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Short story: Skins


In Paris, beautiful cyborgs have more status than refugees. By Rjurik Davidson.


Gatsby

She doesn’t know I’m hovering a few steps behind her, my skin crawling with anticipation. She’s pushing through the metro crowds, past fortune-tellers with names like Doctor Sidibe and Queen Adama, who are passing out business cards. One session to discover one’s future love and wealth – it isn’t so much.

When she reaches street level, she glances across Boulevard de Clichy, up the rising alleyway, to Sacré Coeur.

A hundred mouches buzz around the metro exit, recording and assessing for anonymous companies or départements. The government already knows me, of course. And who isn’t petrified of those policemen, hopped up on amphetamines, with their implants and body modifications? I can’t remember the number of times I’ve turned a corner to see two of them slouching, faceless behind their chunky insect-like masks with their flapping trunk-like appendages. I should be safe: I was born in France, but it has a peculiar effect on your mind, those half-hidden police and those little mechanical flies, spinning in the air, their thousand refracted eyes pinning you, recording your every move, feeding it into the System for later use.

But there’s no time to worry. Not now when I have her in my sights.

The tourist shops along the steep alleyway are filled with Americans and Germans collecting overpriced miniature Eiffel Towers and T-shirts proclaiming ‘I love Paris’. As I pass them, feeds open one by one in the corner of my sight: lists of the shops’ merchandise and links to virtual vendors. They blink out as I pass by. The System is everywhere.

A shuttle cuts across the sky, ferrying one of the 1% to meet another of the 1%. That still doesn’t add up 2% though.

I’ll bet she’s part of the 1% too. They always are. Maybe I’ll lure her in by offering her my own knick-knacks, which I carry in the bag slung on my back. These are fake replicas of West African sculptures and crappy ‘oriental’ scarves, made in dirty factories out in les banlieues. That’s how I am supposed to make a living. I’m not the greatest at it, truth be told.

The concierge's smile seems to flicker a moment: that's impossible, so I presume it is simply my cheap feed implants.

When she reaches the base of the rising steps, she stops again. Everything about her says she’s the one I want. She’s alone, slowly drifting through a tourist zone. Others prefer to find them in the Latin Quarter, where they wander through the streets thick as a flock of sheep. But I prefer the tourist zones. They are fewer, but the success rate is much higher.

For a moment, she turns her head ever so slightly. Did she notice me and stiffen a little? Before I can be sure, she’s climbing up, past the tourists and the teenagers drinking beer, eating potato chips and tossing their rubbish on the grass.

To stay out of sight, I race up the winding pathway on the other side of the grassy incline. Bushes block my view of her and when the staircase comes again into view, she is gone.

With my heart beating from the chase, I reach the flat viewing platform in front of the church, where a thousand more mouches zip and dance through the air.

A crushing weight presses down on me. I had such high hopes for this one, but that’s the way it is, mostly: we never find what we are looking for.

Trying to reconcile myself to the failure, I lean against the fence and look out over the chattering tourists sitting on the incline below, out over the vast expanse of Paris, to the great wall of megascrapers on the horizon, an immense grey wall encircling the city, casting a dark shadow over the 16th arrondissement.

Suddenly, she’s leaning against the rail beside me, looking out over the view. “Why are you following me?”

She – or should I say It – turns towards me. The rush of adrenalin is like a blast of bliss. My heart is a bell tolling in my chest. There’s a roar in my ears. Up close, I can see now the impossible perfection of its skin, and the way, as it squints up at me, creases appear with too much regularity around its eyes.

Most find skins repulsive: the orderly twitch of the muscles, the symmetrical face.

“I was just building up my courage to speak to you,” I say. “It’s fine once you’ve actually begun, but you know, those first moments … ”

“Like approaching any stranger, I suppose. Have you never worn a Skin?” she says naively.

The roar abates; my hearts quietens; I smile widely. “One day, I hope. Were you going to visit the church? I’ll show you around.”

She stops smiling, and where micro-expressions would normally indicate curiosity, or sudden realisation, or even shock, there is nothing for me to grab on to. It’s as if I’m looking at a cartoon face. Finally, she says: “Why not?”

Vaster than Notre Dame, the interior of Sacré Coeur is dominated by its grand pillars and Byzantine-style frescoes. The church’s feed opens in the left side of my vision, and a virtual priest, hands clasped together in front of his black robes, asks for a donation.

