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Losing Face

By J.R.H. Lawless
Mar 4, 2020 · 2,999 words · 11 minutes

Photo by Alan Hardman via Unsplash.

From the author: This funny little SF short story, set in the same Universe and at the same time as my debut novel, ALWAYS GREENER, asks the question: We all know revolutions can start with a bang. But can they also start with a moustache?


The noble art of losing face

may one day save the human race

     and turn into eternal merit

what weaker minds would call disgrace.

 

  • A Grook by Piet Hein (1905-1996)

 

 

 

My wife, back when I still had one, used to say, “Your stubbornness will be the end of you, Andy Janus”. But she was wrong — it was my moustache.

It was no everyday, couldn’t-be-bothered-to-shave bit of upper lip fuzz. My moustache was a work of art: a full, lustrous Imperial masterpiece, its up-curved ends tickling my earlobes. Like Scrooge’s ghosts before them, the follicle-stimulating nanites had worked their magic over a single night.

My first blurred thought that morning was that the bedsheets had caught around my face. After a moment’s blind panic, I remembered the previous night’s drunken decision, and rushed across the bedroom of our tiny Prague apartment. The dressing cameras flared to life when I reached the wardrobe. A second later, my Augmented Reality picture stood before me, pot-bellied and bedraggled in his frayed black boxers. At least Jitka hadn’t made it home from her night shift yet, and didn’t have to see me like this. What the hell had I been drinking?

Too much, that much was certain. Even by my recent standards. But whatever it was, it had made the sorry details of my life terribly clear. The daily drudge at the RedCorp offices downtown. Studying the faces of strangers, and programming mother AI to produce facial recognition software. AI to spawn program children, then make them compete, keeping only the fittest and destroying the weak.

A gruesome thought, but you couldn’t let yourself get too emotional. Not even halfway through the second bottle of the evening. It was only work.

Maybe that’s why I’d been drinking so much. I felt so useless, so anonymous. Alone with the AI all day at work, watching them spawn programs I no longer understood. Alone at home the rest of the time, while Jitka worked night shifts at GALILEO.

The ethanol clarity had shown me the truth. I needed something radical. Something wild. I needed to show I was different, an individual, not just another faceless code jockey.

I remembered the drunken laughter as I pasted facial accessories onto my AR simulacrum, one after another. I needed something both outlandish and regal. Something that would stop people dead in their tracks.

Then there it was. The curved lines of the cheek-embracing Imperial moustache matched my round face and balding brown pate. And I had everything at hand to make the proud AR image a reality.

Reprogramming a can of anti-balding nanite paste is no easy feat when you're as drunk as I was. But the lean, mean, moustache machines had done a stellar job. Not a single hair washed away in the steaming shower, and the Imperial curves were still perfect after I’d dried.

Laughing at myself, I grabbed my shaver to put an end to it. It was halfway towards my face before I paused.

It seemed a shame to shave it off. A crime, even. This moustache was a message from a forgotten age. When people still made things they could hold in their hands. When life had a meaning.

And, despite the hangover playing bass on my optical nerves, I knew drunk me was right. This moustache was exactly what I needed to bring myself out of this funk.

I put the shaver down. Chuckling the whole time, I grabbed a quick yeast porridge for breakfast, and got ready for work. Only my best indigo business suit would do for a day like this. Outside, commuters filled the Libeň District walkways, all the way past the flea market to the tram station. But at least the breeze coming in off the river cleared away the worst of the day’s smog. The rustle of wind in my proud new facial hair felt like the promise of a fresh beginning.

At the station, my fellow passengers, engrossed in their AR worlds, ignored me and my moustache. Just another day on the tram to the RedCorp offices, down by Vyšehrad Cemetery. I booted up my own AR interface and spent the commute watching the highlights from my favourite reality show, "The Grass Is Greener". There was only one interruption, when the tram’s payment system wouldn’t validate my payment. I had to buy a ticket with the physical coins I kept for the homeless and buskers before I could board the tram.

As usual, the ride was over before I knew it. Smiling under my bobbing moustache, I waited for the flow of automated vehicles to pause, crossed the street, and pushed open the door to the RedCorp offices.

Well, I pushed, at least. Unlike every other day for the past ten years, the security lock did not release. The door refused to open, leaving me standing there in my best indigo three-piece suit like a hirsute fool.

I stood back and glared at the traitorous black nub of the door’s facial recognition sensor, high above. I moved back and forth, waving my arms and trying to trigger it, but I was wasting my time.

It was the moustache. I’d taken my little act of anachronistic rebellion too far. My mother AI had bred software so specialised it could not see past my unheard-of Imperial to identify the jowly face beneath.

Some co-workers I recognised brushed past me in a small crowd, eager to get in out of the cold. The door opened for them without the slightest resistance, and I moved in behind them, relieved.

“Hey, Bára!” I called out, stepping forwards. “Could you hold the door? You wouldn’t believe what’s happened to me.”

The white-suited HR lady at the rear of the group turned to face me. She stared in silence for a moment, eyes twitching in her AR overlay.

