The day’s first customer walked through Petch’s door. He was slender, not ugly, reasonably clean-cut: better than she was used to. But the glint in his eyes was pure sadist. He would want pain, and blood, and probably death.
They all wanted those things. What was it in this one that frightened her?
The john was already sitting down across from her. Petch smiled at him, a little lopsided to highlight that she was flesh. Up close, the johns could see the lines creasing the corners of her eyes; her tight dresslet played up the imperfection of her tits. Karson had cupped his hands around those tits the day she showed up looking for work, fifteen and lost and really, really hungry, and said, “Left one’s half again bigger than the right. Sweet jesus, they’ll pay double for you.”
The john let his unaugmented gaze travel from her eyes down to her exposed crotch, like they all did. When she figured he was halfway through gaping, Petch fidgeted a little; fidgeting was so hard for a sexbot to get right. The john watched her fingers move on the arm of the chair, watched her left knee bump into her right as she shifted her weight. She was the real deal.
He looked back up into her eyes, lingering a fraction of a second on her mouth, and Petch realized what scared her about him: he knew how to kill her. Really kill her, for good.
Petch gave herself ten seconds to feel the weight of her life pressing down. Why couldn’t she have a sweet one, just once? There were plenty of decent johns looking for connection in a world where touch was a second-class sense, hungry to fumble through awkward sex instead of getting digital feedback-loop ecstasy with somebody’s perfect avatar. A john who wanted to walk in, short and fat with mousy brown hair or tall and skinny and balding, and have a short, fat mousy girl with uneven tits take him by the hand and fuck him. Really fuck him, not just send a packet of bits over the net and stimulate his neural feed.
But Karson didn’t traffic in those johns. He catered to the ones who wanted to slice thin lines into a girl’s skin, to squeeze her throat and feel it spasm beneath their hands. Who wanted to punish her for being born to imperfect flesh. Petch had perfected the art of dropping herself at just the right time, slumping into lifelessness so naturally no john had ever suspected he didn’t kill her himself. And, conveniently, notifying tech that end game had been reached so they could get her out of there in time.
But this one knew. And he’d gotten past Karson.
Petch smiled at the john as she slid her lower jaw forward. His eyes widened and he lunged for her, but she bit down hard, sliding her right upper canine into the lower first molar and making contact. She felt his hands grab her mouth, but he was too late. She was gone, and Karson’s boys would be there in seconds, before he had time to cut her up while her blood was still warm.
Out in the real world, Petch was beautiful. Her avatar was tall and thin, with an hourglass waist and perfect tits. As soon as she left the shielding in Karson’s compound, the net read out her stream, her optical feed kicked in, and she was a normal girl in the normal world.
Not that Karson let her out much. Two or three times a week, he’d let a couple of the girls go into town with some of his tech boys. Chaperones, Karson said, to make sure nobody gave his girls any trouble.
They made it damned hard to find the keymaker.
Petch hadn’t always known about the keymaker. The first time she bolted, climbing out the bathroom window at a club, she woke up disoriented, staring at Karson’s amused face. She hadn’t known he could drop her from a distance; she thought maybe she’d fainted, and the tech boy had brought her back in. “Little girl, you can’t ever get away from me,” Karson had grinned at her. “I hold the keys to your soul.” She’d thought he was being poetic.
But the third time, when the whole damned misery of being so thoroughly owned kept her from opening her eyes right away after they’d shunted her back to life, she heard Karson say, “Tell the keymaker to reconfigure her lockdown to twenty yards. She damn near made it into the street, and the wetware ain’t worth jack if she gets her body run over.”
She’d thought he meant the expensive, illegal, military-grade backup chips he’d put in her head would be damaged, and he’d lose her. Later, she realized the soul whose keys he held was worthless to him, just necessary software pulling the strings of her lucrative flesh.
Karson let her take one of the tech boys into town to watch the latest immersive vid. Beforehand, drinking lattes in the square as they watched a particularly talented morph artist run through his show, the tech boy said, “Keymaker’s not far from here.”
