3,000 words

It’s been a whole month since anyone’s seen Vera, and the circumstances of us finally seeing her this weekend are going to be ultra grody-odd, so I deliberate forever doing my Face. In the end I decide to go subtle: an airbrushed conglom of three of my most flattering private snaps, plus Holly Rexroat-Carrow’s lips and Sofia Lawless’s cheekbones from that Vogue shoot she did on the Moon. Nothing too recent, nothing that’ll make Vera feel like she is way, way unsynched and missing out on all kinds of hot shit. Which she has been, obviously.

I do the rest of my Face the same way, kind of sous radar. I set my wardrobe to cycle four or five outfits, one of which includes the Chanel inside-out jacket Vera gifted me a week before the accident. It is now kind of gauche, so she better appreciate the gesture like whoa. Boob-wise I go small, because obviously Aline is going to be there, too, and she always goes chesty and is way way more than welcome to the unsolicited profile taps, thanks.

Lastly, I prune the digital cloud of updates shuffling around my shoulders. A few instant-regret purchases, plus the many many snaps of me and Aline and Estelle wearing our wetsuits in Venice, disappear in a drizzle of code. The result looks a little barren. But barren can also be construed as, like, minimalist, which may or may not be coming back now.

Either way, I am not going to be rubbing Vera’s nose in the fact that a viral strike took her Face offline and she is stuck hiding from the world for at least another week according to technicians. Aline probably will, but whatever.

§

Vera’s parents are really fucking rich, if I didn’t mention that. As in, rich enough to rent a reefhouse on some secluded beach for Vera’s first weekend out of neural recovery, and also send me and Aline there in a big black shiny autocab to spend it with her. When said cab pulls up outside my house, Aline leans out the open door with Curacao in a martini glass, because she likes to pretend she’s an alcoholic, and welcomes me to her chariot.

“Yeah, strump, okay, strump,” I say, but when I climb in and see the chiller bar and the curved screen and the plush upholstery and all, I sort of have to agree. Me and Aline swap kisses. Her Face looks total wattage, as usual, wearing a high concept summer dress that is entirely foaming water, and keeping with the theme our Venice vacay snaps are ribboning off her in big graceful arcs.

Which I think is like, whoa, spinal cringe, because Vera’s parents bought us the sub-orbital tickets, and Vera had been wanting to dive Venice for-fucking-ever, and I felt somewhat Judas doing it without her.

“Are you sure you want to be, like, shouting those vacay snaps at her?” I say. “She might be suicidal enough already.”

“Bessandra. We are going to be there to support her.” Aline’s facial is painful pretty—between you and me, I think it’s a full model blend, like, none of her in it at all—and her Naufrage Blue TM eyes are full of sympathy. “But we are not responsible for her highbrowsing on deep webs and getting fucked up by some grody-odd virus. That was just straight-up unclutch of her to do right before we were supposed to go to Venice.”

But Aline wasn’t chatting her that night, so she doesn’t really know the extent of this grody-odd virus shit. I was.

§

The reefhouse is made of slick purple coral and looks like a big twisty conch, grown from a designer geneprint and way way chic, but me and Aline are both a bit quiet when we get out of the cab. Instead of, you know, being watted out of our minds to be weekending in a reefhouse with our dearly missed best/second-best friend.

I met Vera when we were ten, meaning we already had Faces, and neither of us knew Aline until high school. Although apparently her and Vera did kindergarten together—they can’t remember each other, so whatever. Basically, none of us have ever seen each other without a Face. The only people I have seen without a Face are those small, dim, barely there people who dive the trash or rap loco religious tracts outside 7–11.

Then Vera steps out onto the porch, holding a Bacardi Slush, and waves a familiar wave. “Hey, strumpets, you coming in or what now?”

My heart seriously lozenges in my throat, partly because of how good it is to hear her voice in actual airtalk and partly because she is so, so brave to strut outside like everything’s glacial when it is so obviously not.

I mean, her facial, or I guess her small f face, looks like her, because she’s pretty enough to never toy with it much anyway. But now it’s all wan and colorless and loaded with pores, and I think her nose is bigger, too. Her eyes seem smaller and not so shiny, and they’re brown, which they haven’t been for at least a few years.

Her hair is also brown, and totally lank, hanging off her like something dead instead of style-shifting or turning into digital snakes or even just doing a standard Pantene Ripple TM. And her swimsuit body is like, oh no. Hip-to-waist ratio’s all fucked up and there are little rolls of flab under her arms and around her middle.

But the worst thing is that she has no update cloud. As in none. The space around her shoulders and her head is totally empty of Trottr notifications, food snaps, Whispas, party-streams, profile taps, purchases, and everything else. I can’t even see my reassuring BFFF status that always pops up over her head. There is no way of knowing where Vera has been for the past month, if she has been drinking Bacardi Slushes the whole time or mixing it up with Lemogrenades, what she’s been buying, what she’s been wearing, who she’s been chatting. It’s all this horrible gaspy void.