The Skin strides smoothly beside me, and I tell her the church was built after the Paris Commune in 1871, and that Montmartre was the capital’s most rebellious neighbourhood. It was built as a bastion against the Communards.

We’re circling the altar, beneath the glorious Romano-Byzantine-style mosaic of Jesus in the apse, dressed in a white robe, surrounded by cerulean sky, with his arms wide and piercing eyes. It’s impossible not to be moved by His glory.

She looks at Him, and says incongruously. “You’re not going to ask for money after our little tour are you?

Again, I smile my most beguiling smile. “I’m a product of the French school system. It’s still quite good, despite the fact the National Frontists have been in power for two generations. Some things take a long while to roll back.”

“What’s your name?” she asks me.

“Guillaume,” I say.

“Is that your real name?”

I shrug.

She overlooks my hesitancy and says, “Well my name is … ”

With a touch on the arm, I silence her. A thrill runs through me and I leave my hand lightly resting there. “I don’t want to know your name. I don’t want to know anything about you.”

Her own smile reveals the perfect thermoplastic teeth. “You like mystery, do you?”

When we step back outside, the sun has come out, and the magnificent vista of Paris opens up before us once more. A flock of pigeons circle a pile of bread someone has emptied on the ground.

Excluded from anything but the lowliest of jobs, what could we do but hold on to what little we could and survive the war of all against all.

“My name’s not Guillaume. My name’s Modou.”

“I guess we all wear our skins,” she says. “What shall we do now?”

“Would you like to sit down? We could have a beer?”

“It’s no good. I wouldn’t be able to process it,” she says. “But I’d be happy to sit and watch the tourists. Unless you’ve got something else in mind?”

With that, I turn to her, look down into her eyes, imagine her in some far-off place, wrapped in her exoskeleton, looking right across the world, all the way to France, to this handsome young black man. Even there, she’s smiling.

“I think we both know where I’d like to go.”

We enter her hotel on the Boulevard de Clichy, and my feed lights up brilliantly as we enter its particular subset of the System, that combined space of the material and incorporeal. Here, where it’s dense, it’s as if an entire digital world is superimposed on the material one. A concierge stands behind a luminous phantom front desk. He looks up at us, smiles his digital smile.

I call him the concierge, but he’s really the Hotel. Any number of him are walking around a place like this, advising customers on the easiest way to take the catacombs tour, or the location of the best Thai restaurants in Belleville, or the positions of the greatest shopping complexes in the megascrapers.

The concierge’s smile seems to flicker a moment: that’s impossible, so I presume it is simply my cheap feed implants. For those who can’t afford them, the government installs free ones once students reach the lycee, but a lot of the time they are faulty or result in infections. Then you just have to pump yourself with antibiotics and hope you haven’t a superbug lodged in your head. My implants have been playing up for a while now, and I have to be careful when I enter sophisticated subsets of the System, such as high-end hotels. I’m always confusing what is real and irreal. Once I leaned on a wall, only to find it wasn’t there, and I fell into a dirty broom closet. The Skin I was with laughed his head off. It didn’t matter anyway. He threw me out quickly enough. It turned out he was only filling in time.

The concierge speaks as if I’m not there at all. “Ah, you have a new friend. You don’t have to worry, madam – everything is recorded.”

I wish I could turn him off, but only the rich can buy control of their feeds.

We all know what the Hotel is talking about, but the Skin says: “I don’t want you to record my room. I want privacy.”

The concierge’s virtual face remains perfectly still. “But of course.”

When we’re in the elevator, she says: “My country has a long history of dictatorships. Not fascist ones, but, well, you know. It’s hard to be seen as an outsider.”

“I don’t mind,” I lie. “I like being invisible.”

Her room is spacious, with a kitchenette she would never use. A balcony overlooks a side street. Warm summer air drifts in to where we now sit on the couch. There’s excitement, of course, and the truth is, I’m not quite sure why she agreed to take me up here. Maybe she is just filling in time too.

I slip my pack under the wooden table beside the couch and freeze for a moment. Perched on the table is a mech-x printer, the size of a bowling ball. Older printers were like ovens. The printing occurred inside their structure, but the new ones are effectively mobile heads, which move themselves around using flexible legs. Through a combination of several complex internal mechanisms, and with the right cartridges, the mech-x is capable of constructing not only metals, plastics and glass, but graphene and other rare allotropes.

