Haven’t been posting in a while. I previously posted excerpts of a short story called Image Society. Now the whole story is posted below.
Recap: A virus has affected human facial features. The rich can afford cybernetic facial implants. The poor are faceless people ambling the streets. One woman has lived half her life stealing the faces of dead rich people, hoping to find her way in this new society so obsessed with appearances….
Parties like these were dim, high ceilings with chandeliers, the scent of burning candles filling the partygoers’ synthetic nostrils.
The candlelight served to hide their seams. Some had seams in their arms, necks, and some, though not at this party, had seams in their faces.
The partygoers wore long sleeves and turtlenecks, all the better to hide the seams of their mostly synthetic skins, and for those less fortunate ones, to hide the real skin that lay beneath the fake skin.
Servomotors attached to microfibre muscles beneath motioned eyes and crinkled noses and eyebrows. The more advanced motors equaled a better smile, and at this shindig, everyone’s smiles were electric and dazzling, paid for with the best skin and muscle money could buy.
In a more ancient time the words surgery or Kardashian might come to mind, but those words held little meaning in this new age.
The attendees held wine glasses but many did not drink of it. In the old days the trick to catering was to slightly over-cater drinks and food, but now the trick was to under-cater tremendously; most of these attendees would not drink or eat. Holding plates and glasses had become a social ritual but eating and imbibing had become unnecessary, as the virus had spread not only into their skins but also for many into their stomachs as well.
For those who could not eat, there was a discreet room at any one of these parties where they were giving intravenous drips, but some paid the nurses who attended to these drips extra to pour the drips into wine glasses.
As the party wore on and the attendees talked and socialised what they had in perceived social graces they lacked in empathy. Driving to tonight’s particular fundraiser was a particular challenge, as tonight’s party was labelled as a fundraiser to find a cure for the image virus, and the proletariat were clamoured outside, some banging hard against cars, some leaping against the mansion’s gates, only to be thrown off by a jolt of the fence’s electricity, those ugly proles with one eye and one tooth and one nostril, determined, willing to be shocked again and again by that fence, while robot guards held them off with long metal poles through the grates.
Inside the mansion, this commotion was quickly forgotten. Inside the safety of multiple walls built at suspicious angles, lined with ostentatious columns, people forgot about the pain of the outside world, about their own pain.
Lisa Wang, not her real name, maybe, she can’t remember, has been a common sight at many of these parties. She said hello to many of the same people, though she had never given a cent to any of these fundraisers, and her credibility in her own self was just as cheap. She knew she was not really a Lisa Wang, but that had been her name for almost a year. The year before that, she was Tilda Swan, and the year before Tilda, she was Anniki M’Bosa. She was every color and creed she needed to be, she was everyone but to herself she was no one.
Some of these rich people with the fake faces she knew from her time as Tilda or as Anniki, but Lisa Wang had fit the bill just fine. When she first took on the persona of Lisa Wang, there were rumors that Lisa Wang had overdosed and fell off the cliff of some seaside resort, but she had to fend off those rumors, rumors that had actual truth to them. Tilda Swan had stolen Lisa Wang’s parts from the corpse that washed ashore at dawn, and Tilda Swan knew an opportunity when it arose. Tilda’s parts were beginning to give way anyway, and she had no money to maintain them. As dawn turned to morning, Tilda Swan was no more.
Long live Lisa Wang.
The new Lisa googled herself online to learn as much of herself as she could. Single. Rich. Trust fund kid. Siblings, one brother she has not spoken to. Good. She wouldn’t have to pretend to know him if she met him. The tough part was calibrating Lisa Wang’s voice box. The virus took that away from humanity as well. Everything about you was not you. Her social feeds had videos of the old Lisa which the former Tilda used to her advantage, calibrating the voice, practicing the mannerisms needed for her to become a full-on Lisa Wang, a Lisa Wang with credit cards and cash to burn, and of course to be invited to fundraisers and socials.
The new Lisa took the luxury of her new persona’s apartment to enjoy being her new self. These digs were better than the slums, a plethora of faceless people. What irked her was not the faceless people, no, what she couldn’t stand was the fact she did not need to look in the mirror to know what she looked like. At the party tonight, she could forget, schmooze with the good-looking fake people, admire their face jobs, men and women alike, and worried, felt sad for the men. Did their appearances only go skin-deep? At least when she felt her pussy tingle, she knew those lips were still real.