It looks like she’s been dead for a month, and I can’t think what to say. Fortunately, Aline takes the pressure off me by doing a shatter-glass squeal and bounding up the steps to hug her, Face spouting these big cartoon tears. “You are an inspiration, Vera. An inspiration. And as soon as they fix you up, I am going to get you so synched, and we are going to party so hard, and we’re all going to look so fucking wattage, okay, love?”

There’s a glimmer in Vera’s brown eyes, and it takes me one to realize they are actual tears, like the saline kind. “Oh, Aline,” she says. “I missed the shit out of you.” She smiles, then catches my eye through Aline’s cascade of updates. “Hey, strump. How’s you?”

“Hey, V,” I say, coming up the steps. “You know, um, minimalism may or may not be back. So there’s that?”

Vera laughs, which sounds really good in my ears. We airkiss, but for some reason I don’t quite manage to actually hug her, maybe because I’m not sure what it’s going to feel like. Aline’s already bounced past us into the reefhouse, gushing about organic architecture and the fact that there is a minibar.

Me and Vera follow her in, and as long as I keep her in the periphs I figure I can make an effort at pretending everything’s normal.

§

Vera says we should do the beach while there’s still sun, so we head out the back door, which shutters shut behind us, and down to the pale gray sand. Me and Aline are justifiably worried about people seeing her. Not everyone digisigned a no-snaps waiver in sight of her lawyer parents, and some asshole taking snaps of her without her Face would be, obviously, disastrous.

“I’ve been here since yesterday,” Vera says, resettling the strap of her swimsuit. “It’s absolutely zero tremor. Like, there’s one Finnish family with little kids and then an old man who does maintenance shit.”

“Oh, good,” Aline says, but she looks somewhat disappointed and drops a cup size when my head is turned.

We pick a spot on the smoothest stretch of beach and camp it, unrolling our mats and stretching out. Me and Aline do our best to get Vera synched the old-fashioned way, like, telling her about how DaLia is now dating Sedge Vandermeer, and she’s rigged her Face to project his facial beside hers when they’re not actually together so she looks like some kind of two-headed monster but it’s love so whatever. We do not mention Venice, and Vera does not bring it up, so it will probably stay submarined until everyone’s drunk.

Eventually Vera wants to swim, so she sloshes out into the waves while me and Aline elect lifeguarding instead. Vera doesn’t seem to mind going solo. In fact, she looks really fucking blissy just dashing around out there, laughing through a mouthful of water when the tide bowls her over. Her skin has this ruddy thing going on, which actually looks sort of hot, and her smile is not as white, but seems bigger somehow.

“She’s medded,” Aline concludes. “Like, sky-high.”

“You think so?” I say, because I’ve seen Vera medded and usually she’s more sluggish.

“Um, has to be?” Aline shakes her perfect head. “Nobody just, like, bounces that kind of trauma.”

Vera wades back up to the beach, wringing water out of her hair, and it reminds me of something I can’t quite stick a finger on. “Come on,” she calls. “The water’s warm, you imps. And you owe me for Venice!”

Me and Aline swap looks.

“It smelled really bad,” I say. “The whole time. There was a heatwave.”

“Serves you right,” Vera says, but grinning.

Then we all go splash around for a bit, and it is sort of funtime, even for Aline, at least until her hair, which was doing this big wind-tunnel look, freezes up trying to interact with the water physics. And I get my finger on what Vera reminds me of: ancient clips of yours truly as a little kid, before I got my Face, running around wild with an ugly gappy smile big as the Moon.

§

We go back to the reefhouse when the water gets cold, then me and Vera hop in the hot tub while Aline raids the minibar for mojito supplies. With a big billowy cloud of steam between us, it’s easy to imagine Vera’s got her updates and her perfect hair, which in turn makes it easier for me to realtalk her. Which is my duty as first best friend. Sure, Aline’s way wattage and way funtime, but I am Vera’s confidante.

“So how actually are you, V?” I ask. “No need for brave facial, love. Be serious, okay?”

“I’m actually good,” she says, tipping her head back. “Now that I’m out of neural recovery, really good. The hospital food was shit.” She grins and flicks some water at me.

This is not how I was envisioning it. I thought she’d admit how miserable she’s been all month, maybe cry a little, and I could comfort her and reassure her that when her Face is back it will be like it never ever left. I did not envision her so blissy about everything. Maybe a few mojitos are needed first.

“You’re being so brave about the situation,” I say, because I didn’t have a backup plan. “And when your Face is back online, it’ll be like nothing ever happened. You will forget this month so fast.”

“Not exactly, Bess.” She raises an eyebrow, which is way furrier than an eyebrow has any right to be.

“Not exactly, what?”

“If they get my Face running again, it won’t have any of my old stuff,” Vera says with a shrug. “That’s all gone. Permagone.”

She says it so nonchalant that for a second I do not even understand, and then when I do, I know this is selfish, but the first thing I think is how her Face, or at least her update cloud, was like 35 percent me from all the party-streams and snaps and curated convos we shared, and now all of that is gone and she doesn’t even care. I could slap her until I remember that she is recovering from a serious viral strike and probably medded sky-high. Maybe she should not be drinking mojitos.