Petch nearly dropped her coffee. She pulled the tech boy’s feed into focus, but he was still watching the morph artist like he hadn’t spoken.
It was a test. If Karson found out she knew about the keymaker again, he’d wipe her, and she’d have to start all over. Motherfucker never wiped any of her working memories; he left every miserable death bright in her mind, taking only the little things that made her life bearable. Like knowing there was a keymaker.
The worst part always came right after she found out again, after the bright searing hope sliced up through her and made tears sting her eyes. When the knowledge tapped inactive wetbits into resonance, like deja vu, and she realized she’d known this before, and before again, going back for years, and every time, Karson had taken it from her.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I’ll take you to him.”
Not very subtle, Karson. You got to pick them better than that if you want me to fall for it. “Who? Some new john? Karson tell you to make me work before the show?” It didn’t matter, Petch realized. Karson was going to wipe her whether she feigned innocence or not. “Ah, shit,” she said, throwing her latte to the ground. The rolling cup briefly intruded on the feeds of several nearby patrons before the café software filtered it out of its stream.
“This is the day you’ve been waiting for, Petch.” The tech boy’s avatar still watched the show with smiling interest, but he’d unlocked his stream for her. She switched him to camera input and looked at the thin, pockmarked young man across the table. He wasn’t bored, wasn’t fidgeting, none of the usual tells. He was just watching her eyes.
Petch stared at him silently. “Why do you care?” she said at last.
The tech boy smiled at her before he looked away. “Because you pay me to.”
The next ten minutes were a series of wetbit cascades, the tech boy accessing her forgotten memories until Petch thought she’d go mad.
“Karson pays for the Class II wetware, then skimps on the wipes,” the tech boy said. “He should pay for full erase capability instead of just unlinking the memories in the personal module.” He leaned forward. “Look, Petch, I’ve caught you up to speed, and now we’ve got to get moving if we’re going to be done before Karson decides we’ve been gone too long and drops you.”
“Will he drop you, too?” Petch asked.
The tech boy shook his head. “Karson buys tech loyalty the old-fashioned way, with free snatch and plenty of bling. No extra chips in our heads.” He tapped behind one ear. “No restart if we disappoint him, either. So let’s get going, okay?”
Petch stopped cold. “I can’t be paying you enough to take that kind of gamble.”
He just smiled at her.
“You’ve been helping me for a long time,” she said, realizing.
“I don’t remember you. Not much.” She had only sketchy memories of the tech boy, coming in to revive her after a john had gone, behind a desk in Karson’s office when she came in for a bitcheck.
He shrugged and looked away. “Sometimes bits get lost.”
Sometimes bits get lost. Friendship gets lost, just like that. Petch had custom wetware in her head that nobody had access to, top of the line state of the art sexbot-and-soldier fucking wetware, and sometimes bits got lost.
“Do I forget you every time he wipes me?” she asked.
He shook his head, still looking out across the square. “Just this time. Just a shitty fluke of the bits.”
But he hadn’t seemed surprised. Hadn’t asked her if she remembered him now, after the cascade.
It was hard to believe every single personal memory she had of him was lost. Maybe she hadn’t had any. Maybe he was just a puppy in love from afar, a soft heart crying over a broken, damaged flesh whore.
He was still open to her, still in the flesh, but she’d kept her stream locked to him. She had to; she needed every second she could get out here, in public, where privacy law meant people only saw her in the flesh if she let them. But memories or no, he was risking his life for her.
“Kirit,” she said. The least she could do was call him by name. He turned back to her, a question on his face, and maybe a little hope.
Petch took a deep breath and made her avatar reflect the embarrassment she felt. “I’m sorry, I can’t unlock my stream for you.” She looked straight into his eyes. They were bright blue, so vivid it was amazing they were his flesh eyes; for a moment they made him beautiful, and almost familiar.
Kirit nodded. He stared at her with his vivid, too-large eyes, and she watched them trace a line down her face, over her shoulder, as if he were brushing back a lock of her hair. Her flesh hair, long because Karson said it had to be. She kept it short in the real world.
