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Skin City

A story from Better Worlds, our science fiction project about hope

Illustrations by Deborah Lee

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Toronto, 2103

For Kass, the worst thing about being in jail wasn’t the food. Sure, lunch was batch-processed and slopped onto partitioned trays, but it was edible. It wasn’t the small shared cell or the stiff, disposable coverall that scraped over her pasties. The worst part was the aesthetics.

The jail took its interior design cues from the late 20th century. Monochrome. Gray walls, gray floors, gray furniture. Kass would have skinned the jail in late 19th century Arts and Crafts — soothing and restful to the eye — but as a prisoner, she was totally cut off from the open data stream. When she pinged for data, all she got was a menu of old movies, a selection of single-player games, and a whirring progress bar showing progress on her indictment: 12 percent complete. When it got to 100, the charges against her would be filed, and she’d find out just what kind of trouble she was in.

Kass’ elderly cellmate Janet snorted while waking up from her nap. She creaked out of bed and hitched herself over to the padded recliner. Kass wheeled the table over and adjusted it so the lunch tray was positioned over the old woman’s lap.

“So, what’re you in for?” Janet reached for her spoon with unsteady fingers.

Kass sighed. “Unrequited love.”

The old woman coughed hard, like she was dislodging something from the back of her throat. She snatched a napkin from the side of her tray and raked it over her tongue.

“Just my luck to get stuck with an incurable romantic,” she spat.

Kass had first seen her one true love on the slideway ramp at Osgoode Station, coming up as Kass was coming down. Though all Kass could see was a vaguely human-shaped form in a full privacy drape, matte black microfiber from fingertips to eyelashes, she was instantly transfixed. The woman moved through the station as though she owned it, like it was a stage she was in complete control of, and Kass was her anonymous, devoted audience. The next day, Kass watched her striding through Queen’s Park at twilight, and then later, selecting oranges in the grocery store on Dundas. A few long days went by without a glimpse, then she almost ran into the woman walking up Simcoe. Kass had to dodge out of the way to avoid a collision.

“I can’t stop thinking about her,” Kass told her friends who were crowded around the cafe tables in the middle of University Avenue.

“You know there’s no chance, right?” Trinh asked, not unkindly. “She’s a privacy nut. She’s not going to wink at an open-source mutt who shakes her tits in the street.”

“I know,” Kass banged her forehead gently on the flimsy table. “But I love her.”

“Them. You think you’re in love, but you’re not,” said Rafe. “You don’t even know their pronouns.”

“She’s femme for sure. Something about the sashay,” said Kass.

“You’re adorable, Kass, with your crush and curves and curls,” said Marie-Claude. “But what if she prefers her lovers well-hung and hairy?”

Kass wrapped both hands around her cooling coffee. Marie-Claude had cut right to the heart of her problem. Seen with a logical, dispassionate eye, she knew nothing about the woman and had no way of finding out. But Kass was passionate in everything she did. Over the past few days, this stranger had set her world aflame.

“What if she’s monogamous and married?” Janie added. “She might like the way you spin your tassels, but she won’t ruin her life for you.”

“What if she just has better things to do?” Trinh added.

“They could be femme to the eyebrows and a cis man.” Rafe remained adamant about pronouns. “Sashay or no sashay.”

“I know,” Kass said with a gentle sigh. “It doesn’t make sense, but I can’t live without her.”

“Whatever you do, be careful. She lives in Fearsville.” Angel pointed at the battery of black-windowed towers on the east side of the street behind the train of bikes streaming up the glideway. “Keep your distance, or she’ll fire a neuro-muscular blocker up your nose.”

“There’s no such thing as love at first sight,” said Janie. Everyone nodded. “Real relationships are built over time. You’re projecting a fantasy onto a blank slate.”

“You think I’m silly.” Kass looked deep into her coffee cup.

“No, honey, just young,” said Rafe.

“You don’t know how it feels. When she walks by, it’s like there’s a spotlight shining on her.” Kass cupped her palms over her heart. “I may not know her, but I feel it here. She’s the most important person in the world.”

“That’s magical thinking,” said Janie.

“No, it’s true love,” Kass replied.

