I could feel it lying just below the surface of my face, a brooding tumor. It wasn't anything I could touch or see, but it was there all the same, nestled into the ridge-line of my left cheek. Waiting in the space where the bones started to sweep towards my eyes. I blinked furiously, trying to will away the sensation. It wouldn't go.
Maybe my mind was playing tricks on me. I ran a hand along my skin, coppery and unbroken, feeling for any sort of aberration. It was the twentieth time in the last half hour that I had done this. Fingertips probed and pressed, once again coming up with nothing.
The numerals on my wrist blinked. I had been lying here for two hours, having woken well in advance of my schedule. Now, though, it was catching up to me. In another five minutes, I was expected in the fields.
I imagined the sun raking down across my back, burying vitamins under my flesh. I pictured the coarse tufts of weeds coming apart in my hands like old paper. Then I thought about how the subtle pressure in my cheek would continue, unabated, as I tried and failed to concentrate on the task at hand. Irrationally furious, I punched my pillow.
"Mr. Adams, your subderm has been reading an unusually high stress level. Is everything alright?"
I groaned. The warm, reassuring voice buzzing in my ears was ComHealth, or a beleaguered secretary thereof. There weren't very many of them, due to the low incidence of health-threatening events, but they were all chosen on account of their irrepressibly positive attitudes.
"I'm fine. I'm fine." I waved a hand through the air, although there was no way for her to see it. "I'm just getting some kind of phantom discomfort."
"Would you please describe the nature of the pain you're experiencing?"
I shook my head. "It's not pain. It's...like there's something growing under the skin."
"Hmmm." I heard the busied swish of fingers moving through a holo-manip. "I'm canceling your work for the day. I'd like you to come in for an evaluation."
My blood pressure spiked. I'm sure that she saw it, a jagged green wave marching across her display, but she didn't say anything in response.
Subderm evaluations were a routine experience. A formality, mostly. ComHealth insisted on them for the sake of maintaining baselines, but most people I knew thought they were pointless. Except, of course, for that .0001% of the time when they caught something that wasn't supposed to be happening.
No one liked to think about that. A malfunctioning subderm was one of the only things that could really scare someone anymore. You didn't joke about it, you didn't talk about it, and—if you could help it—you didn't think about it.
I rolled out of bed and began to tug my clothing on, ignoring the unsteady rumble that my heart had begun to beat.
The subderm had been the single greatest breakthrough in medical science for the past god knows how many millenia. Some joked that it had used up all of humanity's creativity in a single go. It had, after all, brought on the Slow Fade; the polar opposite of that technological singularity everyone had been going on about. Effective immortality made people lazy, and we left the dizzy scramble of the twenty third century behind like a bad chemical trip.
With the subderm, no one needed to worry about stuff like poisoning or infection. Busy little nanites filtered all that out. Nor did anyone have to endure the carnival horrors of antique medicine; pills swallowed or inserted. Bodies cut open or stitched together. I had suffered two major abrasions in my life. Both had auto-scabbed before ComHealth could even put through a call. I would never have to go for a colonoscopy.
Better than that, even, was the physiological revolution. The antiques had constantly been worried about their physical forms. They were always too thick or too thin, too milky or mottled, too curved or too straight. It preyed on them. We had whole museums devoted to their abnormality cures.
With the subderm, we no longer had to worry about being ugly. The word persisted, in the way that words do, but it became purely historical. No one was overweight or underweight. No one had blemishes. Through a mix of endocrine prodding and pruning, the subderms kept us all the same. To the antiques, I imagine we would have looked like sculpted gods.
The price for this was that sometimes the subderms became confused. We kept them wirelessly matrixed, allowing them to police each other, but every so often a bug would slip through the net. The last major event had been five years back, when a blood vessel had inexplicably grown through the lungs of Mr. Roger Madding. He had survived, but ComHealth had sent him into isolation anyways. Just being in his presence had become incredibly stressful for co-workers.
I thought about Roger Madding—obviously still alive wherever he was—as I traced a finger along the little plaque outside the ComHealth office. I liked the feel of the language on my skin. It was a short verse concerning subderms, discussing the need for vigilance but reluctant to say what we were supposed to be vigilant against. Being close to it calmed me down, and I wondered whether he had done the same; pressed up against poetry while his insides twisted into knots. There were hundreds of people who got called in for spontaneous evaluations every year. The odds had been in his favor, too.
