Faces of the Elit
She had died quickly; that much was evident. Her eyes were wide, surprised, bluer than blue. Her long rose-coloured hair fanned out against the marble floor as if a breeze had gusted up as she fell, lifting the hair into that perfect pattern. In life, everything she had done was beautiful. Why should her death be any different?
Only the blood was jarring - the wrong colour, for a start. It framed the lower half of her face, pooling from under her scalp. No one with pale pink hair should ever bleed red in public.
"With that kind of head wound, she wouldn't have suffered," said the Polis Inspector.
No, she probably wouldn't. Anais was not a woman made to suffer. She was a pleasure doll, a perfect plaything, designed for luxury. Just like me. "Are you sure it was a head wound?" I asked him.
He looked at me as if I was crazy. "It's a little obvious, don't you think?"
Just because I look like an anime wet dream does not mean I'm stupid, though that's usually the assumption people make. Plus I knew something he probably didn't. I felt for Anais's bracelet, touch-tapped a hidden code into the gem circuits. The perfect image of her faded away, bled into nothingness. Ironically, the blood faded as well. And there she lay all over again, a woman of ordinary size and shape this time, dull-coloured hair but nice cheekbones. Widish hips, a bit of a tummy. No blood. No head wound. Still dead.
The Polis Inspector stared at me, his mouth open. "What -"
I gave him a haughty look, one of my favourites. I picked it out of the catalogue during my last upgrade, and I've certainly had my money's worth in the last few months. We're not only required to smile and nod and fuck. "Don't know much about the Elit, do you?"
"Virtual body sleeves," he said in amazement. "You really do - all of you?"
My look changed to withering, an old standard. "How else do you think we look this cute? You think a waist-span this small is natural?" It's a fact. Most people actually think the Elit are a result of good genetics rather than greatly advanced technology. That's what they prefer to think, anyway. I stood up. I'd seen enough. And I'd seen Anais's real face for the first time since we were initiates together, which was a little more disturbing than seeing the well-designed death scene of her virtual body sleeve. "She didn't die from a head wound, Inspector. You might want to look into that."
As I left the bamboo-walled apartment where Anais had lived when she wasn't at the Teahouse with the rest of us, the Inspector was staring at the body and yelling for his subordinate officers to bring back the doctor. As I reached the ground floor of the building, the doctor was protesting loudly at having to re-examine a body he had already signed off on.
Some things never change.
"Ms Zirelli?" He was an uptight sort, but with an open face - not that I'm the kind of person who judges by appearances.
"Call me Honey." I posed for him, my silk robe falling a little open. I wasn't expecting a client for hours - which meant Front Desk had screwed up again, but that was nothing new. The administrative staff of the Teahouse (an ironic title, apparently) are all useless at administration, mostly because they're bitter old Elit initiates who never got past the first rite. We don't just let anyone into this firm. "Sex or conversation?"
I swear his ears actually went bright red! "New at this?" I said sympathetically. "First recommendation, hey. Well, it's simple. We decide the terms now, so everyone knows where they stand. Conversation's extra," I added. "It requires more effort on my part." That was supposed to be a joke. He didn't get it, poor boy.
"I just want to talk," he said hastily.
"Fine. With clothes or without?" He nearly choked in alarm, and I laughed at him. "You're from the Polis, right?"
"Well - yes. I'm in disguise."
"It's not working, sweetheart. You'd better get on with whatever the Inspector sent you to tell me."
He sat down on a fine woven chair, looking a little more relaxed now that he was sure I wasn't going to ravish him on the spot. "The body sleeve was doctored. I'm sure you knew that."
I nodded. "There was no blood, no bruising on her real body. It was set up to look like a big macho man did it, probably to throw suspicion on her clients. Instead, it must have been something more subtle. Poison or an electro-virus. Something anyone could administer, but it implies a smaller, less physically powerful attacker."
I looked at him from under my heavy eyelids, watching his every move. Despite my reassurances, he was still skittish as anything. "I suppose that makes every Elit in the Teahouse a prime suspect. Even a little bit of a thing like me."