She saw a man smile back at her, and felt a stirring in her loins, and wondered what kind of dick job the man got. There were very few naturals left in the world of man. The virus took that away too. She couldn’t remember the last time she did it with a natural, she reckoned if she ever did. Maybe the fake dongs were just as good as the real thing, but less prone to faults and bad timing. It all depended on how much the man paid for his.
She wondered if she should smile back. She managed a sloth type of smile, almost smiling but not really, an eternity of an almost-smile, when she was saved by the electronic shriek of a mic too close to artificial lips. Lisa recognised that crackle, feedback of voice box against the mic. There was a cough, taps against the mic to see if it was OK to talk, and then, “Ladies and gentlemen, thanks for coming,” the announcer began.
“Tonight, we are gathered for a very important occasion. It takes billions in pooled resources to make us what we are today,” faked a smile, raised a prefabricated eyebrow, “but here we are and here we stand proud.” He paused, looked at the audience, knowing he had their attention. “Science has the potential to give better eyes, lips, hair, skin, but sometimes,in the past, science has lacked the subtlety, the subtlety to give us a less pronounced smile, less emotion when we’re angry, how many fights with our partners could we have avoided if our servo motors toned down on the eyebrows just a little bit, am I right?”
The audience laughed, eyebrows raised too high, smiles cornered too wide, nostrils flared too much, even the gasping in the breaths as they laughed seemed too well-timed.
This might be the norm to them, but to Lisa, Tilda, Anniki, whatever she was or will be, she knew the old ways of laughter, before everyone turned faceless and some might say mindless.
It had been decades since the virus hit, worse than a plague, worse than a zombie apocalypse. There were no monsters to run away from. Man had become the monster. We were the monsters and there was no way to hide what we were anymore. Unless you were rich. The rich forgot about the faceless poor, and instead of finding a cure for everybody they found a stop gap measure for themselves. Once they had their faces back, they could pretend life was just as it was.
The announcer went on, “Throw your money away, ladies and gents, but please, throw it in my direction. And also, please throw it with a little more subtlety, eh?”
The audience laughed and applauded, and soon the laughter dissipated, and things resumed to their usual paces. Lisa Wang tried to worm her way out of the crowd, when she heard the words, “I believe we were interrupted, weren’t we?”
Lisa stopped, turned to find where the voice was coming from. She met eyes with him, and felt time had stopped and continued again. She almost felt the sloth smile creep back to the corners of her lips, soon her upper lip exposed the lower ends of her upper teeth. “I guess?” Lisa said slowly.
“These fakers, right?” he said to her.
“What do you mean?” Lisa said, only to be cut off by this stranger.
“Don’t tell me you’re one of them,” he offered her a glass of wine, still full, and she wondered if he had even drank from it.
“And you’re not?”she grabbed the wine glass regardless, brought it to her nose to smell it, swirled it, but didn’t drink it just yet. She didn’t want to look out of place. Most people in this party couldn’t drink anyway, so although she would love a glass of alcohol right about now she had to keep up appearances.
“I am what I am,” he told Lisa, almost insulted by her insinuation.
Lisa still fidgeted but tried her best not to show it. She still wanted to get out of this party now. She came for the food, for the wine, but now she had enough, and then he came along.
“Am I a faker, then?” She asked but instantly regretted the question.
“I thought you were supposed to be overseas?”
“Says who?” Lisa asked aloud, this had caught her off-guard. Did she check her social feeds before she came here? Was there something she had missed out? She had to remain cool, she couldn’t let slip her own deception. “I’m right here, aren’t I?” She had to take a mental note to check her social feeds when she got home.
“Says Lisa Wang.” The creases of his eyes were smug, confident. It deserved a punch. Lisa wondered if she punched him how his skin muscles might look like. She had heard of skin fibres and muscle being customised. There was even a sub fetish of half-faces, exposed motors and flesh and muscles, and Lisa even considered running within those circles if her looks would one day wear out. These fetishists would pay broken faces a healthy sum of money to have sex with them.
When asked, some might claim they had begun to hate the artifice and found the imperfections welcoming. There were even rumours of some of the extremely rich paying good money for time with the faceless; the faceless whore would strip and so would the rich client, stripping away his face, then his ears, then his hair. Sometimes, he would strip his skin away too.