“You must have the wrong building, sir,” she said at last, with a slight shake of her head. “You don’t belong here.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but the heavy clunk of the door’s lock cut off the words.

Other colleagues, some familiar and some not, streamed around me. Everyone ignored the strange man with the weird facial hair standing on the sidewalk. None of their Friends apps recognised me either. The almighty data labelled me a stranger — whatever their own eyes might tell them to the contrary.

I was faceless in a world run by blind trust in the eyes of machines.

Ten minutes of stunned wandering later, I sat at a park bench, next to the cemetery. A proud statue to the heroes of a fake medieval manuscript loomed behind it. It was as fitting a counterpoint to the day’s unreality as I could hope for.

What the hell was I supposed to do now? Go back home to shave the beast off? I'd have to walk all the way back to Libeň. Without facial recognition, I had no way of paying for transport. I’d used all my physical coins for the trip to work. And Jitka would be fast asleep by now. Even if I called to wake her up, she’d only curse me for a fool and tell me I was getting what I deserve.

My stomach grumbled, reminding me how long-ago breakfast was. I had no way of paying for lunch either, not even from one of the yeast-paste vending machines lining the city streets.

Lost in self-pity, I didn’t notice the ragged figure until it sat down on the bench next to me.

“Got a coin to spare, sir?” rumbled a deep voice from somewhere under the man’s layers of coats and thick black beard. “It’s a cold morning, Could use a hot drink.”

A shiver ran through me, and a chill wind swept through the square.

“You and me both.” I pulled my jacket collar up around my neck. “And I’m sorry, but I don’t have anything to give you. You wouldn’t believe the day I’ve had.”

The ragged man nodded, taking it all in stride. I guess expectations are one of the first things you learn to manage on the street. But this fellow seemed friendly enough.

“Try me,” said the man, with a disarming smile. “I doubt it’s anything I haven’t heard before.”

And somehow, I told him everything. He was a great listener, and I needed to talk.

“Oh, a bit like Anet then,” came his reply, when I paused for air. “For me, it was an ISP ban after a couple of bad hacks. But Anet got cut off because of facial recognition too, after a faulty car sensor left her covered in scars. We get all sorts, you know.”

I tried not to gawk, but his words took me by complete surprise. “Are you saying there’s a whole community of people like—” I was about to say “us”, but the word caught in my throat. “But how do you survive?” I asked instead.

“We make do. And the rent is competitive,” he added with a deep chuckle. “It’s not far. Want me to show you?”

I had my life waiting for me, somewhere. But I was curious. “If you don’t mind… Sorry, I don’t even know your name.” It was the first time in forever I’d had to ask someone their name. Their public profile always told me everything I needed to know. But it felt good.

“Call me Karel,” said the man, smiling once again. “Come, follow me.”

He led me through the park and down cement steps. There was a low alcove set in the wall surrounding the Basilica. A rusted iron grill blocked the way at the bottom of the stairs, and I almost turned around then and there. But then my guide pulled out an honest-to-God ballpoint pen. He poked into the metalwork to flip open a hidden latch.

The small gate swung open with surprising ease, given how rusty it was. But none of it was amazing as that blue ballpoint pen. I hadn’t seen a physical pen since childhood.

And so, when Karel urged me on into the dark, sloping tunnel, I was more amazed than scared.

The gate clicked shut behind us, and the temperature rose as I followed the larger man down the musty, cement incline. The darkness didn’t last long. We soon turned arrived at a cheap interior house door, lit by a single naked bulb. I figured we must be somewhere under the cemetery itself by now.

With one last encouraging smile, Karel swung open the door, and we entered. The stark white light of the bulb gave way to the flickering glow of the fire burning in the middle of the large vaulted room beyond.

Open fire. Another forgotten memory from ancient childhood. I was so amazed, it took me a moment to register the rest of the football pitch-sized vault. The gleaming ceiling extractor pumping the smoke from the fire out to unseen vents. The people huddled around the fire. Men, women, and even children, all wearing a motley mix of donated clothing. And in the dimly-lit shadows, their dwellings. Rows of bunks, hanging curtain partitions, and an eating area. There were also worktables covered in computer parts, and a seating area with low lamps and rows of books. Real paper books.

It was like walking into the hidden cavern of some lost tribe time had passed by.

Karel and I walked up to the group around the fire. Sunken eyes glanced at me out of inscrutable faces, but there was no aggression there. My hulking guide sat on an overturned plastic drum, and I claimed a rickety metal stool. All in all, a good thirty people had set up home under these ancient bricks. Some forgotten crypt, basilica cellar, or abandoned subway tunnel, maybe.

Karel’s friends watched us sit, in silence. Their eyes lingered on me for only a moment before they resumed what they were doing: mending clothes, tinkering with scuffed home appliances, or simply gazing into the ever-shifting flames. Nobody asked my name. Nobody seemed to care.

A delicious, bready aroma wafted over from the glowing ovens at the end of the vault. My stomach rumbled. Maybe I could get a bite of lunch out of this adventure before I left. But for the time being, my curiosity was even greater than my hunger.

