by J.P. Linnartz
A literary sci-fi short previously published in Dreaming Robot Press’s 2018 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide
The sirens screamed all night, but the men with guns never came.
It’s been one day, and I’ve finally stepped out of the city’s dark places. I’m in the middle of a Lowtown sidewalk, gawking at a flickering sign that reads, “Face the World!” while strangers—normal people—walk by, unable or unwilling to face me.
My heart hammers, and I can hardly breathe. Black bars encage the window, but behind them I see faces so large that they’re impossible to take in. Faces glowing with warmth, faces with distinct eyelashes, faces with full lips that surely serve pleasant voices.
Above the faces, the sign shimmers in the brightest colors: electric pink, red, green, and blue, as if I’ve never seen true colors until now.
“Beautiful,” I say so loudly that someone could’ve heard me, but no one stops to share my awe.
I’ve finally found it, after searching day and night: a store of faces.
It’s all I’ve wanted since I learned I don’t have one. A face. To be seen without making other people’s faces turn ugly. “Revulsion” is what Ava called it. “Revulsion, or apathy.”
I want to grab passersby just to see if they notice—if they can look at me—but I don’t. Amidam said not to get noticed. Keep my hood up, he said. Men with guns can appear in seconds.
I inch closer to “Face the World!” and fall into its shadow. Instead of entering, I turn my back on the giant faces to rub my palms on the coat that Amidam gave me. I never knew it could be so cold outside, and my hands are so pale and gray, far from invisible even in the shadows. Someone might still spot me and report me to the exterminators. I stand out—that’s what Amidam said before he told me to run—and I won’t be safe until I have a face of my own.
I can see down Wall Street to the Whitewalled City looming over Lowtown. Now that I’m here, I’m wondering if Amidam is wrong. Would I be safer in the dark places, where men with guns and exterminators don’t seem to find me? Getting a face is dangerous: it means getting seen. I’d have to speak to a stranger. I’ve never spoken to anyone besides Amidam and Ava.
Darkly outlined eyes watch over Lowtown from the horizon of the white Wall. It’s a sign that says, “Eyes show the soul. What’s your soul like?” On schedule, the eyes wink and the words change. “Visit Face-O-Rama today for your soul-lift.”
The wind blows, and I pull the hood tighter. Anonymous trash skitters on the sidewalk and rises in eddies beside the doorway as if possessed by secret magic, and the storefront whispers promises of sharing just a little of that magic with me.
With one last look to the Wall, I know I have to risk it. Maybe the people in the shop are like Amidam.
From across the street, a bent man no taller than me lifts a stick into the air and cries, “Behold! A lamb for the slaughter!” He’s looking right at me, but no one else notices.
I act at once. Flinging the door open, I rush into a lobby and halt so hard that my shoes squeak on the tiles.
Behind a high counter sits a fleshy woman with smooth skin and bright hair. She shouts, “Just a minute!”
An adult. How silly to hope for young people. Amidam and Ava are not fully grown, but maybe adults can be nice, too? Better, maybe this one is old enough to know about me. “A relic” is what Ava called me, “from before,” but she didn’t know much because she and Amidam were imported from a country where things like me never existed. Where everyone always had faces.
I look over my shoulder as if hoping to see Amidam cheering from the Wall. He said the exterminators didn’t care about him and Ava and the others who live and work in the Wall itself, where he found me in “eye-ber-nation.”
“Well, isn’t that a lovely coat! What fur! Is it real?”
I snap my head around to see the woman looking right me—at least, right at the coat that swallows my body.
“Yes,” I say. “Of course it’s real.” I pat it and wonder what an unreal coat would be like. “It’s very real!” A year ago I couldn’t even talk, not until Amidam opened my mouth, but I’ve known lots of words for a long time.
“Well, how lovely! I had myself a real pelt like that as a girl, I did, though maybe mine fit better. Now, what’s your order?” She looks for my face under my hood, but her eyes rove back and forth. She squints. “Here for the Christmas package, eh?”
I don’t know what that means, so I say, “A face, please.”
“Oh, sweetheart!” She laughs as she slides off her stool and pulls open a gate that’s built into the counter. “You are too much. Come on back.”