Marie Claude took Kass’ hands and squeezed. “Forget her, or we’ll be picking pieces of your broken heart out of the sidewalk.”

“I know you’re trying to protect me, but you’re wrong,” said Kass with a grin. “I’m going to show you exactly how wrong you are.”

Janet was a centenarian — 112 years old. Kass did the math. Janet had been born in the 20th, just like the jail decor.

“What’s it like having a lifetime that spans three different centuries?” Kass asked. “I mean, you lived through so many changes. The last gasp of industrialization. Climate change remediation. The doming of the cities. Rewilding on every continent. The death of scarcity. The privacy wars. What’s it like?”

“I got to tell you, I miss doing that.” Janet pointed a gnarled finger at Kass.

“Doing what?”

“Sitting cross-legged like your hips won’t snap like a well-dried wishbone.”

Clearly, Janet wasn’t comfortable answering her question.

“I’m a dancer,” Kass said. “Flexible.”

“A dancer, huh?” Janet’s eyes twinkled. “I know what kind of dancers shake it around the city these days. See them on every other corner. Perverts.”

“If you don’t want to see it, you can skin us out.”

Kass stiffened. “People come from all over the world to see Toronto’s street burlesque shows. We’re a city treasure. If you don’t want to see it, you can skin us out.”

Janet slapped the tray. Her cutlery clattered. The fork fell to the floor and bounced under Janet’s chair.

“An incurable romantic and a pervert. What’s the world come to? No privacy, cameras everywhere, and little harlots running around naked.”

Kass slipped off her bed and crawled to retrieve the fork. Were all privacy nuts like Janet, imposing their values on everyone? She hadn’t considered that the woman she loved might have a problem with Kass being a street burly.

But no. Janet was old, very old, and like many centenarians, she clung to an outdated value system. The woman wasn’t old. Couldn’t be, not with all that energy and bounce in her walk.

Kass set the fork gently on the side of Janet’s tray. She’d wanted to find out what it was like to be old, and she had her answer. Janet had seen a lot of change, and it scared her.

In Toronto, as in most city-states, the population skinned the city to accommodate their aesthetic preferences, adding banks of greenery, inserting views and vistas, changing the city’s shapes, textures, and colors to suit themselves. No city was perfectly designed for all its people, but skinning provided personal customization options. It was an effective solution to the problems created by providing utilities and services at the maximum economy of scale.

People from Fearsville skinned the city, too, but their skins deleted people from the cityscape, eliminating the visible population — or at least reducing them to wireframes to avoid collisions. They’d lost the privacy wars and retreated to their towers, their private, anonymous towers. Many never left Fearsville, and the rest only emerged fully veiled, their IDs masked by a bonded security firm and available only on a need-to-know basis.

People from Fearsville skinned the city, too, but their skins deleted people from the cityscape

“All I have to do is get her to notice me,” Kass said. “Then nature can take its course.”

Angel laughed. “How? Privacy nuts skin us out of the landscape. Even if you got in her face, all she’ll see is a wireframe.”

“Yeah, but I have a plan.”

They were sharing a bottle of Tecumseth Tower pinot noir under a leafy golden locust tree on Queen Street. A train of cars hummed past, protected by a shimmering bounce field. Midday rush over, the street was comparatively quiet. There was just enough free space outside Osgoode Station for a rec group to kick a soccer ball around. They were loud — five kids, an oldster with a toddler in a chest sling, and two heavily pregnant people supported by mobility aids — all screeching and laughing over imaginary fouls.

“Be careful,” said Angel. “My neighbor’s cousin was carrying groceries past Fearsville once. She dropped a bag of apples, and one of them rolled into their sidewalk setback. Not even into the building, just a piece of land they think is theirs. And when she tried to retrieve it, boom! Right up the nose. She was unconscious for three hours.”

“That’s an urban legend.”

“There are legitimate reasons for people to protect their privacy. They can’t all be paranoid.”

“Maybe,” Angel replied. “But the point is, their world view is completely different from ours. When they look around, they see the enemy. What do you see, Kass?”

“Friends I haven’t met yet.”

“Right. How are you going to reconcile that?”

“There are legitimate reasons for people to protect their privacy. They can’t all be paranoid.”

Angel looked skeptical.