“Why’re you saying if?” I ask. “Why if?”

“When,” Vera corrects.

I narrow my eyes. “V. That night you caught the virus, do you remember what you chatted me? Looking for . . .”

“Mojitos!” Aline announces. “Except with no mint. So, rum and lime juice.” She hands us our drinks, then sticks the handle of rum and the plastic bottle of mix and the few remaining Bacardi Slushes into the little floating thermos that is bobbing around with us in the water. She slips into the tub between me and Vera and sends me a Whispa at the same time, like, why are you AMAing her about the night she got viral, she does not want to think about that right now!

I do not want to reply, so instead I hold up my not-mojito. “To Vera’s health, right? Um, salud.”

“Yeah, whatever, salud,” Aline says, but she holds up her glass and grins. Vera holds hers up, too, but doesn’t look at me when we drink.

§

The hot water and cold drinks do their tingly headrush thing, and pretty soon all three of us are turvy and blissy and laughing. We make a drinking game out of the floating thermos, as in whoever it floats to via the current has to drink, and for some reason it keeps coming back around to Aline, and she’s kicking her feet at it like no, no, no, you evil little robot, and Vera is hiccupping how she does when she laughs too much, and it feels almost like we’re drinking for the first time again.

Me and Aline apologize to Vera, ultra-blubbery, for the Venice thing. Then, still in the repentant spirit, Aline confesses that she was still hooking up with Thierry when I started dating him, but I already knew and never much liked him anyway. Vera tells us how her mom ordered her a bunch of physical makeup from some specialty place, but she had no clue what to do with it and ended up smearing it all over her hospital room’s wall, pretending to suffer a delusion where she believed she was Pablo Picasso.

Before long Aline flicks out, sliding down the side of the hot tub and mumbling about how she way way loves us, which is sweet. We get her out and nest her in some towels on the couch, propped on her side just in case. Then it’s just me and V and we’re drunk.

“What’s it feel like not to have your Face?” I say. “Besides horrible.”

We’re in the kitchen now because we’re looking for acetaminophen. You crush one and mix it in a glass of water and you wake up without a hangover, or at least Aline thinks so.

“It was only odd for a few days,” Vera says, scraping around on the shelves, up on tiptoe. “And then you feel . . . light.”

“Light how?”

“Like a balloon,” Vera says. “Up, up, and away, strump.” She turns around, twisting a fistful of the fabric of her shirt in a way a Face probably would not allow. “You want to try?”

It seems really obvious to me, now that I’m drunk and I remember back to that night when she chatted me. Maybe I’ve known this whole time.

“You got the virus on purpose.”

“Yeah. Did.” Vera looks relieved to say it. She smiles her unwhite smile and it makes me so angry. “Looking for a way to be real again, remember?”

“I thought you were looking for fucking fashion leaks,” I snap. “Thought you tapped something bad by accident. Everyone was so gutted for you, and worried—”

“You want to try?” Vera repeats, ignoring me as she does when she’s drunk. “Not a full deletion. Just a flicker.” She sinks down onto the glassy kitchen floor, tugging me down by the wrists. Her bare skin is warm and well textured even though I thought it would be cold and goopy for some reason.

“But don’t you love us still?” I ask, the mads transmuting to sads all at once. If I was Aline I’d be throwing the cartoon tears by the bucket. Instead I just feel like I’ve got hard plastic in my throat. “Everything we did together, V. It’s gone, V?”

“I’ve still got it where it counts,” Vera says, pulling me into one of those sloppy hugs that usually only happen after one of us throws up. She feels softer than normal.

“Like, you offsite stored it somewhere?” I sniff, only half-joking.

“Just try it for a bit,” Vera says. “Just us two.”

She shows me how to get there, down under all the masked protocols and shit, past all these blistery red pop-ups asking me what exactly I am doing. The override is so simple, just a little off/on toggle.

“That’s why I had to use the virus,” Vera says. “Too easy to go back, otherwise. That’s what other people were saying.”

The toggle revolves around us on the kitchen floor, a glowy little satellite. I don’t know if I can do it.

“Minimalism might be back in,” Vera says. “Right?”

“Yeah, strump, whatever, strump.” I take a deep breath. “Hold my hand, would you?”

I know I can’t preview before I do it, because if I preview I’ll see myself looking so ugly and lonely and small and anonymous I will not be able to go through with it. Instead I try to think about how Vera looked in the waves, how I looked as a kid.

Holding hands with her, I switch off my Face. Everything dissolves around me, all my updates, all my streams, all my little bits of manufactured me, and it feels almost like coming up for air.

Originally published in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (July 2016).

Rich Larson was born in West Africa, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in Spain, and now writes from Ottawa, Canada. His short work has been featured on io9, translated into Polish and Italian, and appears in numerous Year’s Best anthologies as well as in magazines such as Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Interzone, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and Apex. Find him at richwlarson.tumblr.com.

1 Comment

  1. I really loved this story. Good job.

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