"Mr. Adams, the center is ready. If you would please step through the doors?"
They were big slabs of tinted glass, glinting like slate in the sun just beyond the plaque. In a move that hearkened back to antique architecture, they both had handles. I waved my hand in front of one and watched them slide aside.
"Second floor, Mr. Adams. Your wrist will point you there." I glanced down at the patch of flesh that usually displayed the time, and found that it was now giving me an arrow. I whirled in a circle, and the arrow whirled with me. "Whenever you're done playing around, Mr. Adams."
The evaluation room was clinically austere, save for the comfortable chair in the middle. Subderms were distressingly complex. Not only were they intricate, free-roaming swarms of independently linked units, but they were also capable of self-modification. Scanning a subderm took a long while, and even then it could only be accomplished by another subderm. The chair was an attempt to remedy that, as was the little projector mounted in the ceiling. If the process really started to drag, I could tune in to a holoplay.
"Please be seated, Mr. Adams." I crossed the white tiled floor and slumped down into the chair. It was real synthetic leather, not the imitation stuff. I could feel it cupping the contours of my back, adjusting subtle pressures to put me at ease. I couldn't help myself. I relaxed.
"Did you just dope me?"
"Only a little, Mr. Adams. Do you mind?"
"No, no. Not at all. S' wonderful." I could still feel the fleshy bud pressing against the inside of my face, but it suddenly bothered me a whole lot less. My subderm was singing a dopamine lullabye, and my anxieties were content to go to bed. "'s a little boring in here. Could you put on a passive?"
"Certainly, Mr. Adams. Any requests?"
"Faces of Our Fathers. 's a good one."
It was. Over the past few milennia, people had developed a passion for the supernatural. Maybe it was because we were gods now, and like called to like. Or maybe it was because some perverse cluster of neurons in our heads longed for the old uncertain days, when we spent most of our time wondering what lay beyond the pale.
Faces took place during the early years after the adoption of the subderm, but it threw in a double-handful of things our ancestors had never encountered. Vampires, witches, shape-changing panthers. It was engaging, but it knew how to stay removed from the audience. That was slowly becoming a lost art in passives.
I watched Jonathan Tram, the rugged P.I. hero, courting the vampire geneticist, Melinda Vance. It was a series high-point. Most of the drama in the show had revolved around whether or not the non-humans could be allowed their own subderms. Jonathan knew that if he allowed Melinda to drink from his neck, she could steal some of his nanites. He let her anyways. It was both beautiful and absurd. And just a little bit unsettling.
"Shame about the end, y'know." I couldn't imagine why, but I desperately wanted to make conversation.
"What end? And would you please stop that?"
I realized I was scratching roughly at my left cheek. The flesh kept healing, but there were wedges of skin disintegrating under my nails. "The end of the show." I fought my hand down to my side. "Fans were disappointed."
"I'm afraid I missed it. I was more of a Hindsight girl, anyway."
"Oh, well, you didn't miss much. They never showed it." The abrupt end of a popular passive had caused a certain amount of grumbling out in the fields. If we had to endure daily labor for the sake of 'having purpose in our lives', the very least society could have given us was a complete run.
Rumors had surfaced that it had been canned because of its plot, hinting that the big reveal at the end was that the non-humans had their own subderms, and that they had used them to make themselves monstrous. I figured that if the writers had been stupid enough to build that into the script, they were probably languishing in isolation somewhere.
"How's the scan going?" I drummed my fingers on the leather.
"Nearly complete, Mr. Adams."
"We'll know in just a minute. Ah." There was a soft chiming sound, noise-bleed from the other side of the connection. "You're perfectly clean. Why don't you spend the remainder of the day resting, Mr. Adams? Your mind must be overworked. It's generating ghosts."
The lump beneath my cheek didn't feel like a ghost. In fact, it felt like it was growing. "Alright," I acquiesced.
