by Chris Buchanan
Short story (2013)
A handsome man strolls through the perfectly-preserved city of Paris. But good looks are deceiving nowadays and they certainly don’t come cheap.
“It is good to see you again, Monsieur!” said the watchmaker, smiling the emotionless but reassuring smile of the successful career salesman. The look told Robert that although both of them knew the sentiment was for show, there was no game being played. No sales pitch, no clever platitudes. Just veneer. The watches at Armand’s were good enough to sell themselves and the customers were wealthy enough to be greeted politely.
There was a look in the man’s eyes, though, even now. Like everyone did, he had stopped short when Robert entered the building and stared for just a moment.
He was used to it by now. Something about him, everything about him, looked wonderful. His face was large and rugged enough to quietly intimidate, but then it was smooth, easy and blue-eyed enough to ensure that nobody noticed. His hair naturally fell into loose, deep-blond waves that held their shape at all times, and his pale grey suit and open-collared shirt fit him as well as his skin.
And for some silly reason, seeing a handsome guy around just seemed to make people happy. Even those who seemed more jealous than pleased, like the watchmaker did now, automatically lightened their mood.
Armand, who held his own boyish, sleek features with an odd stoop, turned away from his client and retrieved a gold and bronze wristwatch from under the counter.
“Oh, wow,” said Robert, and this made the watchmaker’s smile much wider.
“I told you it would not disappoint, ah?”
“Well, you know, I believed you! But that really is something.”
As he carefully took the watch and turned it around to admire the tiny etched hallmark at the centre of the velvet-fold where the two metals blended together, Robert breathed an easy breath.
Of course, all of his breaths were easy.
“I have been hand-making these watches for sixty years, you know.”
“Time well spent, evidently,” Robert added, still admiring the fold.
Responding with a polite and warm glance, Robert tried his watch on. He went about this with sincere care, making sure to lower the piece without bending any of the uniform, half-inch hairs on his wrist backwards or turning them askew. This done, and the clasp sealed, he ran the edge of a finger across the curve of the face. It would stay this grand forever.
“It’s wonderful. Merci beaucoup.”
Armand relaxed then, waiting for the conversation to end, though neither was in any hurry. The payment had been dealt with upfront, days ago, when the gentleman had placed his order. And you only had to look at the man to see that he meant business.
“I am sure I will see it on your wrist again someday!”
“I’m just on vacation,” Robert answered happily, but the other man was not boasting. Workmanship like this meant a lot more than a souvenir. It was designed to be with him for as long as his arm. “Thanks a lot, really,” he repeated, shaking the salesman’s hand and strolling through the empty, sleek-looking shop and into the evening sunlight of the Marais.
The air was still fresh even though the day was coming to an end. He wasn’t too warm in his light suit, or too uncomfortable in his soft, carved-leather shoes, or too worried or too tired. In fact he was starting to forget what it felt like to be too much of anything. Paris was just always nice. So he walked.
It was an amusing coincidence that one of the world’s oldest cities was so full of youth. Nobody he met displayed a wrinkle, everyone was neatly turned-out, and they held themselves as if it were impossible to be any other way. It was as though hardship was a concept that had never become fashionable here. Most of all, he noticed how much they all looked like him. Like him, but not quite as good. Except for the occasional passer-by who even he had to stop and stare at, no-one quite matched him.
This smug feeling stayed with Robert only for a moment, before he realised how strange and silly his thoughts sounded to him, and he laughed. A pretty girl in a lovely yellow hat noticed him laughing at himself and reflexively smiled back at him, as if sharing the joke.
His hands in his pockets but his head high, he strolled past an antique lamp-post with its original black iron finish painstakingly reinforced with an invisible weave of Cilrex, ensuring that it would remain undamaged by weather or collision for as long as the neighbourhood wanted it. The thing must have been there for centuries, he reasoned, and it would be around longer still, considering the city’s dedicated effort for preservation. He checked his watch.