She’s much taller than me, about Ava’s height, and she takes my hand before I realize what’s happening. “Come along,” she says, guiding me beyond the counter just like Amidam used to do in the Wall’s narrow passages.
“Oh, my!” she exclaims as we enter the space beyond the counter. But she’s not gaping at the two shining, mechanical arms that hang over two misshapen cots. She’s staring at my hand. “Your skin! It’s so…”
I try to pull my hand free, but she doesn’t let go. I take a deep breath and prepare to run.
But she gives my hand a squeeze and leads me to one of the funny cots. “Youths these days, I swear, you all dye yourselves in such strange ways! Up you go. Tell me just what kind of face you want. A new nose? Chin? Cheekbones? Orbits?”
I exhale and wiggle onto the cot-like chair. So far, so good. I survey the mechanical arm and the contraptions that stick out alongside my seat. My stomach clenches. “So you’ll really help me? Get a face?”
The woman chuckles. “A full Christmas package, then, is it? Have you picked out your components? Do you want ’em at once, or piecemeal?”
“A full face. Fast.”
“Well, pull off that coat and let’s see what we’ve got…”
I don’t want to take it off even though I’m beginning to sweat.
The woman pushes back my hood. “Oh—you’ve shaved off your hair! If that just doesn’t do it.”
I don’t tell her that I’ve been awake for a year and have yet to grow hair.
“Do I hear a customer?” someone shouts, making me jump. A second person doubles the danger.
“Get in here, Rika! Kids are just so silly these days, aren’t they? This one has gone and dyed herself gray and shaved herself bare even though it’s winter!”
I glance back to see a woman with hair stacked up high, braided and coiled and multicolored. Like a snake.
Rika’s eyes bulge. “Jeepers and shivers! What the heck is that?”
I squirm back into my seat and don’t say anything.
“Oh, you’re awful! Kids are always experimenting—be nice!”
“Seriously, Gin, where’s her face?”
Gin leans forward, getting that look that some of the Wall workers get when trying to see me: narrow eyelids, slack jaws, pupils darting as if their gaze keeps slipping to either side. That’s one of three reactions I get from the workers. The second kind ignores me altogether, and the third hates me right away. I’ve got Types 1 and 3 here.
“Shut up, will you, and get me the microscopal viewer?” Gin sits back on a stool and rubs her eyes. “I’m having a hard time seeing…like my eyes have gone all wonky.”
“Fine, Miss Wonky Eyes.”
Rika wheels something up beside me just as the mechanical arm lowers, and Gin connects the two. “Now, stay still, hon, so I can analyze your face.” Gin presses her forehead against what I can only guess is the “viewer” and aims a cylinder at the place my face should be. “You haven’t told us yet what you want—be specific, now. AZ500 has been popular with girls your age. You eleven? Thirteen? But that’s not a good reason to get the AZ series, ’cause this is your chance to be unique!”
I can’t tell her my age because I don’t know it. I think she wants me to give her a code to get a face. “AY500?”
“Don’t get fresh—”
“Sorry, could I just have your face? And three-colored hair like yours?”
Gin pulls back from her viewing device and laughs. “Three color? You mean my two colors and the roots that’re showing? Girl, you are too much, I swear, I’ll have to call the authorities just to rein you in!”
“Please, don’t!” Authorities means men with guns!
This makes Gin laugh all the more, but in a reflection, I see Rika cross her arms. “Maybe we should,” Rika says. “See? She’s actually worried—”
“Jeepers, Rika, take your pills, would you, ’cause you’re being a real pit-suck.” Gin plants her hands on her hips. “Just see if you can’t make this out. The viewer might need calibrating.”
Rika is much skinnier than Gin, as if kindness is a function of size.
“Sweetie, Rika’s gonna take a look ’cause, honestly, I’m having trouble finding your face. Never had nothing like this happen. But let’s go ahead and program your destination, ’kay?” Gin stands on my other side and touches her face as she speaks. “This here’s a Christmas nose, and this is a Christmas chin. That was maybe five years ago—”
This is too confusing. I interrupt. “What’s a Christmas nose?”
