Thursday, 15 December 2016 20:10

Look at Me by Vera Brook

Look at Me by Vera Brook

Maddie punches in the codes for what she wants and the display on the printer comes to life. It’s a pair of jeans so dark that they look almost black, a blue sweater, and white sneakers. The outfit looks vaguely familiar. Didn’t she print one just like it a few weeks ago? Maddie shrugs. Doesn’t matter. It’s not like it’s still “hanging in her closet,” if that’s the expression. It disintegrated by the end of the day. As does everything the printer prints.

The printer itself is tall and narrow, like a one-person metal scanner at the airport. Enough room for Maddie to lift her folded arms, elbows bent, in front of her face. But that’s about it.

Maddie slips into a thin, off-white body suit that serves as the base, and steps inside. It’s a routine she could do in her sleep. Legs slightly apart, hands on the handles in front of her, her arms slightly raised. Back straight. Chin up.

She yawns. She stayed up way too late last night. But quickly catches herself. You must hold very, very still.

Maddie can hardly remember the last item of clothing that did not come from the printer. It may have been a red dress with a white collar, when she was about five years old. She remembers twirling and giggling, the skirt ballooning around her, her arms outstretched and her head thrown back. And her parents both looking at her, really looking at her, and laughing.

But she may have imagined the whole thing. It doesn’t seem real now.

The space inside the printer is tight, and once the door slides shut, it becomes pitch black. Maddie braces herself. The experience is not pleasant. But she is used to it.

The sensation is like stepping into an anthill. If Maddie’s eyes were open, she might see a faint shimmer as the nanobots get to work reconstituting the base material into the desired fabrics, and then reshaping them into the garments she ordered. But her eyes and mouth better be closed, unless she wants her makeup to be applied to her eyeballs and her lipstick to her teeth instead of where each belongs.  

Maddie steps out of the scanner, ready for the day. The clothes fit perfectly and feel no less real than her own arms and legs. It’s hard to believe that by evening, she’ll be standing back in the off-white body suit; and by tomorrow morning, even that will disintegrate to a small pile of see-through shreds, worn so thin that they would crumble to powdery dust in her hands if she tried to pick them up. No need to worry about trash disposal.

One last look in the mirror. A slim fifteen-year-old with shoulder-length brown hair and gray eyes looks back at her. She tosses her head, lets her bangs fall partly into her eyes. She is aiming for smoldering and irresistible. But the look is unconvincing; it doesn’t quite fit her. Like an outfit worn before it finished printing.                    

Maddie sighs and grabs her backpack. It doesn’t matter. All she needs is for Ethan to see her—really see her.

And when he does, he won’t care what she’s wearing, or even what she looks like. He will see past that to the way she really is, to her true self. And he will know that they belong together.

The way she’s known, with an absolute and exhilarating certainty, since she first saw him two months ago, on the first day of school.

#

At school, it’s the same scenario every day, playing itself out with only minor variations.

A long hallway crowded with students on their way to classes. Maddie lingers at one end of the hallway, waiting, but careful not to show it. Ethan appears at the other end. They start walking towards each other through the sea of people. Maddie is conscious of Ethan’s every step, his every gesture, his every expression. She anticipates them. Memorizes them. Treasures each one.

And Ethan?

Ethan could walk straight through Maddie and not notice her.

At one point, they pass each other so close that Ethan’s arm brushes Maddie’s. Maddie makes sure of that. And each time it happens, something catches in her chest and a delicious, electrifying warmth floods her, all the way to her fingertips. And although her body continues walking straight ahead, her mind does a double-take and rushes after Ethan.

This is the highlight of her day.

But once in a while the scenario plays out differently.

Because Ethan has a girlfriend. Another senior like him.

Alyssa.

And whenever Maddie spots Alyssa, or hears the click of her heels on the hallway floor, she retreats.

As she is doing right now.

There is simply no room for Alyssa in Maddie’s thoughts. She doesn’t fit. She’s a glitch, a pollutant. Maddie has long decided that the best strategy is to ignore her; to pretend that she doesn’t exist.

And, of course, this is much easier if Maddie doesn’t see Ethan and Alyssa together.