It had already been fifteen minutes since he had picked it up. That was one thing about Paris, or about this trip in general: the time really flew. With no weight in his legs, no particular plans in his head beyond getting back to his hotel, and nothing remotely ugly meeting his eyes, it was just hard to count the seconds.
Ducking into a side-street to make what he hoped was a short-cut, Robert quickly found himself in a cute little square of pale oblong paving stones. Every other one had become an impromptu canvas for a street artist, covered with everything from challenging abstracts to recreated Renaissance masterpieces, and all of them were exquisite. At the moment only one man was working, putting the finishing touches to The Girl With a Pearl Earring. It would be impolite not to say anything, so Robert admired it for a long moment and gave a heart-felt ‘bravo’.
Of course, the artist was happy to hear it. And of course, he was gracious. A moment later he returned to his details.
Robert looked at his watch again. God, it would be dark soon. He felt as though he had wandered to the top floor of the world’s most lovely museum and now could barely bring himself to find the exit. With a little more spring in his step he headed along a new route made of smaller and smaller side-streets, almost unsure of his direction, and found himself among more homely boutiques and little cafés. Outside a post office he saw what looked like an old woman. He was almost taken aback, having forgotten that Paris was home to anyone over forty, but she saw him too and seemed pleased to be noticed. She had a crooked nose. In times gone by, you might have called it charming.
Of course, she might not have been as old as she looked. He might have been older than her, even. Nobody really talked about actual age these days. It seemed irrelevant.
Brushing the thought away from his mind, he carried on gliding through the streets, between pair after pair of those adorable lamp-posts, standing guard on either side of every road, all of them clean and straight, strong and storied.
They quickly brought him to the bank of the Seine, the same way he had come this morning, and Robert was glad to have quickened his return. For the rest of the walk his view was caught between the natural grandeur of the river and the statues and structure of Tuileries garden. The road was quiet and gentle too, with only the occasional car swishing by and only a handful of people on either side. The Tower guided him then, and the rest of the walk was a pleasure.
When he saw the tan, carved walls of the hotel, his home for the week, he glanced again at the watch. Again he was surprised by how long it had been since last time; how many minutes had come along and then gotten away from him. But it wasn’t very important. The restaurant and bar were open at all times, and he wasn’t hungry anyway.
Of course, he was never hungry. Nobody in the developed world had been hungry for a good sixty years, now. Eating was just something you did for nostalgia or irony. Or comfort.
Old habits were hard to shake off.
He had spent most of his life in an artificial body. When they were new he had certainly not been able to afford one, but in time the technology became commonplace, and then there were the protests and the riots. There came a point when allowing people to live and die in their birth bodies became either ridiculous or barbaric, depending on who you talked to. They were given away by almost all Western governments in early childhood now, and then replaced or custom-built at regular intervals. Government issue models were far from perfect, obviously. There were still debates on the news about that.
But what did they expect to be given for free? Their brains rested easily in hardened skulls, connected to sensory apparatus which worked better than nature’s own, and carried about by limbs and trunks which would last forever, with proper maintenance. Those with no jobs or no sense wore the models with asymmetrical features and knobbled knees, or short legs and shrunken skin. Somebody had to. That’s just economics. Everywhere couldn’t be Paris, could it?
“Welcome back, Monsieur,” said a pretty concierge, distracting him. She had deep red hair and skin like cream-caramel. At first she seemed too good-looking to be working in service, even at the best hotel in the city, but then Robert noticed the malformed thumb on her left hand. That explained it: a factory imperfection.
Every now and again you saw somebody who seemed way too pretty for their job and then you wondered what their deal was, until you saw the missing piece or damaged skin or badly-programmed ‘allergy’. It was a trade-off.
“Nice to be back,” he replied absently. That gentle, innocent and assured smile of his made her crease her forehead for him.
“And how was your day?”
“Great. Just a little shopping, you know. Saw the sights I guess. It’s just nice to relax.”
