"You look … incredible."
Preston Ayre takes my hand in front of the whole restaurant and raises it to his lips. He looks quite debonair himself in his silver-gray suit, his blond hair gelled into old-time spikes, his green eyes bright with admiration as they travel down my body. He's right about me, too: my hair shines like mahogany, my stomach is flat as a board, my arms and legs toned to perfection, my curves round in all the right places under my little black dress. I'm sexy and I know it.
There's just one little problem. This body isn't real.
I didn't mean for it to turn out this way. I don't even use modern technology that often, to tell you the truth. I work at a secondhand bookstore. But my roommate and best friend happens to be Monique Patin, sister to Lio Patin, one of the most famous names in social media for this decade, let alone this year. Don't ask me how he does it, because I have no idea, but the man is a genius – and high on the list of his most genius inventions ever is the glam.
That's what he called it, the glam. He didn't mean for it to be released to anyone but the military, but the board of directors sensed the money it could bring in from the mainstream market, and they insisted. Basically, I'm wearing light: tiny particles of light that show the world exactly how I want to be seen. In my case, it turns a flabby size fourteen into a size eight who can actually see her cheekbones. It feels like Halloween when I was nine, dressed as a star in a gold and silver tutu with star-shaped tiara, spinning myself dizzy. Only better.
But I'm not stupid. I know I can't keep this up much longer if I want to get serious with Preston, and even though it's only our second date, serious is exactly what I want.
We met at Club Y2K, this little restaurant on Crescent Street designed to evoke the early 2000's. It had white walls, black plastic chairs shaped like bent hourglasses, glass tables shaped like kidneys and red vinyl booths. What they called a "flatscreen", meaning about as thick as a paperback Bible, hung in one corner showing a hockey game. Britney Spears thudded in the background. Not my favorite decade, honestly, but the burgers are stellar. Monique and I went there to celebrate her promotion to head of PR at Patin Electronics, both wearing beauty glams just for fun. We were laughing at this idiot who tried to accuse her brother of nepotism – Lio, being Lio, blew up his sister's brilliant resume to a thirty-six-point font and said, Sir, I suggest you take a trip to the optician's – when the waitress came over with a drink neither of us had ordered. She (they still have human servers there, believe it or not) was wide-eyed with confusion, as if she'd wandered straight into a hologame. The, uh … gentleman by the window paid for this, she said. He said to ask you to … 'hang out'?
We glanced over, and there was Preston: lifting his martini glass in my direction – mine! – and smiling. He wore jeans and a wide black Eminem T-shirt. The eCom on his wrist might as well have been nothing but a stainless steel watch.
Monique's eyebrows shot up halfway to her hair. Whoa, talk about retro! What happened to facematching you on his eCom like a normal person?
Charge down, I told her, swallowing giggles. What's he gonna do, grab me in public?
I waved him over, and Monique took a deep breath and proved just why she's a perfect PR specialist. She talked just enough, laughed just enough, stayed quiet just enough, and never let the newcomer at our table know just how hacked she was that he'd taken over our girls' night out.
He told us about the thesis he was working on for his PhD at Concordia: basically, how did the development of the Internet change society, and could it – or should it – change back? He passionately argued that it should, as much as possible. That living our lives in the virtual world has made us selfish, choosing instant gratification over real challenges and meaningful personal growth. I knew exactly what he meant. This is the reason Page Me, my workplace, is so quiet I can read whole books in there some days without getting interrupted by a customer. Why bother to travel to one of the few sources of genuine paper books in the city when you can upload them to your eCom in less than a second?
We found out we had the same favorites of almost everything: books (Dickens, Lewis, Rowling), music (Les Mis, Adele, Mark Knopfler, absolutely none of those computer-generated AI dolls playing today!), 2-D's (anything in cel animation or directed by the Wachowskis) – in short, we synced. At the end of the evening, he asked if he could see me again. Naturally, I said yes.
Poor Monique. No wonder she left early. I really have to make it up to her someday soon … but not tonight.
"This place is stellar," I murmur, gawking like a teenager as we stand by the doorway. "How did you know … ?"
"Lucky guess, I suppose," says Preston.
"Bonsoir, good evening." A squat white server rolls toward us, its young male voice cheerfully polite.
"Table for two," Preston orders.
"Very good, sir, madame. Follow me, please?" Cute. Whoever programmed this little guy gave him a francophone accent, like Monique and Lio's: clipped, urbane, turning up at the end of sentences as if asking a question. Even the robots have personality in this place.