She has seen them together enough times—a reluctant, suffering spectator, trapped by the unexpected proximity, by intersecting trajectories. She wishes she hasn’t. Two pairs of eyes locked on each other across space; two bodies moving towards each other, meshing into one; the lips colliding. The image has seared itself into Maddie’s mind like an impossible print—one that never fades, never deteriorates, as real and vivid as on the day it was made.

Tomorrow, Maddie consoles herself. Tomorrow he will be alone. Tomorrow he will see me.

#

On the school bus, heading home, Maddie sees Jake.

“Hi,” Jake says, his eyes locked on hers. He’s sitting alone. There is an open seat next to him.

“Hi,” Maddie says as she passes him. She doesn’t stop. She moves to the back of the bus. Takes a seat near the window.

Jake is in her grade. They are not friends, exactly. But she’s known him for a long time. His parents used to bring him over on the weekends when he and Maddie were kids. Back when her parents still socialized; when it was something people did—invite friends over to their house, talk face to face, eat and drink together.

Jake’s dad used to work with Maddie’s parents. But then something happened and he lost his job.

Jake’s mother wrote. This is how she put it: “I write.” And she would, even when she was over at their house. She would perch on the arm of the sofa and watch everyone, and listen. And once in a while she would pull out a small notebook and write things down in it. It wasn’t a smartphone. She used an actual ink pen and paper. Maddie has never seen anyone do that before or since. Jake’s mother was a little odd. But really sweet. She would look at you and smile, and that smile would make you feel safe, somehow; make you feel that everything was going to be okay, that there was nothing to be afraid of.

Their parents would talk and joke and drink wine. And Jake and Maddie would play the old video games online, when they were still just 3D renditions on a plasma screen and you held the bulky control wheel in your hands. And if they got stuck on a level, or just got bored or impatient, Jake would pull out a keyboard and hack the game. He would find a shortcut or a backdoor; or give them some special power that no one else had; or so many points that they could just goof around and still win. Jake was always a whiz with computers. But she was fast, and had better instincts. Together, they were invincible.

And then both families would sit down at a table and have dinner together.

Maddie loved these two-family get-togethers. She misses them now. They don’t do them anymore; haven’t done them for years.

Maybe that’s why she is always annoyed with Jake. She misses him, too.

How can you miss someone and be annoyed with them at the same time? Maddie isn’t sure. It makes no sense. But this is how it feels.

Plus, everything is different now. She is different. Jake is different. They have some classes together but hardly talk to each other. When they catch each other’s eyes in the hallway, Jake nods to her. Just a short, serious nod. No smile. Like they are members of some secret society. Just Maddie and him.

And he makes her feel like he is always waiting for something; waiting for her to do something, or say something. And she hates that. She doesn’t owe him anything.

Jake is a little odd, too.

Maddie leans her forehead against the cool glass of the bus window. Outside, empty highways merge, divide, and intersect. Ugly, heavy ribbons of steel and cement, all colors drained and faded long time ago. And not a blade of grass, not a leaf or a flower or an insect or a bird, anywhere. The only sign of life is a rare smart car zipping by. Physical travel is almost obsolete. Why bother to get out of the house when there is tele-presence?

Maddie closes her eyes. She prefers the image on the inside of her eyelids.

Ethan’s face.

#

Later that evening, Maddie and her parents have dinner.

The house bots serve the food and will clear the dishes later. Her parents eat quickly, with small, precise movements, the fork and knife like surgical tools in their hands. A cube of steak, a forkful of mashed potatoes, a bite of glazed bell peppers.

Maddie sits across the table from her parents and picks at her food.

But mostly, she watches her parents. She watches them and she waits.

It’s a show she knows by heart.

Suddenly, her mother pauses. A chunk of bell pepper impaled on her fork stops in midair, on its way to her mouth. Her face is intent. She’s listening to something only she can hear, nodding her head to signal she understands. And then her eyes start shifting from left to right, from left to right: she’s reading. Another nod to the empty space, and her eyes relax. She resumes eating.

Now it’s Maddie’s father’s turn to freeze. His eyes suddenly focus on a point three feet in front of him, not far from Maddie’s face. Her father cocks his head, listening. Then chuckles, as if someone just told a joke. Then his lips start moving, almost imperceptibly, and his Adam’s apple slides up and down in his throat. He’s talking to someone without making a sound. Another chuckle. And he’s back.

Maddie attacks the steak angrily, the knife scraping against the plate.