“Oui. You are in the right place. Would you like to stop for a drink at La Lucien, or return to your room?”
Robert mulled it over while she waited, then laughed in slight embarrassment. “Well I guess I could go for a drink!” he said as if he were being cheeky, and she chuckled with him as she led him to the bar.
“Ah, sure,” he offered in reply. “Please. I’ll take the bottle upstairs myself.”
The girl poured him a glass of their best from an old, odd-looking bottle and left both of them on the bar. She stood attentively, impassively watching ahead while he sipped.
The fine wine fell over highly responsive sensors on his tongue and the roof of his mouth, which looked just like taste buds but ran a little better, a little more agreeably. The reflexive sigh he gave was coded-in just for habit; without any purpose at all, a reflex whose evolutionary purpose had long-since died away. It was one of the ‘kinks’ that the manufacturers had unanimously agreed to keep. People still slept, because it was nice to sleep together. The good models didn’t snore, or yawn, or get bad breath or any gross thing like that. Bathing was still possible but toilets were unnecessary. People still had two eyes and two hands, and the consensus among technicians seemed to be that this was how it would stay.
Body-design had reached its peak. This was as good as they would ever get. Robert, right here in this bar, drinking his complimentary champagne while the girl with the weird thumb waited, was as good as it would get.
He finished the glass quickly and nodded a goodbye to her. It would have been insulting to tip, he figured. Would have made her feel ugly.
It was a short walk over an antique Persian carpet past the front desk and to the elevator, but a strikingly bald man in his thirties with undamaged Nubian features and striking cheek bones – a manager perhaps? – stopped him.
“A letter for you, Monsieur,” the man said in a flawlessly old-French accent. Robert stopped looking at him.
In the gentleman’s hand was a fancy paper envelope. It was the only way they could reach him now. He had disconnected his call number before he set off from home and while in Paris he had made a point of only using systems with a new, anonymous username.
Smiling a reassuring smile beneath his gently down-turned eyes, Robert reached out his free hand to take the letter with a simple ‘thanks’. Holding it casually between thumb and forefinger, he strolled over to the elevator and looked deep in thought while he waited a long moment for the carriage.
He was inside and pressing for his suite at the top floor before the doors were half-way open. The car responded right away and he was at his floor in less than ten seconds.
In that time, without really being aware of what he was doing, he thumbed-open the envelope, stopped breathing, and read. The glow of the interior lights and the softening touch of the velvet-lined walls gave an amber sheen to the paper. He had to squint.
From the offices of Warburton, Llewellyn and Mamet
Dear Mr Ross,
Further to our correspondence on April 5th, April 9th and April 12th, we write with strongest urgency to follow-up the issue of outstanding debt. As we informed you following the first two successful instalments on March 25th and March 29th, your account(s) have declined payment without explanation.
Please contact the company’s private debt-collection agency (contact info is repeated overleaf) immediately to ensure an amicable resolution. Failure to do this may result in repossession of your body and / or legal action if agreed funds cannot be transferred within five days of time of writing.
Signed in absence— John Warburton, chief executive
DO NOT IGNORE THIS LETTER
Robert didn’t actually read the whole thing. It was too hard to look. He saw the word ‘urgent’ and skimmed the rest. He was certain he had seen ‘payment’ in there somewhere, and a bunch of dates for when he should have been in touch with them. And he thought he saw ‘legal action’ and ‘failure’ too. Most painful of all, the most paralysing piece of this horror, the cruellest blow, were the words ‘five days’.
But all right. At least it wasn’t from the bailiffs. Or worse.
But fuck. Jesus fuck.
Already? They hadn’t even waited until his vacation was over?
In the space of a few seconds he went from feigned-outrage to complete terror, to wild imagination, to meek attempts to calm himself, to wilful ignorance, to resignation. It was a cycle he was familiar with.
They were onto him. It was all over. In five days.