Gin shakes her head. “A nose you get with your Christmas monies, silly! That’s what you’re here for, isn’t it—to use your Christmas monies? Everyone knows…at least everyone from, well…I thought you were from the City proper with a coat like that, but you’re from Lowtown, aren’t you? No matter. I live here, too, and it’s not all that bad. I was just saying that my nose and chin are discontinued, but I can pull up their series, if you’re serious. But you won’t want to look exactly like me. Gotta be a little different, right?”
My head is spinning, and I feel like I might cry. Ava said I shouldn’t cry because it upsets people. “I just want a face, one that people can see and be happy with. You can decide the particulars?”
“Gin, you’re right…” Rika mumbles as she plays with dials and knobs. “Something’s wrong—maybe if I just—no—let’s try—nope—what the heck—looks like, looks like something’s in the way…there we go, maybe if we skim this fuzzy stuff… Here, Gin, you take over.”
With Gin back in command, the mechanical arm jerks forward and rotates a hand with laser-tipped fingers, drawing so near to where my face should be that I feel burning. I squeeze my eyes shut and clutch the cot’s rails.
“You know, Gin, I’m wondering…”
“Hang on, I’m just taking off this layer—”
“…I think I remember something about this from school. Not at Cosmegenic Academy, but when we studied history, you remember?”
“No one remembers history! Don’t study that after First School, when we were, what? Ten? No bigger than sweetheart here. But this is incredible…maybe historical…”
“You don’t remember? What was it…something to do with the Union and test tubes that got shut down with the Reforms, one of the crimes against humanity back when those existed? They used facelessness for something or another. Remember?”
I want Rika to keep talking but am scared of moving. If I could get a face and learn where I come from…
Gin addresses me as if ignoring Rika. “I think you’ve a beautiful face just waiting somewhere, sweetie, but I just can’t find it. I didn’t think this was possible…”
“You know, on the news this morning…lots of laborers have been shipped in, you know, for the Wall, and the renovators found all these old hidden places and one of them was, like, yesterday. What was it—a cyber-nation-something lab, used for organs, or cells…”
“Ugh! Rika, please—”
“Gin, stop!” Rika throws a hand on Gin’s shoulder and whispers. “They say crime has spiked where they’re working, lots of theft, of things like pelts—”
I hold my breath as Gin spins on Rika. “Jeepers, show some compassion! It’s Christmas, after all!”
“And we could lose our business! I’m calling the authorities!”
I sit forward and shove the mechanical arm aside. I need to know how to get out of here. Fast.
“Oh, don’t be like that!” Gin has followed Rika to the backroom, but I hear everything.
“She stole that coat and got into that hidden lab place, I’ll bet anything!”
“She’s a paying customer, and—”
“Did you run her account?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Gin raises her voice. “Sweetie, you can pay, right?”
I slip out of the chair, fingering the place my face should be. It feels smooth and indistinct. As usual.
I sniffle, unable to control it anymore.
“See? Told you. I’m calling it in.”
Gin looks my way. “Oh, sweetheart… Rika, stop, it didn’t cost much so far, she can just do some cleaning. She probably just got a botched job from some seedy vender, no need to call—”
“Don’t let her leave. Why do you insist on being a doormat?”
“Why do you insist on being a real suck? She’s no different from us at that age—”
“She’s a monster, Gin, you’re blind—yes, I’d like to request authority presence—”
“You’re such a bigot! You think she’s imported! So what if she is?”
I know it’s over, but it takes my feet an extra second to react. I sprint through the counter’s gate and throw myself against the door.
“Sweetie, don’t!” Gin shouts as I stumble onto the sidewalk. Glancing back, I see her rounding the counter and reaching toward me. “The street’s no place for a girl! Not tonight! Rika, stop, look what you’re making her do! Come back, we’ll use the night-door!”
The sun has set and the street is so busy that, before I find my footing, I’m knocked down amid a horde of adults with perfect faces and big coats. They’re roaring and singing and shouting and waving lights that leave red and green contrails.
I land on all fours. A boot catches me in the ribs.
I cry out, terrified by the countless feet whirring past.
As I coil into a tight ball with my hands on my head, someone falls on me.
“Oof!” The faller snatches my wrist. “Watch it, will you!” He’s a young man with skin that wants to be touched like Amidam’s, but he’s lanky and has gold hair. Seeing me, his blue eyes grow wide, and he laughs. “It’s a street rat, boys!” Someone hoots.