Where in the old days one might find lingerie and boxers strewn along the bedroom floor, these days the rich fetishists would have their fake body parts littering the floor instead, skin plates, faces, body suits laying on carpet like mounted snake skin, and if one did the research one would find that most of the fetishists were women who did it with female proles, and dick jobs need not apply.
The virus was slightly kinder to women, their genitalia and pleasure zones still intact. In the old days men would sleep with someone and leave them by dawn and never know their names, these days women slept with other women and paid well never to know their faces, because everyone was faceless.
That smugness in his face never truly left, but he did try to steer the conversation back into less antagonistic territory. “You wanna get out of here?”
“You paid your donation, right?”
Lisa hesitated, and gave a half-convincing “Yeah.”
He was too excited to notice it anyway.
“Don’t I get your name at least?”
“Han. Chang Han. Now will you go already?”
“Alright, alright,” Lisa put her glasses and when she raised her head again she saw Han’s hand outstretched, waiting for her fingers to mingle with his. She did, and then asked where they were going to go?
“My place,” he said. “We can search for Lisa Wang. I’m tired of Chang Han, Harrison Peters and God knows who else I’ve been.”
Lisa couldn’t help but giggle a failed stifle. “Anyway, I don’t think you’re one hundred percent caught up in Lisa Wang news.”
Han lead her out, hands and fingers still intertwined. “Catch me up on her when we reach my place.”
Soon they were in his electric car. “You know what?” Han said. He waited for her to turn his way, to wait for his next say. “I didn’t pay for no donation.”
“Me neither,” Lisa giggled as the engine started.
She tried to glimpse herself via reflections formed by dark surfaces, to see if her seams were visible. She wondered even as far as guessing again if he was a natural or a dick job, since he implied he was from the streets just like she was. Once, when she first began being other skins, she felt guilty that she was enjoying the high life while others of her kind suffered, panhandling, stealing food off scraps in garbage heaps, but now she felt, fuck it, tonight she was going to enjoy being Lisa Wang on Lisa Wang’s behalf.
Han caught her more than once checking herself out, finally spotting her and said, “I do that sometimes, too.” He made a signal to turn left, and after Lisa stopped checking herself out, she noticed something else.
The roads were barren, save for a few cars she could count, and change, with her fingers. In the larger world, she realised, rich were just a small percentage in this wide world, the same way a phone or a ring fit in the hand in degrees large and small but fit nevertheless, but when thrown intothe sea, the phone or the ring were insignificant things that got swallowed in the tide, by the infinite hunger of the infinite sea. Were the rich at all that significant in the larger scheme of things? Were they just pebbles to be taken in by the rolling in of the ocean onto the shore, pebbles that overstated their self-worth?
The car turned into a neighbourhood where faceless proles begged for loose change, some even approaching their car as it slowed down. Lisa knew this neigbourhood because she recognised the graffiti, the stink of it, it even permeated into the car, that mix of weed and sewer stink and the occasional exhaust that came from old stolen cars.
“You know any of them?” Lisa asked Han.
Han took a quick peek at the faceless one approaching their car, and almost immediately said, “No. This wasn’t my neighbourhood.”
Lisa leaned back, knowing if she were afraid like the rich were if the faceless homeless came to her, she wasn’t one of them. She did not flinch, but she wished now she was never part of the homeless. She wanted now to be Lisa Wang forever, affiliations be damned.
They stepped out the car, and a homeless, faceless one walked toward them, but with just a wave of his hand the faceless man walked away, as if his hand repelled the faceless man, or maybe Han was lying when he said he didn’t know them at all. That motion and that reaction seemed to her like acknowledgment and partial subservience. She didn’t want to probe him any further.
They went into the elevator which rode up to the 12th floor, the highest floor there was on this building, but once they entered his apartment everything seemed so minimal, steel and glass and glow of lamps, an emptiness only the rich could afford, empty, except for the row of short stands that held replacement faces, a lineup of Chang Hans, ready to replace the old face.
As Lisa walked along this row of faces she also noticed the wall, lined with pictures that felt like a museum, documenting the fall of mankind as it were, shots of the original victims of the virus, faces slowly losing their resolution, their integrity, the faces of loved ones first losing an ear, nose, eyelids, eyes, finally just walking smooth heads with a couple teeth remaining.