Kass leaned back in her chair and scanned the leaves overhead for inspiration. Then she let her gaze drift to the Fearsville towers. From the roofs, spindles stretched high to stabilize Toronto’s weather dome, their surfaces covered in vertical farms that helped feed their inhabitants.

“Just because someone doesn’t like you doesn’t mean they’re bad,” said Kass.

“Maybe. I guess I just want them to prove it,” said Angel.

Kass tipped the last of the wine into their glasses. Then a flash of black caught her eye.

“Shit, there she is,” she whispered.

The woman sauntered through Osgoode Station’s wide archway, shoulders back, gloved thumbs hooked in the pockets of her billowing privacy wrap. The confident posture stretched the loose fabric over her shoulders and chest, emphasizing her breasts. Kass followed her with hungry eyes until she disappeared into one of Fearsville’s narrow entryways.

“She’s never going to talk to me,” she moaned.

“I thought you had a plan?”

Kass lurched to her feet, banging the table with her knees and spilling the last of the wine.

“I do, and I’m starting right now.”

Janet grumbled under her breath as she thumbed through the menu of games. Kass wasn’t intimidated. In her teens, she’d volunteered at a care home for elderly lesbians that occupied a historical building so old that it was actually made of brick, wood, and glass. The building had barely made it through the violent storms of the early 21st, and if Toronto hadn’t erected its dome in time, that building and thousands of others would have been flattened by the 10-month superstorm of 2057.

Janet might be narrow-minded and hostile, but Kass knew how to handle her. To make a centenarian happy, all you had to do was ask them to dip into their store of accumulated wisdom. Older people loved to give advice.

“Have you ever loved someone who didn’t know you existed?” Kass asked.

“None of that lovey-dovey shit when I was your age. We swiped right, hooked up, got off, and moved on.”

Janet chose an old-fashioned first-person shooter, non-immersive, and set the credits rolling.

“So, you’re aromantic?” Kass said gently.

“I’m not a-anything. I’ve been married three times.”

“You don’t believe in love at first sight?”

“That’s not love, kid. That’s a delusion.”

“That’s not love, kid. That’s a delusion.”

“Not for me.” Kass perched on the edge of her bed. “I saw someone and instantly knew my life would be worthless without them. Anybody you know ever felt that way?”

Janet screwed up her mouth like she tasted something sour. She spat into her wadded napkin.

“Yeah, a few.”

“How did it work out?”

“Same as all relationships: one person six feet under and the other crying.”

“I just wanted her to notice me.”

Janet grunted and engaged the game controller. Kass scooped up Janet’s discarded lunch tray, passed it through the under-door access slot, and whistled for the hygiene bot. A trio of sweepers slid into the cell and began polishing the floor.

“So you got in her face and got thrown into jail.”

“Something like that.”

“You’re doomed.” The old woman cackled.

“What do you think would attract the biggest crowd,” Kass asked her roommate Brio. “Prince/ess Pie from Sooper Bloopers or Ksai and Trombo from Team Mucho Bad Manners?”

Brio rolled his chair back from the packed and stacked communal sewing table. He rolled the pointy tip of his beard between his thumb and forefinger.

“Those are tough asks.”

It was what he always said when Kass started dreaming up a new costume. Entertainment franchises ruthlessly enforced intellectual property rights on their characters, raking through data for unlicensed skins and squashing pirates under every available legal steamroller. But franchises couldn’t do much about analog costumes. They could monitor data streams from city cameras, but search bots were easily dazzled by slight differences in color, photo-iridescent fabrics, and silhouette-disrupting props.

To fool the bots, she performed a hula-hoop routine using a prop painted ultra-matte black

Kass had a Milady Captain Sterling costume with peekaboo cutouts and dissolving panels that put a super-saucy twist on the buttoned-up classic hero. To fool the bots, she performed a hula-hoop routine using a prop painted ultra-matte black. The hoop disrupted the silhouette and also provided a cheap gesture at Milady’s ouroboros-like alien familiar.

“Prince/ess Pie, I think.” Kass climbed on her stool to reach a bolt of purple fabric from the overhead rack. “I love Ksai and Trombo, but my shoulders aren’t broad enough to pull off a second head.”

