Joaquim and I stood in my bathroom, putting on today’s face: Aisha Modigliani had been on all the newstreams this week for her rhyming denunciation of terrorism while wearing a puncture-proof dress. Her voice had set the world on fire, her lilting, long-stretched Es and lazy As, but there was no artistry to voices. Everyone owned a Vox, and it really was the best way to capture how someone sounds—even the best pure voicers still sounded off, like imperfect recordings.
And though Skyn could give you a face exactly like the original, Joaquim and I created ours the old-fashioned way. I was an expert at noses. Joaquim could fashion eyebrows to make you cry. Seeing our faces, you’d know, you’d swear we were the original, but we were better.
As usual, Joaquim needed to borrow some clothes.
I shook my head, Aisha mimicking me in the mirror. “Why don’t you buy some of your own? It’s not like we don’t do this every damn weekend.”
Aisha never cursed. The “damn” spiced the air. I brought Aisha’s lips up into a faux-innocent smile.
“I’m not going to buy girl’s clothes,” Joaquim said, his voice growly. The sarcastic tone was all Aisha, but he didn’t like turning on his Vox until the last minute. “Where would I store it?”
I rolled my eyes, practicing Aisha’s dismissive head tilt, which always accompanied her eyerolls. “Buy the stuff as Aisha. Hang it in the closet with the rest of your crap. Who the fuck cares?”
The swear felt less enjoyable this time. I was already beginning to think like the face, and if Aisha didn’t swear, then why would I?
“I care,” Joaquim said, adjusting his cheekbones. Aisha’s were high and wide, flat planes of dark skin the eyes got lost in.
I Aisha-giggled. “Just admit it. You’re a face-whore.”
He clicked on the Vox. “I admit nothing,” he said in Aisha’s voice. “I’m innocent, completely innocent.”
On Monday, Aisha Modigliani would be sentenced for her involvement in the National Mall Plot. The area around the Washington Monument was still a knee-deep pool of toxic, aggressive flesh.
Some claimed that bodies were just as important as faces, but bodies were covered in clothes. Joaquim and I were completists—our bodies were one-hundred percent accurate, but those specs were downloaded. No customizations. But the faces. My nose could look down at you all on its own. Joaquim could cut you off at the knees with a flip of his hair.
Battlebrook Mall was full of Aishas, most playing it safe by dressing in the skirt, leggings, and turtleneck from her last courtroom appearance—all dark greys and blacks. No life, no color—nothing that was truly Aisha. Just a photo-realistic reproduction.
Joaquim always wore whatever he found in my closet, creating a face-in-the-wild look, like “this is just what Aisha wears going to the movies” sort of thing. I’d spent my month’s wages from Voxy Baby to buy a Modigliani knock-off. Of course, I’d wanted an original, but all the Hollywood types bought them up. Still, it looked the same—a rainbow-drenched, shapeless, puncture-proof poncho showing just the barest hint of thighs, tied around the waist with a bungee cord, just the way Aisha wore it in her video claiming partial responsibility for the bio-bomb in D.C.
Looking around the mall, I was right: no one else had dared.
The trouble with all looking and sounding the same is that it’s impossible to pick a voice out of the crowd. Joaquim and I get around that by tapping each other’s hands when we talk. It also couples us, so we don’t have to worry about anyone interested in same-same sex.
“Some people just don’t understand fashion.” Joaquim tapped with one hand and waved Aisha-like at a passing Ilene with the other.
Ilene Lesnovka was the face a week ago. A number of people still wore her, either trying to stand out by going against the grain or using the almost perfect repro uploaded last week. I spotted a Priyanka from last month wandering around like a queen without a country.
They were beautifully done but, like bones left on the plate after a perfect meal, you don’t want to see them again. You just want to bury them in the trash or feed them to your dog.
A thousand Aishas talked at once, and it sounded like a waterfall. Back before I cared about faces, my parents took me out to the wilderness for a nature hike. We ended up at a smelly ten-foot-tall waterfall. Signs prohibited swimming and warned that drowning was a real risk—no one would be held responsible if you died trying to experience nature, you stupid idiot. I sneered at my parents when they talked about nature’s beauty, and refused to walk any farther, so they left me at the waterfall while they finished the hike. Left on my own, I loved the sound of the waterfall and its endlessness—all that water doing the same thing, but never the same way twice.
Joaquim tapped my hand. “What’s going on over there?”
On the other side of the mall’s food court, the crowd of Aishas swirled in disarray. An Aisha screamed and swore—utterly unlike Aisha—and now all of the Aishas looked like a herd of deer staring at a mountain lion.
“Let’s go see,” I said, because I’m no deer.
Joaquim hesitated, but when I started to let go of his hand, he grabbed it more firmly and followed my lead. Aisha’s only 5’4”, so we could see the people causing the commotion, or at least the tops of their heads—mohawks made out of skin, spikes growing through curly black hair, a pair of eyeballs on stalks. Horror disfigured many of the Aishas’ faces (most clearly didn’t know how Aisha expressed horror). I could see them through her face.
A moat of open space separated the newcomers from the Aishas. Muzak from the mall speakers serenaded us as everyone faced off. I pushed to the front.
The girl with eyeballs on stalks looked me up and down. “That really bulletproof?” she asked.
“Puncture-proof,” I automatically corrected, running my hands along the slick fabric.
A guy with mouths for eyes and a single giant eyeball for a mouth stepped forward, pulling a knife from his pocket. “Mind if I give it a try?”
His arms were as thick as my legs, my actual legs. But facing isn’t about what’s easy.