Unlike the Y2K, Maison du Chocolat is exactly my kind of retro. It's all-white too, but more cream than stucco-colored, with real candles flickering in frosted glass holders, linen tablecloths and padded chairs. They don't adjust around our backsides, and the photo of heart-shaped latte foam over Preston's shoulder doesn't move, but who needs that? We beam at each other across the table as the robot pulls out my chair.
We swipe our eComs over the blue sensor light on his torso, and two menus slide out in holographic form like genies out of a bottle. They hover above our tables, waiting for us to decide, while the robot trundles off to his next table.
The menu. Holy cocoa beans. There's an entire virtual page of just hot chocolate drinks, sorted by white, milk and dark, and then further sorted by bean variety. They have chocolate with caramel, hazelnut, even chili pepper; brownies laced with fleur de sel or peanut butter (allergy warning included); crepes filled with any combination of Nutella, fruit and cream; and in the Savory section, sandwiches and soups that make my mouth water just from looking at the pictures.
Thank God I'm not one of those people at war with food. I may not enjoy being a chub, but I know for a fact it's genetic. All the women in my family look the same, including my aunt Melissa, who lives on soy and brown rice and goes jogging every day. I like a nice fresh salad as well as the next person, but I'm not ashamed of eating chocolate either. I love this, and it's only just begun.
"I think I'll have one of the crepes, how about you?"
"Sure, me too. We'll split the bill, is that all right with you?"
I can picture Monique rolling her eyes at this. Credit-pinching, she'd call it. Nowadays, it's considered polite for whoever picks the date venue to pick up the check, but in the old days, paying separately was a man's way of respecting a woman's independence. Also, young couples like us often couldn't afford dates any other way. The turn of the century was a tough time, economy-wise, with the fossil fuels running out and virtual society only just beginning. People didn't take as much for granted as they do now.
I hesitate over my choices, which look a lot more expensive now that it's my own shopgirl credits at stake instead of Professor Ayre's, but never mind. You pay for the atmosphere too, after all. "Um … nope, I'll have the tomato soup. That looks good. And a plain milk chocolate for dessert."
The cheapest things they have. Thankfully, Preston doesn't notice.
We touch the names of the food, then the "order" button. The menus zip off across the room, where the server robot sucks them back in. Preston looks mildly appalled watching them go, as if they'd released a stink in his direction. "Are you okay?"
"Hmm? Of course. Thanks for asking." He gives me a charming, rueful smile. "I'll never get used to those things, that's all."
I shrug. "Better than wasting trees, isn't it?" I say out of loyalty to Lio, who if he didn't invent them himself, probably employs the people who did.
"I suppose so. Still, don't you find this … this lifestyle unnerving sometimes? Don't you ever wish for something real?"
Those robots look plenty real to me, actually. I'd rather have them than human beings working themselves to the bone for eight credits an hour. On the other hand, I do sympathize; my eCom does take up a disturbingly large part of my life. It's a passport, bank account, calendar, camera, public transport pass and communication system all in one; if ever something made them crash – even PatinE isn't infallible – society would crumble.
Not to mention that this shiny little gadget makes it so easy to fool my date.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. The glam alone … "
"God, yes! How much more ridiculous can they get?"
Ouch. "Haven't you ever tried it?"
"Why would I?"
Why, indeed. Easy for such a stellar man to say. "I don't know. For fun? My friend Monique – from the Y2K, remember – "
"The girl with the, er … kaleidoscope eyes?"
I giggle. Monique's eyes were literally kaleidoscopic that day, shifting and shimmering every time she turned her head. No wonder Preston went so quiet when they shook hands. "She loves trying on things like that. It's like artwork. Keeps her imagination fresh, she says."
"Hmm. I can respect that. What I can't respect, though, is this relentless, inhuman ideal of the perfect body, and how people are using technology to conform to it instead of using their brains to think beyond it. The media has us all acting as if perfectly ordinary people – the plus-sized, for instance, or anyone over thirty – are nothing but blots on the landscape. Next thing you know, we'll all be clones of supermodels. It's insane."
My bones liquefy with guilt. When the robot arrives with our dinners on his tray-shaped head and napkins in his grippers, I half expect him to bend over and wipe me away.
"Tomato soup, madame. Vegetarian crepe, sir. May I offer you some water?"
"Yes, please," we chorus, and I hide my face behind the tall, icy glass the first chance I get.