“No!” I crawl toward Face-the-World, but his grip is strong. He’s so close that I can smell his breath—he reeks like the Wall workers who stumble around at night. Amidam always kept them away. “I’m not a street rat!”
“Oh, come on!” he pleads, sweeping me to my feet so that I’ve no choice but to shuffle along with him. “A street mouse, then? My Christmas mouse, boys!”
I squirm, but he tightens his grip.
“It’s okay, Christmas Mouse! Not much to look at, but who am I to turn down a Christmas gift, eh?” He’s looking more at his mates than at me, but his long arm locks me to his side. “Here, have something in return, make you happy? A gift exchange?” He shoves a heavy coin into my palm. “Ha ha! See that? I gave her a whole pig!” Someone laughs.
Hot tears warm my unseeable cheeks. No one had noticed me until now. What’s happening? The bodies pressing all around threaten to suffocate me. We turn the corner, along the cross street that leads back to the Wall. I ball my hands into fists. “Please!” I cry. “Let me go!”
No one answers. Instead, they’re belting out a song that they don’t seem to know well. “The snow! The snow! The snow so white! Everything I ever want, oh, jeepers, what a pretty sight! Let’s have it now, have it out, that’s what Ex-mas Eve’s about!”
This is not what Amidam freed me for. This is not why I left him, left home.
I stop writhing for one heartbeat and bolt, wrenching free and shoving toward the road.
Fingers grab at me.
I emerge from the mob and dart across the street, bright lights spinning all around in the otherwise dark world. My shoe catches in a groove, sending me hard to the pavement.
As I push myself up, I’m blinded by the headlamps of an auto-car.
“Watch out, Street Mouse!”
Something tugs my arm. The first auto-car zooms by.
I can see in the light from the long line of auto-cars that my rescuer is a man leaning heavily on a stick. He has white stubble and skin with lots of folds. That means he’s old.
He pats my back and says, “Best come along, Street Mouse. This is no time for rodents.”
I stare. It’s the man from before, the one who called me a lamb. Now he’s calling me a mouse. I don’t like it.
“Don’t hurt me,” I say, stepping back but wary of getting too close to the road again.
He wags his head. “No, no. You want a safe place, a moment’s peace, so you best follow an old rat who’s got just that. Unless you want to go back to your friends.” He nods at the raucous rabble across the road, who continue to skip and jog and shuffle and shout. “Yes, that’s what I thought, and I always think right. Now just follow along and you can scamper off if you get scared, but you won’t, Little Mouse, because little mice have to get brave fast.”
He hobbles into a dark space among the bricks, and I hesitate. He’s old. He’s old and seems to know things. I follow.
Once in the dark, we go down stairs and enter a den with a mini-table and blankets and hot-eyes for cooking. And lights—thousands of tiny lights, some of which work.
“Come, sit. Old Rat was having Ex-mas Eve stew when he heard the peeps of Little Mouse.”
He lowers himself to the table and scoots a bowl toward me.
“I’m no mouse. Or rat.”
“Sure! But that’s what we are to them up there, and they’re the ones who decide. There’re many kinds of rodents. Little mice, big rats, imported ones, native ones that weren’t always rodents—rodents under the streets, rodents in the Walls. The thing about rodents is that people’ll let you be if you don’t get too noticed. But if you force yourself on them, well, then you’re not invisible anymore. That’s when they kick and shoot. And you know the other thing about rodents?”
I shake my head.
“They all need to eat.”
My mouth waters. I haven’t eaten since the Wall. I haven’t slept, either. All at once, I realize how very tired and hungry I am, and how much my feet hurt. This man is like an old Amidam. An old Amidam whose words make no sense.
I can’t resist the food, or the chance to collapse on the soft blanket. Ex-mas Eve stew tastes better than Wall food but not as good as the stuff Amidam smuggled in. Thinking about Amidam hurts. I will never have a face. I will never see him again.
“Don’t cry, Little Mouse. It’s Christmastime. Time for miracles. Even for vermin.”
I wipe my nose with a wrist that stings from the young man’s hold. “Really?” I’ve never heard this before, and I’m too old to believe just anything.