“History buff,” Lisa said nervously.
“Reminds me of what we survived, huh?” Han said as he poured her a blue liquid concoction. “The streets are littered with filth, homeless, they reek of vape and weed and stink of shit. We are all thats left of the old world.” He hands her the glass and she takes it slowly, fakes a fake smile, turns away, pensive, thinking about something.
“Look,” Han cut the ice, “I didn’t mean to be so grim. I rarely have guests here, is all.”
“No it’s just, my parents, you know? Even my little brother. I remember how they were when they were, you know? Normal. This shit doesn’t leave you I guess. I mean, you know what life can be like when we’re on the streets, but there’s so many of them you get numb to it. But to see this, it hits hard, you know?” A tear drips out the corner of her eye, and she wished she could take her face off right about now, because she wanted the tear to be unencumbered by the lines of this false face.
“Hey, hey,” Han said. He motioned toward her and pat her shoulder. “It’s all right, just left it out, its good just to let it out, let it all out, you’ll feel better.”
Lisa didn’t know if he meant what she thought he meant, but she felt next his finger against her neck, to where the release switch was. Her fingers joined his and both of them pressed the switch together. A mechanical hiss. Soon her face fell to the floor. He removed his face too with that same mechanical hiss.
“Han’s not my real name,” Han told her.
The faceless Lisa felt Han’s artificial face, then felt the rough features of his real face before her. “Lisa’s not my real name, either.”
She removed her face right then. “Where did they make yours?”
“According to the trademark and QR code here, it says China,” Han told her. “This face, it isn’t mine, anyways.”
“Just like our names.” Lisa rubbed her fingers along his head, a head without ears, without hair, nose or eyes. Just a mouth, slanted at an odd angle.
Soon his voice gave way, without the external voice chip at the bottom of his mask not making contact with his neck anymore he began to start slurring.
“Jusss…laik…ourrrrr….namessshhh….” Han mimicked her words. The rest of his speaking was a series of slurs.
“So, where did you get your faishhh from?” Lisa said.
“Heroin overdosshhh. How about’choo?
“Shooweeee shide jumper.”
“I been Han Chang for a year now.”
Both of them laughed, got closer and embraced one another.
“You ever wonder, when or if ever they might find ussssh out?”
“All the time.”
In the dimness of the apartment, their misshapen lips met. Soon they were confident enough to disrobe their false skins, snakes molting and exposing their rawest forms. They soon motioned to the bed, the grunts of a misshapen two backed beast, one half not caring if the other half was a dick job or not. All she cared about now was the pleasure she felt from his ministrations.
They were two monsters in the dark. And when they had satisfied one another in a stream of mutual orgasms they slept soundly, their pleasure washing over their guilt. For the next few hours guilt did not exist.
Lisa was the first to awake. Dawn had not crept in just yet. She slinked out of bed and picked up her mask and her skin the way someone used to take a bra and panties off the floor. Her face and skin hissed in place but she felt the skin sag, slightly out of alignment while trying to wear it in the dark.
She made up for this inadequacy by putting on her clothes. She left the house, closing the door as quiet as she could. If she were to admit to herself she knew she did not want to see Han’s true misshapen self in the light of day. Night brought some aura of mystique to it, regardless of their features. Daylight she felt could be more cruel, more truthful. The light of truth had no place for shadows. The dark of night was a mercy they all needed. Shadows concealed and brought people closer.
When Han awoke, he knew she was gone. He did the same thing as she, putting on his skin and face. Only when he looked good again did he then feel confident enough to sob. Sorry for himself. Sorry she left him. Glad for her company. Man by day. Monster by night.
The next time they met was a few months later, still in their same guises. This time around it was a thing called Mirror Mirror, a fun contest amongst the rich and semi rich to judge who was the best looking among the attendants, another way of saying who had the most money to make their artificial faces look good, look best.
“Don’t tell me you’re just here for the free food,” Han broke the ice, skating along months of cold, awkward silence.
“Always seeing right through me,” Lisa said with a tart in her mouth. She chewed and swallowed it before she said a nervous hi how are you doing to him.
“Secret’s safe with me,” he told her. “Did you place your name in the running?”