“So, you all live here?” I leaned in as I spoke, stretching my cold hands towards the fire. “All the time, I mean? Or are there other places like this?”

A sharp-faced woman with a wicked scar across her mouth put down the device she’d been tinkering with, and frowned at me.

“Not in Prague. Or anywhere else in the Czech Republic, as far as we know. We’ve heard of communities in big cities around the world, but staying connected isn’t our forte. It's our blessing, and our curse.”

She wasn't kidding. Without identity validation, you couldn't do anything in our ever-connected, augmented world. You couldn’t order a food delivery. You couldn’t buy anything online. You couldn’t make a call, or pay taxes.

Alright, it might not be all bad. And it didn't affect me. I could shave off my fateful Imperial, and tell work I’d been off sick. But these folks hadn’t seen the inside of a biometric scan booth for years — if ever.

“How can you survive like this?” I hoped the blunt question wouldn’t offend. If I did anything to make these strange folk violent, nobody would ever know what happened to me.

But they were clearly used to dealing with much worse than tactless questions.

“We make do,” grumbled Karel in a low voice next to me. “Charity donations from the few places that haven’t shut down yet. Panhandling. And the odd under-the-table job for those who can get one. It’s enough to keep us fed and warm.”

“What about your families, though?” I asked, thinking of Jitka in bed back in the Libeň apartment, thinking I was work — if she thought of me at all. The way she’d been talking lately, I doubted it. “Don’t you have spouses? Children?”

Karel stayed silent, but the lady — Anet, I remembered — smiled, her face beautiful in the dancing firelight. Scar and all. “Some of us do. My Adam is taking his nap over there.” She hooked a thumb back towards a section of the vault partitioned off with purple woven rugs. “But others choose not to bring children into an environment like this. We don’t judge, so long as they make the break clean, and leave their loved ones better off. Everyone has different needs, and brings different things to the community.”

“What do you mean by ‘better off’, though?”

For the first time, the faces around the fire looked uncomfortable. “Well, it depends on the situation,” replied Anet, after a pause. “But a life insurance payoff can go a long way in today’s economy. And dropping off the grid is the best way to convince the insurance companies you've died. Nobody can imagine living disconnected anymore.”

There was something in what she was saying. Employment at RedCorp included mandatory company life insurance. They deducted it from every pay cheque, with Jitka as my sole beneficiary.

And half the reason my wife took the night shift job at GALILEO was so we wouldn't have to spend too much time together. To end the fights about why I was so mopey, why I thought I was wasting my life. Why living with her wasn’t enough anymore.

She’d be sad at the thought I’d passed on, I was sure. Moderately sure. But she'd certain be a lot happier with a fat insurance payoff than a nominal husband she couldn’t stand anymore.

I could do it. It would be so easy to send her a suicide note, and wish her luck. But what about me? Would life be any better with these people, even if I found the courage to embrace it?

I sat, staring at the live flames. Maybe, for once, this shouldn’t be about me. Looking around the squalid vault, seeing the way these folks lived I knew that, if I stayed, I could make their lives a lot better.

“I can see you’re getting by now, but I have a few suggestions.”

Young Adam’s blue eyes opened wide as manhole covers as we spilled our plunder across the dining table.

“How did you find so much food?” he gasped. There were dozens of tubes of yeast-paste, along with a full set of flavouring canisters. Cartons of dehydrated milk powder, some sweet treats, and even a box of fresh apple slices.

I smiled, peeling off my indigo jacket. The short-sleeved shirt beneath was a grimy, sweaty grey by now, but I wore it like a badge of honour.

“All up and down Vnislavova,” I said, with a chuckle. “You need to ask the vending machines politely, that's all.” The boy stared at me in confusion, mingled with wonder. Grinning, I handed him a chocolate bar before sitting down at the table. “When you spend years working with facial recognition software, you learn a trick or two. It’s easy to get a simple machine to register you as a stock quality tester, if you know how.”

The entire community had gathered around by then. Someone pulled out a bottle of something eye-wateringly alcoholic. Someone else fired up a cannibalised public speaker device. Soon everyone was smiling, dancing, and eating to their heart’s content. Probably for the first time in years.

“Here’s to our brave Quality Testers!” cheered one of the dancers by the fire. Soon everyone picked up the chant, shouting, “Long live the QTs!”. Including me.

My moustache was the end of me, it's true. And the start of something new. It took me losing face before I could finally find my place in the world.

This story originally appeared in Third Flatiron Press Hidden Histories Anthology.


Hidden histories
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Losing Face, Third Flatiron Press "Hidden Histories" Anthology

Third Flatiron Anthologies feature multiple winners of science fiction and fantasy reader polls and recommended reading lists. Hidden Histories is a new speculative fiction anthology with the themes of alternate and secret (shadow) histories.

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J.R.H. Lawless

J.R.H. Lawless writes Science Fiction full of dark humour and hope, set in a consistent Universe.