“Sure,” I told him, drawling it out. The Aishas around me distanced themselves, all except Joaquim, until I gently pushed him away. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Without warning or buildup, Moutheyes shoved the knife into my stomach, and the crowd gasped, Aishas and freaks alike. But the knife didn’t cut the dress, and the impact-dampening fibers turned his deadly thrust into a weak punch. It would leave a bruise, but I didn’t react.
Joaquim tapped my hand. “You okay?”
“Never better,” I said loudly, though I worried a fight would break out. The dress doesn’t cover my head. Or my arms. Or my feet. Faces like us fight through expressions, not punches.
Joaquim stepped in front of me, crossing his arms. Never had Aisha looked so tough.
“Nice,” the right eyemouth whispered. The left eyemouth said, “We’re impressed.”
Each eyemouth had its own miniature tongue. No Skyn I knew of could change a body that much.
Moutheyes caught me staring and clicked his teeth together in annoyance. “Like we’re any stranger than you facesterbaters.”
A dozen Aishas angrily spoke up at once, their voices an incoherent mess, only slightly less incoherent than Aisha’s denouncing terrorism after embracing it, being the face of it, giving in to the glory of it until they caught her. But faces aren’t chosen for being good people. They’re picked because they make a good face.
Even with my back to the rest of the food court, I could feel the Aishas pressing in behind me. The freaks, the newcomers, the uglies—they sensed the change in the air. Stalks’s eyes looked in all directions at once. The spiky one grew more spikes, as if that could save him. Chains and knives and metal clubs appeared in their hands, unwanted magic tricks.
Moutheyes winked his giant eye. With a nod of his head, he called off his gang, and they retreated slowly out of the food court, growling at the Big Burger staff—all normals—as they made their way to the exit.
As though to make up for the freaks’ rudeness, a line of Aishas formed up to order Slambang Burgers and Avocado Shakes—Aisha’s favorite meal, or so someone on FaceWiki claimed. Joaquim and I, we stuck with what was verifiable.
Joaquim took my hand and led me back into the food court, Aishas whispering to me as I went, brushing their hands along my dress—my second skin—as though it were a holy relic. Normally, I’d have loved this attention. I was the ultimate Aisha, the model all the rest looked up to, but something felt wrong, like I was walking through one of those funhouse mirror mazes, but instead of looking out at my reflections, I was one of those reflections myself.
Joaquim steered me towards a table that cleared of Aishas as we approached. He sat across from me and tapped my hand.
“Nice front,” Joaquim said, because he always starts with a compliment. He touches the dress where the knife punched it. “Are you really okay?”
I opened my mouth to answer, but instead of words, I turned and threw up all over the floor. Aishas scattered. Joaquim hugged me around the shoulders as I leaned over, stomach still convulsing. Fear, I told myself, it’s just fear delayed, hitting me like I’d just woken from a nightmare not realizing how scared I should’ve been.
I was suffocating. All the Aisha voices, all her laughs, even her footsteps sounded the same. If I took off my face right then and there, would I be myself again, or would there simply be another Aisha beneath? The faux-wood paneled floor had more authenticity than me, than all of us. I wanted to tear it up piece by piece.
If Aisha vomited all over the floor, she wouldn’t be embarrassed. Aisha would wipe her lips, look at the people around her, and shrug. What? Everybody gets sick sometime. Nausea just showed how human she was, how true to life—just like you and me. Not a face, just a person.
The Aishas around me, they didn’t know how to be Aisha. When I stood and stepped over my pool of sick, they shook their heads, and I shamed them into looking away with a crinkling of nose, my delicate, dismissive smile. Joaquim raised his eyebrows into angel’s wings, and that sent the rest of the judgmental Aishas fleeing, sunk into the hollows of their costumed cheeks.
We walked through the food court like royalty, the way to Battlebrook Mall’s north entrance clearing before us. Aishas stared, jealousy haunting their expressions, bringing their true faces out from beneath their Skyn. But Aisha wouldn’t care. She’d believe she deserved all of this, every last bit of attention favoring her like the warmest, gentlest spring sun.
Outside, I caught my breath. Acid burned my throat. Where the knife hit me, a giant bruise would bloom—but it was worth it. Aisha would think it was worth it.
“Aisha Modigliani!” a man yelled.
Joaquim and I and all the Aishas who followed us out turned towards a man emerging from between two vans. He held a gun in his right hand. Other than that and his rage-ruined face, he looked perfectly normal. Average. He could never be a face.
The man flicked his eyes between us, then honed in on Joaquim. “Aisha, you lying bitch.”
Joaquim froze, his expression un-Aisha-like in its shock.
Raising his gun, the man said, “You killed my daughter. My grandkids. You filth. You terrorist trash.”
Joaquim raised his hands, as though he could swat the bullets from the air. He fumbled at his throat to turn off his Vox, but even if he did, I knew this guy wouldn’t believe him. This man would shoot anyway. He might shoot all of us just to get the satisfaction of killing his daughter’s murderer again and again.
“I’m Aisha,” I told the man, stepping in front of Joaquim to get his attention, doing exactly what Aisha wouldn’t do. “This Aisha’s just a face. A copycat. I’m the one you want.”
I tapped Joaquim’s hand and whispered, “Run.”
Confusion washed through the man’s eyes, but he held his gun steady, pointing at me. It seemed as alien as the mods on the freaks, growing from the man’s hand like an extra mouth. An extra tongue. A sharp, crisp set of teeth.
The man aimed at my face.
What would Aisha do?
I closed my eyes. I smiled. I spoke in a clear, unafraid voice that could either have been a plea for mercy or a request for deliverance.
Seconds stretched out. No gunshots.
When I opened my eyes, the man had lowered his gun. His face looked like it had been cut apart and badly sewn back together. He opened his squinched-up mouth and asked me, “You’re not the true you either, are you?”
“No,” Aisha admitted. “I’m not.”