“Yeah, but Team Mucho would be better. Adult target audience,” Brio said, still fingering his beard. “Prince/ess Pie is kiddy stuff.”

“No skin in this costume.” Kass jumped down. “I just want something cute and popular.”

“Are you feeling okay?” Brio looked confused.

“Prince/ess Pie will draw a general interest crowd. Big enough that even someone from Fearsville will wonder what’s going on and drop the wireframes to look. The point is to get noticed.”

Kass spent two days perfecting her costume, then lugged her portable stage to a plum spot just outside Osgoode Station. She targeted the mid-morning and late-afternoon time windows when she’d previously seen the woman in the area, which also meant she captured the younger crowd on their way to Queen Street’s most popular kittengarden.

Each performance, she spun faster and jumped higher

In eight performances over four days, she got lost in the joy of her tiny fans who screeched louder than any burlesque audience ever could. Each performance, she spun faster and jumped higher, her floating trouser skirt in iridescent purple swirling. Her vest pockets sprouted flower-like mini-bots, and projectors behind her ears approximated Pie’s shimmering whiskers. It was so much fun, she almost forgot why she was there. Maybe kiddy shows were her true calling, after all.

And then she saw the woman coming up the slideway ramp. Kass stumbled off the stage and fell to one knee. Her pint-sized audience moaned in sympathy.

The woman’s gaze swept across Kass like a searchlight, but she didn’t stop. Didn’t even pause. She rounded the corner and disappeared. Kass went hollow with disappointment. But she jumped up and gave the kids a huge smile.

“That’s okay, kids. Even a prince/ess falls down sometimes!”

Ten minutes later, a conflict resolution contractor showed up. He waited patiently until Kass pulled off her big finish and the children dispersed.

“Is there a problem?” she asked. “Did I take someone’s usual performance spot? Nobody had it staked out, but I can move. It’s no trouble.”

“No, you’re being indicted. Probably nothing serious, but the city wants you locked up while the charges are pending.” He gave her an apologetic half-grin. “It was a great routine.”

Kass tried to ignore Janet’s wholesale murder of fang-faced aliens as the centenarian progressed from one shooter level to the next. She watched her indictment progress bar slowly creep on. When it got stuck at 70 percent, she dismissed it and pulled up an old movie. The Big Sleep was an ancient crime romance, zero immersion, monochrome, and heteronormative as heck, but stylish, with an undercurrent of daddy-play.

“So, if you’ve been married three times,” Kass said when Janet paused her game to use the toilet, “why are you so negative about love?”

“Your aimbot’s stuck, kid. Find another topic.”

“There is no other topic. If we don’t have people we care about, what’s the point of life?”

“Too-too 22nd century,” Janet grumbled. “Too-too happy. Too-too crowded. Too-too cozy. You gotta toughen up. Grow up, too.”

When the indictment bot finally slid through the access slot, Janet slapped down the game, abandoning her progress in a tricky level.

“This bot’s for you, too-too,” she said with a wicked grin. “I want to watch it blow that chirpy smile off your face.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Kass replied.

The bot whirred over to the bed.

“The World Court charges you with 52 counts of intellectual property theft.”

“Please confirm that your personal accessibility requirements have been met,” the bot said.

Kass poked the green smiley-face icon.

“This indictment bot provides the legal interface for criminal charges. Volunteer justice tribunal members Willnet Lo, Yvonne MacKenzie, and Minnie Minninnewah have agreed to supervise your indictment.”

Three faces hovered into view. Kass recognized them all. Yvonne and Minnie were established members of Toronto’s street art community, and Willnet was with the Bank of Toronto board of trade, responsible for orchestrating IP treaties with sister cities. Kass smiled wide. Minnie nodded, and the other two looked stern. None of them smiled back.

“Kassander Gillian Chewinsky,” the bot said, “after examining evidence from the City of Toronto surveillance archives, the World Court charges you with 52 counts of intellectual property theft. The evidence has been entered into your case file. Please examine it at your leisure. You may now ask questions of the tribunal.”

“When live investigators get interested in you, it’s all over except the crying.”

Kass reached out with a shaking hand and flipped through the stack of bookmarks. Each one showed her performing in her usual spots around the city with her best, most up-to-date costumes. Working the crowd, charming people, thrilling the tourists.