The letter had found its way safely back inside its envelope and now Robert was at the door to his room, shoving his cool blue eyes toward the retinal scanner and muttering at it to hurry up. He fidgeted and ground his teeth while the door took an eternity to recognise him and slide open.
He would have sweated, but this body didn’t sweat. He would have shaken and cried and felt his cheeks burn and redden in shame and blind panic, but his body didn’t do those things either. It seemed only to casually observe the door and give it a studious, thoughtful expression, before athletically jogging inside.
Now that he had holidayed for a few days, he barely noticed the majesty of the suite. It was large but designed to be cosy, with sloping sofas and antique book-cases hugging its many corners and soft drapes covering or framing everything in simple but imaginative ways. The bed was an enormous, impossibly comfortable geometric puzzle of velvet and silk in various subtly-mixing shades of amber. The whole place looked best at dawn and twilight and then spent the rest of the time keeping just the right amount of light inside so that it barely changed.
It was nice just looking at it, Robert thought as he set down the champagne in an ice-bucket. It made him forget about his troubles.
Made him forget about the vast amounts of money he had all but robbed. The stupidity of what he had done, just to spend a week in Paris. The ridiculous loan application. How he had closed his eyes and tried to sing to quieten his mind when he had clicked ‘confirm’. People would laugh so hard their backups would kick in to save their embarrassment. It would make every news outlet, when it was all said and done. When somebody walked in here and asked him what he had done and how he thought he was going to get away with it. And what the hell was wrong with him, and did he even know how much trouble he was in? In five days.
It was six-fifteen now. How long did he have left, in hours? Less than a hundred before it all came crashing down? Before every one of his credits bounced and he would have a tailor, a travel agent, an artisan watchmaker and of course a palatial hotel to contend with, as well as the world’s most exclusive body-manufacturer?
And he just knew he wouldn’t enjoy one more second of his stay. It was over. His old ways had set in.
Suddenly he wanted to sweat. His old model sweated all the damn time! It was one of the many reasons it had been so affordable. He wanted to howl like a mangy dog in its death throes. He wanted to curl up and choke in sheer panic, gasp for air and hyperventilate until his ears popped and his heart threatened arrest. Anything that would let him stop thinking about the next five days.
But he just stood there: the most handsome mannequin in the most knockout suit, standing in the middle of a billion-dollar furniture showroom and looking at its watch.
Why couldn’t they have just let him alone for another day?
Well. At least until now, this had been a good day.
Just once, a good day. He hadn’t thought about the money today, or about who he used to be. Not once since he slept last night. He had enjoyed it.
Maybe he ought to get some sleep now, he wondered. He could make himself sleep if he wished it, and this model certainly wouldn’t give him bad dreams. He would wake up eight hours later, completely refreshed and relaxed.
But that would be another eight hours gone, right there. How many times does eight hours go into five days?
“If only that letter could have arrived in the morning,” he said to himself. Robert’s new voice was smooth and deep, but pleasant and tinged with a self-deprecating humour. Just hearing the words aloud slowed his mind for a few seconds.
“Every time I start to get up,” he almost whispered, “something has to knock me down.”
As profound and heartfelt as the words came out, courtesy of the finest voice box money could buy, tuned to a specially-tweaked variant of the ideal Californian speech template, Robert didn’t believe them.
Warburton, Llewellyn and Mamet weren’t screwing him over. They weren’t being rude, interrupting him, harassing their social better. They were just asking for their money. They didn’t owe him another few days.
Nobody was knocking him down. He just forgot that down is where he was.
Beauty was for those who had earned it. Immortality on the other hand was for all registered U.S. citizens, even screwed-up, pathetic crooks like Robert Ross. He knew that and he respected it, but he just kinda wished it was the other way around. He had lived a long, long time now in a broken-down fat guy’s body, with a bad back, bad teeth and track marks from the morphine addiction he had given himself and finally had removed ten years back. And the memories of all the other shameful shit he had done, just to get through the days. It had been a long time working as a parking attendant and part-time pill dealer in Des Moines, which is all he’d managed in his long stretch on the Earth. He didn’t want to do it any more. He wanted a fucking ending. It was enough. And now that he had been someone better for a little while, the thought of going back was intolerable.