That night I dreamed I was enormous, swollen to elephantine proportions. My arms were thick and rubbery. The back of my neck distended into a tail. I had tusks, but not the kind you could see on creatures in the old passives. They reached down, from one jaw through the other, locking the bones together. I dreamed I couldn't talk.
In my dream, the little bump was there too, but I could care less about it. I had bigger things to worry about, like the hairy mandibles that had replaced my fingers. The chitinous growths that grew directly from my eyes. I saw myself, in the camera-trick juxtaposition of dreams, and I screamed out the hollow between my bones.
There was no one around to here me, so with my massive, fumbling bulk, I went looking. At first it was difficult. My feet had split into tiny pinprick points, and I had to move them all individually. My brow had grown into a ropy overhang that shrouded my eyes. I had trouble with stairs and ladders, with doors and screens.
There were no people around, but there were plenty of dolls. Legions of them, all porcelain and poise, covering every available surface. I had to constantly check my sides to make sure I wasn't crushing any of them.
The dolls watched me with frozen fear, their hands drawn up to their faces in shock. I wanted to apologize, to tell them that I hadn't always been this way, that once I was a man, but I could only gurgle.
Their mute ranks enveloped me, and when one of them climbed down my throat I began to choke.
I awoke a little after midnight. The pressure in my cheek was unbearable, like someone was driving a poker up through my skin. I felt a cold surge of terror. The subderm should have been muting the pain.
"ComHealth?" I whispered.
"ComHealth?" I felt as much as heard the pop of something thrusting through my flesh. I screamed out, and the sound rebounded back on me. The pressure began to abate.
Tentatively, I reached up to touch my cheek. Smooth skin, firm and unbroken. It was cool beneath my fingers. I hadn't spent much time soaking in the sun. Everything was just the way it should have been except for, oh yes, the lump below my eye.
I heard crying over the link.
"My subderm's broken. I need you to send a...what's going on over there?"
There was a shuddering pause and the sobbing stopped. "I can't fix it."
"The...the patch on my arm. I can't fix it. It's all discolored and white and it won't go away and I'm broken and I can't fix it."
I took a steadying breath, let it eddy out, and then screamed. I managed to pull my pillow in front of my mouth, but even so I think I shocked ComHealth. She started crying again. I felt like joining her. "Have you gotten anyone else to look at it?"
I heard a swish of hair. "They're not talking to me."
"But they can't just-"
"The doors to the other suites are sealed."
"Break them down!" I wasn't a violent man—no one was anymore—but right then I dearly wanted to be.
She shouted right back, something edged and incoherent. After a moment, it muted and I realized that my subderm was still working. Sort of. I drew a nail across my forearm; watched the cut close and sighed. I wasn't going to die, just turn into a freak.
"Mr. Adams?" The voice was back, tremulous now. "Look outside."
My apartment had been fitted with windows, for the simple reason that it was psychologically unsound to live in a lightless box. I walked over to the biggest one and drew the shades back.
The last riot in history had taken place several thousand years ago. It had been over the limited supply of subderms. I had seen pictures. They looked like what I saw in the streets.
People swarmed and surged, a rolling throng of noise and fury that flowed in all directions at once. "What's happening?"
I did. The subderm sharpened my eyes, focusing on faces and bodies far below. I could just make out horns. Sores. Moles and blemishes. Crooked teeth and colors of hair that no one had had for centuries. Gone was perfection, and in its place was a carnival of deformities. Some of them were fighting, or laughing, or howling at the moon. It was only fitting. We had become shapechangers ourselves.
"They're all infected," I breathed into the link. "Nobody's subderm filtered this. Why?"
ComHealth hiccuped. "I think it was deliberate. They say that nature loves diversity."
I stumbled back from the window, revolted. I had endured the metamorphosis from child to adult long ago, back before I knew to be afraid of change. But now I wished that my skin would wriggle away, leaving me behind. The notion that my own body could grow with me still in it was horrifying.
And somehow freeing.
I was in the moment after the needle. After the bullet. After the fall. The time when my brain took stock of the damages and asked itself 'now what?'
'Now what,' indeed.
I hadn't had a new experience in the last hundred years. Shutting out the sounds that ComHealth was making in my ears, I went to join the revelers in the streets.