"I'm afraid so," he admitted, eyeing me with open curiosity. "Are you -" The question they all ask, sooner or later. I didn't need to wait for him to finish it.
"Of course. We all wear them. And the only experts on virtual body sleeve technology in this city are probably all on our payroll, which makes us double suspects if there is such a term. Am I right?"
He didn't answer me, which was probably a good idea. "It's such a perfect illusion," he said finally, staring at me. "But doesn't it - can't they feel the difference? The men?"
"Of course not. The body sleeve works on all the senses." I placed my hands caressingly on either side of my waist. "If you were to put your hands here and here, it would not only look as if your hands were only so far apart, it would feel like your hands were only so far apart." I shrugged.
"In reality, my waist's quite a bit wider. What with having all my ribs intact, and everything. We'd be in real trouble if people really did look like manga cartoon characters. Look at my breasts, for instance. Barbie dolls look more natural than I do. If this body was real, I wouldn't be able to stand up straight, let alone perform the kind of gymnastics I'm required to do every day." He was losing colour, so it was probably a good idea to change the subject. "Any more questions, Officer?"
"Um, no." He stood up quickly. "The Polis Inspector just wanted me to let you know, the Teahouse is going to be watched and as...."
"As an official suspect, I mustn't even think of leaving the city," I sighed. It was a familiar routine, but usually one associated with unlicensed theft, or witnessing dodgy business dealings between clients. Not murder. I'd hate to be in a business where dealing with murder was the familiar. It made me reassess my young stud as he scrambled for the doorway. "What's your name, kiddo?"
"Marsden," he said nervously. "Rafe Marsden. Thank you for your time, Ms. Zirelli."
"Honey," I corrected him again. "You can settle up at the Front Desk, Rafe."
He looked surprised. "Sorry?"
I stretched my arms lazily over my head. "Disguised officer of the Polis or not, my time's expensive."
The Mistress of the Teahouse chose the name Geisha for herself, supposedly to remind people of long-ago traditions of respect to our profession. She, a tiny woman with foot-high hair and the smallest ankles in the known universe, was visibly furious for the first time in living memory.
The Polis Inspector was encamped with most of his division in the rose-scented lobby of our fine establishment. Obviously, this meant that we had received no clients. Some of them came as far as the door, but vanished as soon as they saw the Polis in residence: we may be treated with similar levels of respect as the geisha once were, but no middle-aged man these days wants to have to explain to his lifepartner how he got mixed up in a Polis investigation at the Teahouse, of all places.
"This is abominable," insisted Mistress Geisha in a voice which would have been a violent screech if her own virtual body sleeve did not render it always as a soft and melodic sound. She had been the first subject to test the body sleeves when they first came on the open market, eight years ago. "You will not treat us like criminals!"
"With respect, ma'am," said the Polis Inspector. "The lack of physical evidence at the scene in Anais Dream's apartment suggests that the perpetrator was, well..."
"Encased in a virtual body sleeve?" I suggested.
He looked a little relieved. "Exactly. Might any of your - fellow workers have had some reason to wish harm to Ms Dream?"
I shook my head quickly. "She was quiet, a real angel. Always willing to help anyone else. I know she escaped an abusive family before she came to Elit training, but I can't think of anyone here who would want to hurt her, let alone kill her."
He nodded slowly. "Unfortuantely, nothing is as it appears to be in this case. I must therefore insist that all virtual body sleeves in this establishment be deactivated for a brief period. Mistress Geisha, yourself and Ms Zirelli, as the ones who knew Anais best, will remain here with us during the process."
Now it was my turn to be hysterical, or at least as shrill as my own virtual body sleeve would allow me to be. "Are you crazy? You want to take away my face and I have to stand here in front of all these people while you do it?"
I make jokes about the abnormality of our condition, but the truth is we are trained to see 'normality' as ugly. The idea of losing my perfect identity, in front of witnesses no less, scared me more than anything. After reacquainting myself with the sight of Anais' real body, I was terrified to see my own.