Mech-x’s are popular among the rich, especially when travelling. One can print out all sorts of luxuries, or necessities, depending on which way you look at it. Apparently they have the ability to remodel feed implants. Supposedly various anarchist groups use them to short-circuit the government’s control of their feeds. There’s a whole ‘dark system’ out there.

“You’re peculiar, Modou,” says the Skin. “You were born in France, and I can tell you’re intelligent. But there’s something distant about you.”

Four quick steps, a leap. My poor parents. All those years of struggle to find that things are worse for them here than back in Senegal.

I resist the desire to glance back at the printer. “It’s easy to be an outsider in France. It’s always La Republique this and that. It’s no place for an immigrant.”

She shifts closer to me, looks into my eyes. Most find Skins repulsive: the orderly twitches of the muscles, the perfectly symmetrical cast of the face, the clear and bloodless eyes – so close to a human, so far from a human. It sets my blood racing. What is wrong with me?

“Why don’t you want to know about me?” she says.

“It’s part of the excitement.”

“I could be anyone. I might be from Osaka or Rio de Janeiro. I might even be a man.”

My smile has washed away in the rush of the moment, leaving me breathless. “It’s part of the excitement.”

She stares at me, and again I can’t figure out anything from her expression. What is she gaining, from inviting me here?

“I know you won’t get anything from it, but will you, please?” My voice rushes out, strained with tension. That’s what it always comes down to, begging. Mostly, they say no. But some say yes and then are disgusted with themselves later. One of them even hit me and chased me from his room.

She reaches over to me, her hand brushes against me, unseals the front of my pants. Her hand cradles me gently, as she kneels on the floor. Slowly, I reach down and slide her hair off. The bald thing before me is instantly androgynous. That’s how they build Skins, so that they can be accessorised to become either male of female – as the wearer likes. Its rubbery lips touch me, and there’s a thing resembling a tongue, strangely dry but gentle.

It looks up with that perfect inhuman face. “Is this part of the excitement too?”

I barely manage to croak out my whispery words. “It is.”

gatsby

From the balcony I stare down at the groundcars, jammed up against each other in the street. Sweat dries on my forehead as a swarm of mouches spirals past me. Several break away from the roiling cloud, examine me briefly, move on. I assume these belong to the hotel, but many will belong to advertisers, filing information about us into the System, so that sooner or later advertisements will pop up in front of us, carefully tailored to our tastes.

Water runs into the basin somewhere in the apartment. The water is shut off and a moment later It steps beside me once more, a smooth and sexless organic construction. “I’m from Vietnam.”

“Don’t tell me any more, please. You’ll ruin it.”

“I was only joking,” It says. “I wanted to see what you would do, if I told you something about myself. Let’s talk about you then, where do you live?”

I think about our little apartment in that disaster zone of les Banlieues, past the megascrapers. I think about my parents who emigrated from Senegal, two years before they shut off the borders. Four sisters, one already married, in our little nest of hopelessness. Excluded from anything but the lowliest of jobs, what could we do but hold on to what little we could and survive the war of all against all?

“I live in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I’m a student at the university,” I say. I’d wanted to go to university, but again, what can one do?

“I didn’t think you were allowed to go to university.”

“They made an exception, for me.”

It cocks her head to one side, and It stares out to the distance. Something has popped up in Its feed. “Yes, of course,” she says out loud.

When we turn and step back inside the apartment, the door is open. The concierge stands before two masked policemen, assault rifles clamped to their right arms, insect-like masks hiding their faces. Then I’m sweating. My skin crawls once more, this time in dread.

How strange she looked, with her hair hanging slightly off-centre and her skin so fresh.

The concierge smiles sadly. “I’m sorry, madam. But the boy has taken your mech-x printer. You can’t trust les noirs, you understand.”

One of the policemen steps across to the table by the couch and pulls the printer from my bag.

“I didn’t put it in there,” I plead, but it’s no good. This is it – they’re going to send me to the camps in Normandy. I glance at the balcony. A short drop, that’s all it would take. Then it would be over. Anything would be better than the camps. I start to edge myself back, ready to fly.

Its voice is firm, and It takes me by surprise. “Didn’t I say ‘no recordings’?”

The concierge gestures to the balcony. “Our mouches detected the printer in his bag, madam. He must have taken advantage of the fact that the Hotel’s internal recordings were off.”