"That's what I admire so much about you, Jordan Cooper." His green eyes brighten with his smile. "Your beauty comes from the inside."
"Er … excuse me? I mean – thank you."
He smiles kindly at my faux-pas. "Your intelligence, your sense of humor, your passion for great literature … "
Oh. My. God. I pinch myself under the table and, yes, it definitely hurts. Otherwise I would honestly suspect myself of dreaming this man up. If it's more than my glammed-up body he likes - I know better than to believe the glam doesn't factor into it, of course – then this could really, truly work!
I'll tell him at the end of the evening for sure. But not right now. All I want to do is savor this lovely night with everything I've got.
"Oh, well. I don't only read great literature, you know. Honestly, the best thing I'm reading right now is Captain Grace and the Singing Forest."
In between sips of the really quite tasty soup, I launch into a lively description of the latest volume in this space opera series about a dashing starship captain and her multispecies crew, which includes a walking tree and a telepathic crystal. When I told Lio about it last week, he laughed and wrinkled his nose. That's so Jordie, hein? I'm glad you like it, but you could not pay me to read that stuff. I called him a genre snob and argued with him for half an hour while Monique played referee. Preston, however, only nods.
By the time we set off for my apartment, I've talked myself hoarse and my face hurts from smiling. I'm carrying my high heels by the straps, the cool concrete welcoming my toes. Preston's hair spikes are disarranged from all the times he's run his fingers through them, and his tie is loose. His smile sparkles in the light of the street lamps, so irresistibly that I lift my wrist and take a photo. His eyebrows shoot up and his jaw drops in comic dismay, which ruins the effect, but I already know I'll print this picture anyway.
Then I accidentally delete it. "Oh – whoops!"
"Sorry, sorry! It's gone now. Can I take another one? C'mon!"
"On one condition." He leans in closer, bouncing a little on his toes.
He takes a little steel box out of his suit pocket, fiddles with it, throws one arm around me and lets off a blinding flash of light. A camera! Of course. Turquoise blots dance behind my eyelids as I stagger. His hold on my waist is all that's keeping me up.
He doesn't let go. His body heat washes over me like water from the shower, when you turn it up so hot it makes you tingle. I can smell hot chocolate on his breath.
His eyebrows rise again and his mouth opens, but not in a funny way this time. Is something wrong? He looks down, and so do I.
Down at the air between our bodies where there shouldn't be any.
He backs away, hands in the air. The night air of August, so balmy a moment ago, sweeps through my dress with November chill.
"You – I – is that - ?"
"I was gonna tell you!"
"You're not - "
My voice breaks into a sob. He's still backing away, clutching his camera to his chest, as if it's the only thing that makes sense right now – even though, when he opens the picture, all he'll see is himself cheek-to-cheek with a girl who doesn't exist.
"I can't believe this!" He turns away and rakes his hand through his spikes. "I can't even … okay. Okay." He sweeps his hands up and down, reminding himself to breathe. "Turn it off."
"I need to see if any of you is real. Turn. It. Off."
My full stomach lurches. This was the worst-case scenario for the end of our date in my imagination – well, besides being interrupted by a terrorist attack, but really, can it get any worse?
I turn off the glam.
It gets worse.
He hisses through his teeth, taking in every centimetre of fat under my clingy dress: the bulge of my stomach, the rolls along my hips, my thighs emerging from under my skirt like marshmallows. His hand flies out to steady him against a nearby lamp.
"I'm sorry, Jordie," he murmurs. "I'm so sorry … "
He strides off, so fast I expect him to break out running any second, but he doesn't, even though his back is hunched with exertion. The headlights of a passing car light him up for a second, leaving a dazzling shadow in my eyes.
Then he is gone.
I look around me, and not one of the buildings is familiar. Not the towering glass-fronted office block, not the older stone edifice beside it, not the skinny trees locked up in their iron cages, and not even the bus stop. I took the metro here. Now I'm alone at eleven p. m. in Montreal and I don't know where I am.
I do what any woman of my poise and confidence would do: collapse on the bus stop bench, crying snot and water.
You're overreacting, I tell myself, in some strange combination of my mother and Monique. He's not worth it. How could he be, after he's done this?
I know, I know. That's why I'm crying – because of myself, not him. My own stupid mistake. This is one of those cases where advice, no matter how well-meant or sensible, and especially coming from the back of your own head, only makes things worse.
Finally I vid-call the real Monique. Unwanted advice or no, at least she'll get me out of here.