There would be a long stay in prison soon, and then there would be an infinity after he got out, but before both of those he would have to face somebody or other – a debt-collector maybe, or a detective, and then a judge, even some of the people he knew – and explain all of this. And look them in the eye and sweat. And before that there would be a moment where they got his brain back to his old body and re-installed it, and he’d have to look at himself again.
Robert carefully straightened his cuffs and ran his pre-manicured fingertips across his chin and down his tough, long neck. With another sigh he dropped his head a touch and leaned down to the bedside cabinet. In the top drawer was a cheap, ugly, loud pistol. He had brought it and stashed it here without ever really letting himself acknowledge the fact that he had always planned to use it. This was it, though, any minute now. Time to get it done. The five days would simply not happen, not like this. The hour of his death had arrived so much faster than he thought, and maybe that was the letter’s fault or maybe it was his own. Definitely his own. It was his own mess and always had been. It was what he had earned.
But right now it hardly seemed worthwhile beating himself up over the whole thing. He ran a firm hand through his hair and felt it slink back to place. That was a nice feeling. It almost felt like the afternoon again.
He moved toward the glass door to the balcony, then stopped and placed the letter on the cabinet. The door slid open at his approach and he stepped outside, breathing fresh, cool air.
Of course, the view was great.
It was just starting to get dark and Paris was subtly making its nightly transformation. The screens came out at night, always blinking into existence when your back was turned and then advertising tourist spots or prestigious companies, or just displaying artworks on the side of every building and the corner of every street. Warm, natural-looking lights bathed everything in sight with comfortably-familiar painting and sculpture, and works of commerce. Frame by frame the city dropped from white and silver to black and gold.
The Eiffel Tower, which Robert’s room was situated to face, was not yet lit. For a little while he considered waiting for it, but not for long. He had seen the Tower by night a few times now.
Glancing back to the room, looking for some comfort or distraction, he caught sight of his reflection in the glass panel wall separating the balcony.
He looked so good.
How many people could say they looked this good, he wondered? Even for a week? Most celebrities, most vid-actors, would stare with envy at this sight. He looked like a secret agent or something with this gun in his hand, on his way to save the world or whatever.
How many people could just turn around and casually remember that they looked like this?
Robert could, right then.
That new watch of his would never be as new again, and it would never look quite as good as it did on him. It would never match anybody’s hair and skin tones as wonderfully as it did his.
He’d had that.
The corpse he would leave tonight, the one that would bare his name at the hospital and then the police station, that would smile reassuringly next to his face in the newsfeeds tonight, that would always, in some way, be his –
The corpse would be beautiful.
He had thought about jumping, several times, but he always changed his mind. As grand and attention-grabbing as such a thing would surely be, it would have been far too risky. Bodies were tough and easily repairable. He needed to damage the only part of himself that he had been born with. And, God, he was scared.
Robert turned back to his city rooftop view and opened his mouth, shoving the gun’s barrel up against his skull and frowning awkwardly.
Before he was ready, he fired. The body dropped to the floor.
And Robert couldn’t concentrate but he thought he saw a blue box flash in front of his eyes, obscuring everything, panicking him. Something about a report and some numbers. Something about damaged nervous processors and a temporary shut down and emergency call-out. It was gone a moment later.
The next thing he saw was a cheap, white-painted ceiling. There were faded and peeled spots all along and replacement wood panels to cover damage and stains. He could move but his back hurt like hell and all he could see were the tops of Formica tables and a few clunky old screens and sensors, mostly with mains-connection wires and flat displays. A hospital ward or a workshop floor, he couldn’t tell, but it wasn’t built for luxury.
He tried as hard as he could to relax and pretend it wasn’t happening, but he knew it was a waste of time. The steady, rhythmic beeping of a stem monitor was driving him crazy.