The second policeman has the assault rifle pointed at me, but he won’t waste a bullet. No, he’ll hit me with a paralysing agent. It’s bad, losing control of your body like that. There’s pain, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I was hit with one during the riots last year, when entire sections of the banlieues burned down, but a wave of vandals scared the police off before they could drag me away. I was lucky, because 18 died in the cells that night.

And the police standing in the hotel room were itching to get at me.

I glance quickly over my shoulder. Four quick steps, a leap. My poor parents. All those years of struggle, to find that things are worse for them here than back in Senegal. Perhaps they’ll console themselves with the thought that I was always strange.

The fear has me now, so that I almost miss what It just said. I dredge my mind for the words, before they sink away, and manage to reconstruct them. Yes, there they are: “No sir, you’re wrong. I gave the printer to him, as a present.”

I’m standing there, blinking at It in disbelief, and there’s a standoff now. The Hotel doesn’t believe her, but what can it do?

It picks the bag up, and passes it to me. “Here you are, Guillaume.” Holding it awkwardly, I zip it back up, the printer once more inside.

Without blinking, the Concierge nods and says, “Forgive me, Madam. We assumed wrongly.”

“Come, Guillaume, we’re about to leave anyway, aren’t we?” It slips her hair on, and once more becomes female.

Somehow we end up in the elevator with the two silent policemen, ominous and robotic beside us. I can hear them breathing behind their masks. Any moment, I expect them to turn, grasp me with their powerful hands, crush the life out of me. But the doors open and they saunter out, terrifying the guests and passersby.

It’s a relief when I find myself back on to the Boulevard and the Hotel’s Subset drops away, leaving me back in a mostly corporeal world. I don’t care that a cloud of mouches follow the two of us to the metro station, where I take the printer from my bag and hold it out to her.

Gatsby

She laughs, and it sounds strange. Skins are never good at conveying extremes of emotion: their settings max out too easily. “I meant it. I’m giving it to you.”

There’s no longer any logic to events, and all I can do is ask stupidly, “But why?”

“You don’t live in Saint-Germain,” she says. “I knew it from the beginning. You’re a poor immigrant, living out of Paris somewhere. You try to hide here, but I see you. You understand, I used you.”

That leaves me silenced for a second and I feel vulnerable, unnerved. “No one sees me. No one uses me.”

“I knew you were following me – I could see you, you understand. I knew what you were and I lured you to the hotel. What happened between us, I wanted to happen.”

My thoughts are structureless; all inner order has given way. She has what I need, the ultimate anonymity, the connection without intimacy. And I have what she needs, too – the night to my day, the inverse of my dark desires.

The words tumble from my mouth: “We can meet again, when you return to Paris. We’ve found each other now. I’ll never know who you are, and you’ll always have me.”

“You still don’t understand,” she said. “My thrill is in the luring. In the fact that they – you – don’t know that this is what I want. That I’m searching for you, even though you think you’re luring me.”

Again, I have nothing but the stupid words, “But why?”

She smiles. “It’s part of the excitement.”

Her answer echoes in my mind, even after she walks away, hesitates after a few steps, and turns her head slightly – all the time aware of my presence – and then strolls on once more. It echoes in my mind, even when I’m back in the metro alone, holding the heavy bag. Perhaps now there is a chance for my parents and my sisters. The mech-x might buy us another life, out of the ghettos, maybe even in Belleville. Yet I am filled with a terrible sense of loss.

As I sit, clasping the bag feverishly, my feed lights up with a suited man who smiles cheesily at me. “Would you like to be someone else? Would you like a new life? Are you too black? Change the colour of your eyes and skin. Apply for gender reassignment surgery. Radical Reconstructions can rebuild you, from the ground up.” Above his head, a window opens with a link, and I desperately want to shut him down. But he goes on, advertising body modifications until the company’s time is used up and he blinks out of existence, leaving me on the rattling metro thinking not of the future, but of her last words to me. How strange she looked, with her hair hanging slightly off-centre and her skin so fresh and perfect. Again I imagined her, in some far-off land, wrapped in an exoskeleton in the dark, speaking those last final words.

“It’s part of the excitement,” she had said. And with that, she left me standing alone, as if I were stripped to my skin.

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Rjurik Davidson has written short stories, essays, reviews, screenplays and a novel, Unwrapped Sky.

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