I had been Honey Zirelli for four years. I didn't want to stop now.
The Polis Inspector acted valiantly in the face of my perfect virtual tears, which poured beautifully and tragically down my face. "Ms Zirelli, please calm yourself. It is essential that your transformation is witnessed. As a prime suspect..."
I pounced on that. "Let me have a witness, then. But just one, and in the privacy of my own room, please." Please don't let me be stripped bare in the lobby, with twenty pairs of staring eyes boring into me, not just the Polis officers but the girls on Front Desk, the ones who didn't graduate to a virtual body sleeve, who have to work to maintain a semblance of beauty.
It's horrible for them. Every now and then, one of them cracks up and has to be dismissed. The last one was Meg, a girl with real genetics on her side. Thin, blonde, pretty, but she still couldn't help comparing herself to our augmented, unnatural forms. So she got thinner and thinner, more and more miserable, and eventually Mistress Geisha had to let her go for the sake of everyone else - she was driving us all to depression.
I couldn't stand the thought of those Front Desk girls looking at me and my natural form, comparing it to their own, laughing perhaps. The Polis Inspector must have seen some of the desperation in my eyes, because he took pity on me. I don't know whether or not it was a good thing that the officer he chose to go with me was young Rafe Marsden. I think it was worse, because I swear I saw pity in that young man's eyes and I hated him for it.
As we left, I saw the Polis Inspector arranging a silk screen for Mistress Geisha so that her loss of dignity, at least, would be shielded from the eyes of the girls at the Front Desk. Good man.
In my room, I locked the door behind us and sat resolutely at my dressing table mirror, staring at my perfect anime porn-doll figure and waiting for it to be deactivated. "Don't look at me," I commanded the young officer.
"I have to," said Rafe desperately. "I have to witness what happens."
I looked at him in the reflection of the glass. "Why?"
He sounded apologetic, desperate not to offend me. "The Polis Inspector thinks - well, virtual body sleeves are such a new science. They've only been used in this country for what, five years?"
"Six," I said quietly. "And two before that in Japan."
"No one knows what happens when - when somebody dies while wearing an active body sleeve."
My eyes met his in the mirror. "Is he a superstitious man, your Inspector? Does he believe in ghosts?"
"His theory is that the virtual body sleeve might continue with a vestige of the original personality."
"So when the system is deactivated, one of the girls might not be under her body sleeve?"
"Something like that. That's why he sent officers to all the rooms, but he wanted to witness at least one himself."
"It's a ridiculous idea. Anais was one of us, and she just died like ordinary people do. Her body sleeve didn't get up and walk around, did it?"
"We have evidence that she wasn't wearing her body sleeve when she died, that someone tampered with it and put it on her after she was dead." He still sounded apologetic, damn him. "It's only one theory."
"Bullshit," I said angrily, wiping perfect virtual tears from my perfect virtual eyes. "The Inspector just doesn't like not being able to trust what he sees." I was weeping for Anais now. Poor Anais, always so scared of losing herself in the body sleeve, not embracing her new image the way the rest of us did. Of course she would have taken it off whenever she was alone.
It was starting. I could feel myself being peeled away. I gripped the edge of the dressing table and watched my hands lengthen, my nails lose their colour. Very slowly, I lifted my eyes to the mirror and was crushed by what I saw. So this was me. The real me. Ordinary as all hell.
"But you're beautiful," said Rafe, sounding surprised.
I glared back at him. "Don't humour me."
"But you are." He knelt down before me, not an ounce of pity in his eyes. "This is so much more real."
I searched his face for evidence of the lie and couldn't find it. So I kissed him. A single, chaste kiss on the lips. "Treasure that," I murmured cynically as I drew back. "It's a first."
He was staring at me, and I wasn't in the mood to read his face any more. I turned away from him, fumbled for the flagon of honey wine I kept close at hand. "How long do we have to put up with this charade?"