“Yes, that’s the truth. Old rats know old truths, forgotten things. Things about docks and clocks, and little lights and long nights and high Walls before they were high and low girls before they were low. People don’t see me if I stay out of the way, but I see so very much. Sharp rat mind, sharp rat eyes. Long in tooth, long in memory.”
I don’t know what he’s saying. “You know things because you’re old? Why don’t I see other old people outside?” I haven’t been impressed with adults, but maybe that’s because none of them are properly old.
“We’re few, it’s true! Most old folks get new faces, but not me—I care none for delusions. Others get shut away, but not me—I work, earn monies, do what old rats do to build nests and store treasures.”
I examine his face. The stubble is patchy and sparse. His chin has a dimple, and his cheeks grow innumerable lines when he grins. Creases radiate from little eyes, beneath long eyebrows. Like me, he has no hair on his scalp. I do not think many would say this face is “beautiful.” Ava certainly wouldn’t. But maybe they’re wrong.
“Why are you being nice?” I ask between bites. “Aren’t you scared?”
He licks his spoon. “Why should I be? I know all about little mice. Even little mice without faces.”
I fumble the bowl. “You know about me?”
“Long memory, remember? Walls and dolls, I know it all! And I’ll tell you if you do something for me, Little Mouse.”
Despite my fatigue, I leap to my feet. “Anything.”
“Come,” he says, beckoning for me to help him stand. “Like so many rats, I am a street cleaner, cleaner of the streets that get filthy not with vermin but with the gilded refuse of those wretched uplanders. I clean these blocks, and tonight will be a real humdinger. But only if I can get it all, because otherwise they’ll replace me with another rat. Lots of rats want my turf, see, but I just need a little more money, and a little more time, Little Mouse.”
He grabs a broom. “You take the mop.”
As he leads me back up the stairs, he says, “We’ll start on Peace Street. They abandon that one first.”
Peace Street was easy, but Love was much harder. I was almost done rinsing off the confetti and vomit when I fainted, catching myself with my mop.
It’s beginning to snow, and I hear the horde singing many blocks away, close to the Wall. It almost sounds nice. I imagine brother and sister standing on tiptoe to see out their tiny Wall window, marveling at the lights and music. I’m not there to help them with their tasks tonight, but I hope they’re having a Christmas miracle.
Farther down Love, dark figures flit in and out of view. Old Rat says they’re other street cleaners, but not to get close. They won’t hesitate to stab trespassing rats during cleaning.
“Little Mouse tired already?” Old Rat limps over, pushing his cart of trash, which we’ll take to a trash deposit to get paid.
“I’m sorry. I’ll try harder.” I lower my head so that I won’t feel so dizzy as I steer the slush toward a drain.
“We can slow down.”
“I need to finish. I need to know what I am. How I can get a face. Otherwise they’ll exterminate me. I’ll never see Amidam again.”
Old Rat leans on the cart and looks around. No one is in sight, save for Face-O-Rama’s eyes. “Amidam, is it?” He spits. “Sounds imported.”
I never knew how bad it is to be imported. “Amidam is my friend.”
“Don’t misunderstand an old rat. Do you know that just as rats come in on ships, they go out on ships? To better places? The docks are just over there.” Old Rat points away from the Wall. “Little mice can hide on ships, especially if they know docks and clocks like old rats do. Like, say, in seven days’ time, a ship goes to a new country in a new year, where the faceless rats swam to long ago?”
I stop mopping. I think I’m beginning to understand Old Rat. “You mean I can leave, go somewhere, where other faceless rats went?”
Old Rat looks around again. “Rumors, rumors! But if I tell you, then it’s so.”
“Will you tell me? Help me get to this place?” It might be too much to ask of someone who only makes half-sense, but I can’t help but hope.
“Can I get a face there?” My pulse pounds in my ears.
Old Rat resumes pushing his cart. “A story is the thing for you. Long ago, before I was an old rat, I was a young man. Cleaned laboratories. High-end stuff, before the Reforms. Back then, people grew surrogate bodies for their parts. But we are our bodies and vice versa, mind you, Little Mouse. And deep down they knew it, but didn’t want to see it. No face, no guilt. Surrogates had semi-faces, true, but undeveloped and hard to perceive. Misdirection, it was. Easier to cut something up if it doesn’t look like you.”