“I see what’s underneath every day, Petch,” he finally said. “I also see what’s inside.” He tapped his head. “Karson’s never even bothered to look.” He relocked his stream, and his blond, gym-rat avatar replaced the skinny boy in Petch’s feed. “That’s why he’ll never know you’re gone.”
Petch’s heart raced. “Today is different,” she said.
He nodded. “Today we switch you out.”
Petch’s hidden account, to which she’d apparently been siphoning credits in invisible tens and twenties from her pay and from the shopping money Karson gave her for her trips to town, had reached eighty thousand last night. Sixteen years of saving, at first just because it made her feel she had some kind of control, later because she was planning her escape.
Petch didn’t remember being so close to goal, even after Kirit told her. He just shrugged and looked away. “Sometimes bits get lost,” he said again.
She had enough to buy a Class II sexbot, the kind sold as wives to rich old men, with modules that made conversation and emulated feelings, with bodies that were hard to tell from flesh; and, after that, she still had enough to pay the keymaker.
Kirit transferred payment to the café bill feed and bought two vid tickets they wouldn’t use. Two minutes after they left the café square, he turned into an alley that didn’t exist.
Somebody had a lot of savvy, locking out the public camera stream like that. No seams where the generated bricks met the ordinary ones, no feed hiccups between the streams.
Kirit’s leg stuck back through the hacked-in wall, into the range of the cameras. The leg in Petch’s feed was pale above scuffed sneakers; Kirit had turned his stream completely off. He leaned forward and stuck his face through. “Petch,” he said softly. “I know it’s hard, but you’re going to have to turn off your stream here.”
Petch balked, and he smiled at her. “It’s okay. I still know who you really are.”
“But they don’t,” she said, gesturing. “I want them to see the real me, only the real me, not that.”
“Petch, the keymaker has to drop you anyway to make the switch. And the rest aren’t going to see you at all. All they’ll see is a big, fat stream of credits coming in, and believe me, they’ll think you’re beautiful.”
She hesitated ten seconds, then twenty, until the fear took hold, that Karson might drop her and wipe her and make her wait another month, another year. Another second.
That he might drop Kirit for good, really kill him, because of her.
He had been a friend to her, the pockmarked boy with the bright blue eyes. But that wasn’t really him; the real Kirit, the one he’d created, was smooth, blond, tanned and muscled. Now that she’d seen his avatar, it was rude of her to think of him as anything else, as the accidental flesh he’d been born into.
Yet she was glad he’d kept his avatar eyes the same, beautiful blue.
Petch switched off her stream and took Kirit’s outstretched hand.
“You’ll miss it at first,” the keymaker told her. “Your old body. But soon enough you’ll get used to the new one.”
Petch watched the sexbot wetware in her old body wake up on the platform beside her, watched the keymaker check its vitals. Her old body looked around the room, taking in Petch, the keymaker, Kirit.
Kirit was watching Petch.
“I’ve got to take her back,” he said. “Before Karson drops her.”
Petch’s new belly soared like a roller coaster. No one would ever drop her again. Kirit smiled at her, but his eyes were somber.
“Does she think she’s me?” Petch asked. “Will she pass?” What she meant was, are you going to survive this?
“I copied in your memories of the work, your name, your personal details,” the keymaker said. “As long as no one questions her too closely, she’ll pass.”
“Can she fidget?” Petch asked. If the johns complained, Kirit would die.
The short, fat sexbot with uneven tits bumped her knees together in answer, tapping her fingers on the platform padding, wiggling her toes, smiling Petch’s lopsided smile.
“Karson will never suspect,” Kirit said. “But I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll miss you, too,” Petch said. And though it felt like she’d only met him today, she knew she would. But the keymaker was wrong; she wouldn’t miss her old body at all. It had never been real; this body, now, this body was real. Tall, thin, with an hourglass waist and perfect tits.
But Kirit just kept staring at her eyes.
This story originally appeared in Mirror Shards volume 1.