“But I use bot-dazzling,” she said. “I’m careful.”

“That only works on bots, honey,” Minnie said. “When live investigators get interested in you, it’s all over except the crying.”

“But why me? Why now?”

Minnie flipped to the final bookmark. “It must have been Prince/ess Pie. If you ask me, it’s pretty sad for a street burly to get hammered for a routine that prissy.”

Kass sat on the edge of her bed, hard.

“Someone reported me. Do you... ” Kass swallowed, trying to clear the lump that had formed in the depths of her throat. “Do you know their name?”

Minnie shook her head. Yvonne spoke up. “They chose to remain anonymous.”

“Privacy freaks,” Minnie said under her breath.

The woman she loved had turned her in, just like that

Something deep inside Kass crumpled. The woman she loved had turned her in, just like that. But no, she wouldn’t believe it. Couldn’t believe it. She sat up straight, breathed deep, and relaxed her shoulders with a dancer’s practiced grace. She’d get through this.

“What’s going to happen to me?” she asked.

Willnet cleared his throat. He wore a red noose-like tie around his neck, standard banker costume.

“The Bank of Toronto is highly supportive of the city’s street performance community. No other city-state can claim such an abundant, vivacious home-grown tourist draw, but our treaties are important, too. Our trading partners demand we respect their intellectual property rights.”

Kass blinked. “What does that mean?”

“It means the city wants to make an example of you. I’m really sorry.”

“It means the city wants to make an example of you,” said Yvonne. “I’m really sorry.”

Kass should have asked more questions, but she was stunned. She dismissed the bot.

“You got slammed hard,” said Janet.

“They won’t keep me in jail for wearing a few costumes.” Kass tried to sound brave and confident. “When the arraignment bot comes, I’ll plead guilty and go home. They’ll sentence me to some extra volunteer work, big deal.”

“Lemme see your file.”

Janet put out her hand like she expected Kass to give her a handful of paper, old-style. Kass shot her the case file, then lay back on her bed and checked the arraignment progress bar. Twelve percent already. It would all be over soon.

“Fifty-two counts.” Janet cackled. “If they make them consecutive, you’ll never get out.”

“They won’t do that.” Fifteen percent. Kass stretched out on the bed to wait.

“Be sand in the gears of the world. That’s the only true freedom.”

“Take it from me. Never plead guilty. Never do what they want. Be sand in the gears of the world. That’s the only true freedom.”

“I don’t believe that.” Kass tried changing the subject. “When are you getting out? When do you go back home?”

“This is my home.” Janet’s grin was ghastly.

“Nice place you got here,” Kass joked. “No, really though.”

“Remember I said all relationships end with someone six feet under? Not being that person is the only way to survive love.” Janet grinned wider, her lips stretched to threads. She drew a gnarled finger across her throat.

“Nobody believes that anymore.” Kass lifted herself on her elbows. She’d been making an effort to be kind, but 20th century eye-for-an-eye, kill-or-be-killed wasn’t just old-fashioned, it was plain stupid. “You’re a dinosaur, Janet.”

“Maybe. But dinosaurs are survivors.” Janet’s rheumy eye gleamed, and a thrill of fear coursed down Kass’ spine.

“You didn’t—”

“Kill someone?” Janet hissed. “No. I don’t plead guilty, remember?”

Janet went back to her first-person shooter. Kass sat with her back against the wall, grimly watching Janet murder her way through level after endless level. What justification could the city possibly have for shutting her up with someone so horrible? Maybe this was her life now. Maybe she would never get out.

When the cell door opened, Kass was curled on the bed, knees to her chest. The doorway framed a figure draped in black, head to toe, emerging from the dim hallway. To Kass, that dark form shone sun-bright, haloed in light. Her love. She’d know her anywhere.

One of the woman’s graceful hands rested on an arraignment bot, the other reached out with an open, upturned palm.

“I’m your defense counsel.” Her voice was musical and sweet. She lifted her fingers to the brim of her hood, and when she pushed it back, Kass finally saw the face she’d been yearning for.

“Don’t worry,” said the love of her life. “I’m getting you out of here.”

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