I’m walking beside Old Rat in the fresh snow, feet dragging and mind racing.
“A few medical advances and political shifts later, it’s an easy charge to heap on an outgoing regime. Corporations burn the evidence. At least…most of it.” Old Rat glances at me. “They weren’t meant to go past infancy. Those freed by radicals fled from the secret burnings. Rumors said to Turkoma. Rumors said they grow faces, truer faces. Others said their faces are mirrors. More said they’re just myth.”
Old Rat stops. “Now, Little Mouse, which rumor do you believe?”
“Truer faces?” Any face would be better than none.
“My dear Little Mouse, don’t you see?” He pokes my shoulder. “You are a Christmas miracle! You have the gift of seeing. How others react to you shows you who they are. Not everyone has that gift. I have it a little. You have it a lot.”
“But I can have a face? Be seen, for who I am?”
“Come. We have one more street.”
“Yes, but, please—”
“You are seen, Little Mouse.”
I’m growing impatient with Old Rat’s riddles. “By you? Amidam? Rika? It’s not the same.” I follow his gaze. “You mean Face-O-Rama?”
Old Rat laughs. “One day we’ll know what we look like, when we have faces. True faces. Only then will we see and know what we’re seeing.”
I shake my head and help push the cart. “I don’t know what that means.”
I need to focus. “So…I just need to get on the right ship at the right time, and go to…Turkoma? Get a face there? Then come back?”
Old Rat snorts. “Come back? Why?”
“My friend and his sister. Why don’t you go?”
He stares off. “Old Rats don’t travel to new places. Besides, I’ve a daughter, with a pup of her own, in Darro. I’m saving to move there. Almost have enough. Storing treasure for years. Now just a few more weeks.”
“Oh. But why can’t I go and come back?” Things outside the Wall are complicated.
“Too hard, Little Mouse. Not all things are symmetrical. Easier outbound than inbound. And it has to be in six days, leave on the seventh, for the seventh is holy.”
I consider it. Old Rat is wrong. I’m not the miracle. He is. He’s offering a chance to find others like me, to escape exterminators for good, to fulfill all that Amidam hoped for me. Just for washing Peace and Love.
“Then I know what I have to do.”
“Do you? Little mice learn fast.”
“I’m going back to the Wall. Amidam and Ava—they’re imported. I’ll bring them here, and take them on the ship on the seventh day.” I’m certain they’d prefer Turkoma over the Wall.
“The Wall? No. That’ll be too hard, even for little mice.”
I can’t bear the thought of leaving them somewhere that hates them, too, even it means missing the ship and never having a face. “I’ve escaped it before. No one sees rats if they don’t get too noticed.”
“What if you grow a face? What if you get noticed?”
My mind is set. “I don’t want to be the kind of person who’d leave them behind.”
“Your Amidam is very special, then. And Ava is lucky.”
Old Rat nods.
“But first we’ve got to finish Wall Street. So you can get to your daughter.”
Old Rat studies me as if I have a face. “Really? You’re not off to the Wall?”
“Oh! Can you use this?” I hand the coin to Old Rat, who takes it in shaking fingers and lifts it into the red and green light.
He opens and closes his mouth. His eyes are on the coin. “Yes,” he says in a whisper, as if seeing colors for the first time. “Do you know what this is?”
“It’s a Whole Pig.”
“It’s a whole lot, Little Mouse. More than everything I’ve saved. You sure?”
Old Rat is full of silly questions. “You’ve given me more. Once I get Amidam and Ava, you’ll get us on the ship?”
“Yes, Little Mouse.” I see a glint in Old Rat’s eyes.
I don’t mind the snow, the wind, or the exhaustion because I have a plan. I will clean, sleep, and make it to the Wall and back in time to catch our ship. Our salvation. I will save Amidam. It’s better than a Christmas package.
But I don’t know why Old Rat is crying. I put my hand on his shoulder. “You okay?”
He’s looking at me with a look I’ve never seen before. “More than okay, Little Mouse.” He smiles. “I’m beginning to see who you are.”