She hates the tele-presence implants. She hates how her parents check out every few moments; how they leave her behind and run off somewhere else, somewhere she cannot follow them, without any warning. With the old head piece, at least they had to tap the spot where the band crossed their right temple, and a faint green light would come on, so she could tell when the tele-link was on and off. But now, half of the time she is not sure if her parents are really here, next to her, or gone.

Maddie glances at the food on her parents’ plates. They are almost done eating. She knows what will happen next.

In a moment, they will both get up and just stand there awkwardly for a few beats, not talking, not quite looking at each other. Waiting, itching to escape, to get back to work. And then they will be off to their separate home offices—large, empty rooms with nothing but a desk, a chair, and a computer, and walls throbbing with tastefully concealed electronics. And they will remain there until dinner tomorrow, with only brief, necessary breaks to grab a snack or use the bathroom. Walking, talking, even laughing, in their empty rooms.

They never touch, crosses Maddie’s mind. And it’s true. She can’t remember the last time she saw her parents touch. Not that she cares. But still. It bothers her.

#

It’s nearly midnight when her phone buzzes. It’s Jake.

She considers ignoring the call. It’s late. She could pretend to be asleep. But what’s the point? He would know she’s still online. You can’t hide from Jake. He has his ways. Plus, she’s curious. He almost never calls. He hardly talks to her at school anymore. It’s like he’s there but not really there: nearby when she wants him, invisible when she doesn’t. And lately, she mostly doesn’t.

She accepts a video call. Who cares if she’s mostly unprinted by now. It’s only Jake. “What’s up?” she says.

Jake’s face comes on but he doesn’t answer right away. He bites his lip. He looks pale.

A cold knot forms in Maddie’s stomach. “What is it? Spit it out,” she says, more harshly than she means to.

“I didn’t want to tell you until I knew for sure,” Jake begins. His eyes flit to her face and then away. “They’re still working out the specifics. But the decision has been made—”

“What decision? I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Maddie irritably. She’s already losing patience. Jake has this effect on her. He gets on her nerves.

“Our school is switching to tele-attendance,” Jake says, eyes down.

“Tele-attendance?” Maddie stares at him, her hands suddenly cold. What does he mean? It doesn’t make sense.

“It’s not just us. It’s the whole district.” Jake continues, still not looking at her. “It’s partly about the money. Their funding was cut. That’s what the meeting summary said—”

The room spins around her and Maddie closes her eyes. Tele-attendance. Like tele-work. Like her parents. She will be another walking, talking ghost, locked up in her empty room all day. “For how long?” she whispers.

Jake doesn’t answer.

Maddie opens her eyes and stares at him. “For how long, Jake?”

“Permanently,” Jake says.

It feels like something slams her in the chest and for a moment she can’t speak, can’t breathe, and it’s only her heart pounding like crazy in her ears. A walking, talking ghost. Growing a little thinner, a little more insubstantial, each day. Until she disappears. It takes her a moment to find her voice. “Can they do that?”

“They already did. I’m sorry that—”

But she cuts him off. “When? When do we switch?”

Jake hesitates. “We won’t be coming back after the New Year’s.”

“What?” Maddie explodes. “But that’s not enough time—” She chokes up.

Jake finally looks up at her, his eyes dark and serious. “Maddie, you know I—”

But Maddie has already broken the connection. She hurls the phone against the wall. “No. No! They can’t do that! It’s not fair!”

The scream echoes in the room. Maddie stops frozen for a moment, eyes on the door.

But there is nothing. No running footsteps. No concerned voices. Her parents wouldn’t notice if she trashed her room right now. And they wouldn’t care.

Maddie sinks to the floor, bitter tears running down her cheeks. She feels hot but she’s shivering, and her whole body aches. Can a person will herself into getting sick? Oh, who cares? She doesn’t.

All she cares about is Ethan. And he’s already slipping from her fingers… And soon—he’ll be completely beyond her reach…

Unless she does something about it.

#

It takes Maddie an entire week of combing through strings of hateful bashing and incoherent arguments in scary chat rooms; of weeding through confusing or deliberately misleading promo sites; of chasing down broken links and erased mentions and obscure clues. She does it at night, her eyes barely staying open, her fingers cramping from typing.