“I thought they picked the winner at random,” she said, “but besides I don’t think I’m ever gonna win. I never get picked for anything.”
They then picked their nails and twiddled their thumbs, blowing a few breaths out, some loud some faint exhales like whistles.
While they were busy killing time, above them a CCTV linked to a local AI began scanning for faces. When this contest first began humans judged the pretty and handsome faces, but soon they deferred to AI, as it had no innate biases, favoring no one in particular, judging faces based off mathematical ratios.
Lisa tried to skate the ice by mentioning he didn’t call, but immediately regretting it when she knew she was the one who left him.
“Well you know how it is,” Han said, half wanting to yell at her, half wanting to smack her, and some portion of him wanting to hold her.
Lisa motioned toward the window, high enough she felt she was among clouds, but it was just the fog. “I miss the simple things, going to a cafe out in the open, seeing the sun, feeling its heat on my face.” She paused. “Running along a playground, falling and rolling in the grass. Now we’re just stuck here, in man-made Olympusses…. ”
“Amongst the clouds away from mere mortals,” Han added. “Do you even recognize these people?”
“Some, yeah.” Lisa mentioned the names and even remarked she remembered how some of them looked like before the virus struck. “Not all of them looked like they were. Deeper pockets didn’t mean accurate faces, you know? Some people took the chance to rectify their old faces. Newer, better versions of themselves. Ivanna Trank was infamous for her large nose. She looks a lot like her old self but her nose is sharper now. I don’t even remember what I used to look like.”
“Do you know what I miss most? The laughter of children. We’re still young now, but people were afraid babies would be born faceless like the rest of us. These implants don’t work on infants. Soon we’ll all be old and die,” Han tried not to sigh.
“And that would be the end of the human race? A silent apocalypse? Sometimes I think what if, we just embraced our true selves? Maybe we all are monsters anyway.”
The lights dimmed almost to darkness, a drumroll played over the speakers, and a searchlight scanned the hall. An announcer began by saying, “Any moment now ladies and gentlemen,” and the spotlight landed on the winner a split second after.
Lisa’s eyes were closed to hide themselves from the blinding brightness. She opened them slowly and for a moment everything that was white blinked black, and all dark shapes glowed white. Both types of blur merged and colour began to seep into her eyes.
A concerned series of claps spread across the hall. Lisa waved her hand as if trying to quell the applause, but she was merely trying to make sense of herself amidst the glare.
Lisa stepped forward and walked to the stage, forgetting about Han even as he followed her to try guide her. He stopped as she stood and held the mic.
Lisa adjusted the mic and after a second of feedback, she coughed and tried to make eye contact with those stood closer to her. “I didn’t do a thing. I guess the surgeon, he did a good job of keeping my face the way it was.” She fidgeted and her fingers motioned behind her ears where with the right, or wrong, gesture, would loosen the skin. She thought about just that, holding a long pause as she contemplated a thought she had held in the months since she left Han.
“I think, Lisa Wang was a great girl. So great that she threw herself off a boat and washed ashore in the middle of the night. So great that no one missed her. I’ve been holding onto her phone for months but not even once have I got a call or text from Lisa ‘s parents.”
Han seemed to be mouthing a ‘don’t do it’ over and over again, not caring if anyone saw him mouthing off a silent warning. The onlookers, palms facing inward, furrowed their artificial brows, suspecting, but not believing.
For this other Lisa, there came this point on the stage where the lines between thought and action blurred. She only knew that there was a hiss and she did not resist the actions of her fingers. Her face sagged, slackened and she pulled off the face that was Lisa Wang’s.
“I hafff been shooo many other people,” a woman without a face said to the audience. “I’m shure there are many othersss in thishhhh rooom jusssss like me. Letssss not lie to our-shelvessss anymore. Show ourselves.”
Han felt something in his chest. It reverberated in his ears. His heart thumping, afraid, yet validated. He felt something for this woman that was once Lisa Wang. A feeling that she could be everything he would ever need. But he was too slow to act.
Han heard the hissing, the hissing of multitudes. He heard screaming, he heard a stampede, he heard people bolting for the door, glass breaking. He turned and saw many other faceless, smiling, liberated from an age of artifice.
He looked at the faceless woman on stage. He walked toward this woman, his face hissing as he joined her.
What was left smiling, was his true face.