"Ostie d'calisse!" is her reaction to being rung out of bed. Her powers of self-control are admirable, but she never uses them around me. "Jordie, what the – oh."
She flattens her pillow-tousled black hair, falling silent at the sight of me. In her purple satin pajama top, with her natural brown eyes and golden skin, she looks more elegant than I did for my date.
"Pick me up," I croak. "Now. Please."
"What did he do?"
"N-nothing. Just - "
"If he hurt you, I swear to Jobs - " She bares her teeth, which are crooked, owing to her teenage self's refusal to wear braces. Her nose is flat, as if she bumped into too many walls as a little girl. Acne dots her temples. But when her entire face comes alive like this with sympathetic rage, she looks absolutely stellar to me.
"It's not … it's not like that. Just come and get me. I'm lost. I don't know where I am, except … " I read off the number of the bus stop, needing to repeat it several times before the mucus clears from my throat and nose.
"Can't you just use the tracker on your eCom?" a light, crisp, masculine voice breaks into the conversation.
Lio. Who else? Normally I'd be happy he dropped in to our apartment, but right now I wish him on Luna Base or even further off. There's something about him I just can't endure right now.
"Oh, pause it, Lio. This asscrack just totally stomped on her evening. Wearing vintage Converses, I bet."
"Oxfords," I mutter.
"You mean," says Lio's wry voice from behind her, "She stomped on her evening – if what you told me about her glam experiment is true."
That's the quality right there, the one that shrivels me like a snail crawling over salt. What is it again? Oh, right. Honesty.
"Ta gueule!" Monique snaps. "Men and women have been scamming one another since before they invented the wheel. That's no excuse to leave her stranded."
"Oh. That's not – Jordie, backspace, I didn't mean that. I'm coming to get you."
"You?" Monique exclaims. "You don't even drive!"
"And you, little sister, are a road hazard in that mood. I'm taking a cab. Jordie, confirm?"
I slump back against the plastic bus stop wall. "Confirm."
"Hack it, Jordie, what have you done to yourself?" is the first thing out of Lio's mouth. His eSpecs, linked to his eCom and probably tuned to night vision right now, gleam at me like a cat's eyes from the cab window as I approach.
"Crying does that to a person's face, Lio. Not that you'd know."
"Not that." His slim hand waves over my face, then down along my whole body. "This – this is not what I designed the glam for."
Oh, right. I'm pretty again. "It was an accident. I wanted the chameleon app, you know, so no one would bother me until you came. Must've hit the wrong key."
He sighs and shakes his head. "Just get in."
The cab, a silvery little electric that looks like an egg on wheels, slides open when I touch my eCom to the door. Since it runs on autopilot, there is a merciful absence of strangers; no one gets annoyed when it takes me two tries to croak out my address into the navigation system. Lio leans back next to me. Tall and wiry, his fine black hair cut to about three centimetres' length, his half-lidded eyes staring out at the streets flashing by, perfectly quiet, tense with controlled energy, he reminds me more of a cat than ever. There is no sound except the whir of the wheels, not even background music. New plastic and faux leather bite my nose. I wrap my arms around my tiny-looking middle.
"You cold?" Lio breaks the silence.
The air conditioning is chilly, but I hadn't noticed until now. "Mm-hm."
His hands go to his collar, which beeps softly. That's when I notice he's wearing a nanosuit, the kind you can program to become almost any shape, color and texture. They squick me out – I can't stand the way they crawl over my skin when I shift them – but when Lio spins a wrap out of the black sweater he's wearing, so long he can throw one end over me, I could start crying all over again from the kindness of his gesture.
Instead I hold out my wrist. Using his programmer's override to bypass the fingerprint security, he turns off my glam.
"That's better," he says, his breath against my ear. "Nothing more unnerving than seeing someone you know turn into a cloned supermodel."
"Preston thought the opposite, I guess." I laugh bitterly.
"Right. Professor Preston Ayre." Lio scoffs, as if even the name were another mark against him. "And when did wearing a fake body for a man you planned to get intimate with begin to sound remotely like a good idea?"
"I happened to be wearing it when we met! He wouldn't have recognized me - "
"So? You could've sent him a photo."
"Honestly, Lio!" He jumps at my raised voice. How can the most successful man I know be so naïve? "How many men would take this," I squeeze my belly, "Out to dinner unless they knew me first?"
"Well, when you make that face, I'm inclined to answer none."
