates about the ethics of the Masquerade in his rhetoric classes, as well as in non-academic settings; for, as the child of a poster couple for the server, his very existence was indebted to a widely-covered example of the Matchmaker's care and consideration. Avi might be the child of two individuals, but, in the eyes of the State and seemingly all those around him, he was one of the Masquerade’s many products that could be used to bolster the efficacy of the Partnership Act and its consequences. As he learned through whispers in the hallways and books about what in the code had led to the legal challenge of the first Masquerade, he couldn’t help himself from wondering if its second form still cut itself from the same cloth, now better at concealing its biases. And, in turn, if he was born from this same programming as well…

Avi looked at the time. 12:37 PM. Typically, people complete the Survey in thirty minutes and he had not hit the questions about ranking his values or the newly added section for including one’s unique identifiers - a pitch to incorporate youth culture’s obsession with personality typing and the zodiac into the Matchmaker’s consideration. He had started the night so excited, but now the buzz had worn off and he heard no footsteps emanating from within the apartment. The night was as silent and unchanging now as the sky stretched across his back, though certainly less crowded than the rhinestone constellations.

Avi’s parents had spent weeks to give life to his idea for an outfit, which he wanted to believe they did because they loved him. But, in the context of all of the years of advertising for the Hosts, of encouraging their children to speak out in favor of the Masquerade and the System in school, of centralizing the State in their lives, Avi wondered if the care put into the jumpsuit was itself a mask. Guised in the form of an act of love for their son, he wondered if his parents were really expressing allegiance to an ideology that bonded them and the server that allowed for such.

When Avi was younger, his parents told him that the Masquerade was the salve for a society that needed to be reminded of its common ground, that the act of Masking was necessary to find the beauty in an Unmasked world. They did not tell him how Masking had originated alongside a push by the State to test the acceptance by the people of computer-planned eugenics, nor did they tell him how the Matchmaker had been built originally as a means of building the code of Whiteness. His parents never talked about how the clause of premature Unmasking was employed against anyone expressing non-White ethnic identity to weed them out of the Masquerade, nor how this clause in the server has continued to map the contours of stereotypes. Avi’s parents had worked to erase the traumas perpetuated by the Masquerade because to admit such would undercut their belief that their happiness, obtained through the System, was one which all could access at their fingertips.

Pressing down the power button on his phone, Avi immersed himself in the darkness that had long since consumed his room, in the unease that had long been working to fill his mind. Two weeks ago, he had been laying in the same repose he now occupied when he awoke to a text from his sister, announcing that she had set a date for a LockingIn ceremony with her college boyfriend. She had instructed Avi not to inform their parents until afterwards, as they had severed communication over her refusal to leave her partner, who they believed was not the caliber of match made by the Masquerade. Their parents, of course, in learning of the news from a friend of a friend, found a new lens for showing off their family as the embodiment of the Partnership Act, now inclusive of RealLifers. This thought made Avi’s head spin.

At some point, Avi would need to decide whether or not he wanted to remove himself from his bed to wipe the glitter from eyes - whether or not he wanted to drift into his 24th year of life still cloaked in his black denim costume. Through the crack of his door wafted the scent of the remaining slices of cake, reminding him that this night was supposed to be a time of celebration. If he got up, he could be back in bed in five minutes. And what was another five minutes to him.