"I don't know," he mumbled. "Just until they've checked all the girls. A few minutes, perhaps ten."
The honey wine dissolved sweetly under my tongue, and it wasn't until a dizzy wave sent me to the floor that I realised I had been poisoned. My vision swam wetly before my eyes, in and out. Time slowed.
Rafe was holding my hand, shouting something. "Honey," he said urgently, and I only just heard him. "Keep fighting it. Help is on its way now. Just a few more minutes."
"Don't call me Honey," I protested through the fog. "It's not my name. Just another part of the illusion..."
Then I couldn't speak any more, and I cursed myself because I hadn't told him the really important thing. The thing that Anais and I had in common. The reason we had both been murdered. And I grieved, because I knew now that Mistress Geisha's death had preceded both of ours.
It was Anais's fear of losing herself in the virtual body sleeve. She had passed every other test and initiation rite with flying colours. She had the skills and temperament to be the best Elit of all. I was desperate to have her succeed because I knew what kind of life she was running away from. I couldn't stand seeing her hesitate over that last, all-important hurdle. I'm not sure if Mistress Geisha's reasons were the same, or entirely different.
Anyway, she called us both to her sanctum that day and quietly, without fuss, deactivated her own virtual body sleeve. She showed us the ordinary face underneath, told us that she had come to terms with both of her faces, and we should do the same. She also told us that we were the only girls she had ever shown her own face to.
Somehow the story got around, as stories go. It gave Anais and I that edge of superiority, that we knew the mistress's face. It was the one thing we had truly shared, as well as the reason we both had to die.
Except I didn't. Bless the officers of the Polis, they brought me back. They had already identified the electro-virus which killed Anais, and they had an antidote programme on hand. As I awoke, the first thing I saw was the neat, concerned virtual face of Mistress Geisha.
"You are back with us, child," she said calmly, sounding a little relieved. A masterful performance, but then she was armed with the ultimate prop.
"The virtual body sleeves," I murmured, fighting the fog.
"We reactivated them," said the Polis Inspector gently. "Except yours, but we can do that now if you like."
"It doesn't matter," I groaned. "Deactivate them again."
"She's delirious," said Mistress Geisha. "Should we not get the doctor back to see her?"
Thank the gods, young Rafe was there too. I grabbed wildly for his arm, secured it, dragged him down to me. "Deactivate the body sleeves. That isn't Mistress Geisha."
Mistress Geisha quirked her eyebrow slightly, a familiar expression. I remember when she got that upgrade. "The girl is exhausted, perhaps disturbed. I think we put them through too much stress at times."
And that was it, the answer which had been eluding me. "Mistress Geisha said the same thing about you, Meg," I hissed.
Everything got messy after that, and I lost conciousness a few times. The upshot was that they deactivated Mistress Geisha's virtual body sleeve again, this time in front of the rest of the girls, both the Elit and the Front Deskers. I might be the only living person who knew what Mistress Geisha's real face looked like, but everyone recognised Meg.
They say that when they took her away, she wept. They say that she repeated, over and over, "I just wanted to be one of them."
Most women want to be like us, which is crazy when you think about it. No one knows how hard it really is, juggling more than one face, the real versus the unreal.
They found Mistress Geisha's body eventually, buried in a pile of refuse. At least, they assumed it was her - I wasn't around to identify it by that stage. I had left the ranks of the Elit. I had been treating this lifestyle like a game for far too long, and I didn't want to play any more.
I crept out of the Teahouse by night, wearing my natural body, my real face. The best thing about a permanent disguise is that once you take it off, no one can recognise you. I did take Honey Zirelli with me though, the virtual body sleeve and its attached programming all folded up into a small carry case. You never know when something like that might come in handy.
Tansy Rayner Roberts is a writer specialising in comic fantasy. She lives in Tasmania, Australia, with a physicist. She has had two novels published, Splashdance Silver and Liquid Gold, as well as various short stories. For more information about Tansy's work, visit her webpage at www.tansyrr.com
Published by permission of the author.