But she finds it. Drains her parents’ account to pay for it. And the next moment the compressed exec file arrives in her email, as innocuous as a fashion code. Although there is nothing innocuous about it and what it does.

Face printing.

Maddie has heard about it. Everybody has. Chilling, sensational rumors. Horror stories. Wild speculations. It’s not as illegal as infusing your wardrobe with explosives. But it’s no less dangerous. After all, the printer technology was developed to manipulate synthetic materials, not organic ones. And definitely not living human tissue.

I’ve got it, Maddie tells herself. She can’t believe it. She didn’t expect to get so far. And all of a sudden, panic grips her and she’s breathing too fast, swallowing huge gulps of air, her heart pounding in her chest and her vision turning red at the edges.

But she’s desperate.

And desperation trumps fear or reason.

Maddie holds her breath, forces herself to calm down. Then she gets up. Slowly, carefully, as if she was just learning to walk, she crosses to the printer. Her body and mind are numb. Everything falls away. There is only the task at hand.

Maddie punches in the code.

She uploads the template data.

The upgraded machine computes the extent of required modifications and returns a very low value. The material is already eerily close to the template. The underlying bone structure; the shape and arrangement of the eyes, the nose, the mouth. Nearly identical. Only a few minor adjustments to the bones and the soft tissues are needed. And the coloring is a little different. But that’s nothing. The irises will go from gray to blue; the hair from brown to nearly black.

How strange, Maddie thinks. I thought we were so different.

She steps into the scanner.

It takes longer this time. And for the first time, she feels pain.

But when she steps out and glances in the mirror—she is Alyssa.

#

The school bus is out of the question. Too risky. Someone might recognize her. Plus the timing of her arrival has to be just right. So Maddie—who is Alyssa—calls a smart cab instead.

When she gets inside the cab and tells the non-existent driver her destination, Maddie’s voice sounds different. But maybe she’s only imagining it.

It’s still early when Maddie arrives at school. The building is eerily quiet, the main hallway still empty. None of the other students are here yet.

That’s good. Maddie has to be the first to see Ethan today. Her plan depends on it.

But it also means she has to wait. And waiting is hard.

Too restless to stand still, Maddie pushes through a fire door and walks down a smaller hallway to the back of the building.

When she gets to the end, she turns and walks back.

It feels strange to wear Alyssa’s face. It doesn’t quite fit her. Her skin pulls and her bones ache. A dull headache has settled like a clamp around her temples.

She catches a glimpse of herself in a glass display and adjusts her expression. Alyssa wouldn’t look scared or uncertain. She would hold her chin high and glare.

There. That’s better. She’s ready.

Maddie pushes through the fire door and she is back in the main hallway. By now, a handful of students are here.

And there is Ethan.

Maddie’s heart drums in her chest.

But something distracts her.

Jake stands at the end of the hallway, as if waiting for something. And now he sees her, and his eyes lock on her, and a strange grimace crosses his face.

He knows it’s her. She is certain.

She quickly turns away. Jake can’t stop her. This is something she has to do. He wouldn’t understand. He’s never longed and ached for anyone as much as she has.

She starts towards Ethan.

But Ethan has seen already seen her and crosses to her first.

The time stretches and then snaps, like a rubber band.

And suddenly Ethan is right in front of her.

“Hi,” he says. And his arm is already slipping around her waist and he’s bending to kiss her. And then his lips are on her mouth, soft and warm, and his arms close around her.

Maddie shivers as she returns the kiss. Something inside her melts, and the warmth sings in her veins, tingles on her skin.

But then, in the middle of the bliss, a dark, ugly thought worms its way into her mind. Ethan is not really kissing her. He’s kissing Alyssa. It’s Alyssa he wants; it’s Alyssa he’s crazy about… He still doesn’t know that Maddie even exists.

Ethan pulls away an inch. “What’s wrong?”

His breath is warm on her face. She can see herself reflected in his eyes. If he wants Alyssa, she’ll be Alyssa. If he loves her, what does it matter?

She pulls him back to her. “Nothing.”

But somewhere in the distance, she can already hear the click of the heels approaching.

And her face feels oddly fragile, like it could crumble at any moment.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Vera Brook is a neuroscientist turned science fiction and fantasy writer. Her first novel is coming out in summer 2017. You can follow her on Twitter (@VeraBrook1) and visit her website (verabrook.com).

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