If he said it, he must mean it: one of my oldest friends thinks I'm ugly. Steamed with humiliation, I throw my end of the nano-wrap back in his face.
"But don't forget," he says, barely audible over the soft buzz of the car, "I've also seen you smiling."
"I … what?"
"Here." He plays with his eSpecs for a minute, then leans over to slide them gently over my nose. I catch a whiff of steel and plastic from him, as always, but also something sweet and spicy; does he have a new cologne, and why would he wear it now? I'm distracted, however, by the picture on the lenses. It's doubled, which is disorienting, but after squeezing my eyes shut a few times, I can see it clearly.
It's me, sitting behind the counter at Page Me, companioned by stacks of yellowed books and a Captain Grace action figure in her sky-blue dress uniform. I was talking to LaWren, one of my regulars, listening to her growl happily about the cliffhanger ending of her latest purchase, promising to hunt down the elusive sequel if it took all year. We were laughing about something, I forget what. My mouth was wide open, my eyes were slits, and my hair was in that awkward growing-out-of-a-bob stage … but somehow, that's not what I see.
Instead, I'm transported back to the moment he took that picture. LaWren's gray curls bouncing with energy, the tickle of laughter, the pride I felt when she walked away cradling a genuine first edition of Collins' Mockingjay …
"That Jordie looks happy," says Lio, echoing my thoughts as I hand his eSpecs back. "She practically glows. I just wish she did more often." He doesn't look at me, absorbed in whatever the specs are showing him once more.
It's such a shocking thing for him, of all people, to say that it drives me speechless. I knew Lio cared in his detached, cerebral sort of way, but I never knew he felt … what does he feel? It can't be –
He barks out a laugh, making me jump. "Oh. Oh. Well, isn't that just supernova?"
"Can you believe this?" He passes me the specs again.
"Who's that?" The picture this time is of a man with thin, wispy gray hair, frown lines around his mouth, and a nose sharp enough to cut cheese. He looks familiar, but I can't place him – until the writing around the photo catches my eye. It's a Facebook profile – who uses Facebook anymore, I imagine Lio thinking, when eConnect is so much more efficient? – including the name and birth date.
Preston Ayre. Born November 1st, 1989.
Today is August 29th, 2046.
My date didn't look a day over twenty-five, but if this is him – and the more I look at the blue-green eyes under those wrinkled lids, the frail attempt at hair spikes and the frozen smile, the more certain I am – it explains so much.
I wanted an old-fashioned man, after all. Well, I got one.
The shrill, choking laugh-sob coming from my mouth startles Lio, which makes me laugh even harder. He joins in until tears run down his cheeks.
"One word from you and this will go viral," he finally says, wiping his eyes.
"Can you do that?" I gasp. "Would you do that?"
"It just … doesn't seem like you, that's all." The guy doesn't even play free-streamed hologames because it's illegal.
"The bug deserves it." Lio's mouth goes dangerously tight. The last time I saw him look like that, Monique had spilled a latte on some blueprints it took him weeks to finish. "He had no right to scam you like that. How old is he, fifty-seven? Ugh!"
That part hadn't even occurred to me. I may be legal, but dating a fifty-seven-year-old man still makes me feel disagreeably like a schoolgirl being whistled at on the street. I shiver with revulsion … and stop, because the last time someone felt revolted tonight, it was Preston himself.
"Yeah, well … poetic justice, I guess."
"Poetic what now?"
"I'm not one to talk, since I scammed him the same way. He probably doesn't enjoy being himself any more than I do." I shrug. "And no wonder, really. The way you reacted to his age back there is just the way he reacted to my weight. Imagine if we'd really slept together."
The image gives us both a nasty chuckle, but I can't help forgiving Preston a little bit. This explains so much: why he was at Club Y2K, why the robot waiter made him uncomfortable, why he split the bill, and why he seemed so desperately in search of "something real". He didn't find it in me, that's for sure.
Blots on the landscape, that's what he said our culture makes outsiders feel like.
I pick up the free end of the nano-wrap, tuck it around my shoulders, and lean into Lio. He tenses up like piano wire, then relaxes, and my head falls all-too-naturally on his shoulder.
"Leave him alone, okay?"
"If you say so."
We fall into a surprisingly comfortable silence as the car turns onto Highway 40. I think about beauty. Is it possible that, maybe, beauty has less to do with how your body looks and more with what you do in it?
Because I know one thing: Lio's never looked as handsome in my eyes as he does tonight.