Home » issue 129 » What Una Loves

What Una Loves

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Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in the south of Spain, and now lives in Ottawa, Canada. Since he began writing in 2011, he’s sold over a hundred stories, the majority of them speculative fiction published in magazines like Asimov’s, Apex, Clarkesworld, F&SF, Lightspeed, OMNI, and Tor.com. His debut novel, Annex, comes out from Orbit Books in July 2018, and his debut collection, Tomorrow Factory, follows in October 2018 from Talos Press. Find more at richwlarson.tumblr.com and support him via patreon.com/richlarson.
Content Warning(s):
Blood/Gore, Body Hatred, Child in peril, Sexism and misogyny, Self-harm and suicide

Una enters the operating theatre to thunderous applause. The conical bank facing her is packed with the digital avatars of thousands of viewers, all stuttering through various clapping or cheering animations. It makes the room seem massive even though she knows its cold, cramped dimensions by heart.

Most of the space is taken by the Table, a great silicone slab drifting off the floor, suspended by magnetics. The surgeons crawl across it, coordinated swarms of nanobots not so different from the factory ants in the fab where Una worked a lifetime ago. Before she was famous. Before her mysterious patron plucked her from obscurity and sponsored her to go on the show.

The Host is waiting beside the Table, grinning two cheshire grins because the Host has two heads. One is a holo rig, programmed only to mirror the other, but Una has long since forgotten which is which. Both faces are smooth and hideous, gray collagen grafts with surgically-widened mouths full of baby teeth.

“Welcome, welcome, one and everyone, to the beautiful show of event and is imminent hooray!” the Host babbles. “Various we are see Una, Una beautiful Una, what is here. See!”

The cams swirl around her like satellites as she hobbles toward the Table, projecting her every angle to the viewers, and the walls of the operating theatre turn to mirrors. The applause accelerates.

Una no longer recognizes herself, and that is her solace. The image in the mirrors does not jolt or frighten or disgust her because it is so, so far from what she remembers. She twists her features into a beatific smile. The Host flips upside down and handwalks in an excited circle.

§

At first, the surgeries were small. They straightened and reshaped her nose, lasered her teeth, sucked the fat from her belly and thighs and redistributed it to her breasts. They showed each procedure, showed her drifting in the recovery tank as her skin reknit, scarless, and then they paraded her in front of the cams beside a holo of her old self.

Una loved the mirrors then. They showed her beautiful, like an avatar made flesh, and she wished her little Addy could see. She used to think that that was the point of the show: that anyone could be plucked from their dull gray life in the fabs or meatfarms and become someone beautiful, lifted out of the housing blocks and into an apartment of their very own with a shower and a heater and a tiny bed for their daughter that composed sing-a-longs and rocked her to sleep.

But to stay in the apartment, she had to stay on the show. That meant more surgeries. The viewers in the amphitheatre got to choose. Sometimes Una imagined them where they really were: working in the fab and staring at a communal holo while they fed the machines, or else lying in sleepstacks during offtime, their aching eyes inches from the curved screen.

First, they chose implants for her cheekbones. When she was healed, Addy ran her fingers over the new geometry of her face and smiled and cooed even though she didn’t understand why her mama’s face had subtly changed shape. Later, Una did the same for the cams, smiled and cooed. She thanked the viewers for sponsoring the surgery, for pouring their hard-earned credit into the show’s donation bank.

Next, they chose a blepharoplasty to correct the fold of her left eyelid, to make her symmetrical. The viewers in the amphitheatre cheered as she waved and slid gracefully onto the Table. They loved her. She began to realize that she was an avatar. When she became beautiful, they became beautiful. Or at least they felt it. At least for a while.

Addy was finally growing. Una could buy her milk instead of just calorie water. She could even experiment with feeding her solid foods. The apartment suggested mashed fruit and was smart enough to cover the charging sockets when Addy started to crawl.

Una didn’t want Addy to go back to calorie water, so when the show asked her to geneprint a contract, she did it. The next surgery left her lips swollen, cartoonish, and her breasts stuffed with silicon. The adoring messages came thick and fast, and almost as soon as she was healed, the next procedure poll went live.

They redermed her, grafting her a new skin with induced vitiligo in beautiful patterns. They implanted her stomach with worms that ate her meals for her, so even as Addy grew she shrank until her shoulder blades showed through her new skin and viewers could count the lovely notches of her spine. They replaced her eyeballs with ones grown in a vat, irises a beautiful electric green.

She was blind while she recovered from that last one, and it made her feel closer to Addy when Addy laid her head on her chest.

Then, more surgeries. They put implants in her ass to make it round and bubbled and pigmented it mandrill red. They shaved her ribs to pinch her waist. They put spurs into her heels and reroped the tendons in her calves, so she tottered everywhere on a permanent perch.

While she was in recovery, Una watched the show, watched her prone body on the Table covered by the surgical swarm, watched as the Host stalked around it in circles and made its jokes, some of them about her, some of them vicious. The viewers laughed recorded laughs. She began to realize that they hated her as much as they loved her, maybe in the same way she sometimes saw Addy and wanted to squeeze her so hard she suffocated, wanted almost to devour her.

They redermed her again, leaving her skin an unnatural white canvas, and the show’s luckiest sponsors got to have their names tattooed on her body.

For the first time, Una was glad that Addy had been born blind. About half of all children were these days.

§

The Host has a small black scepter that it holds up to one mouth and then the other as it speaks. “It’s good to bring you back, Una, beautiful Una,” it beams. “We miss you so awful when you detain! Yes, we do not remember her awful? Oh, mankind!”

Una waves to the amphitheatre audience and is dimly aware of the monster in the mirror waving as well. They gave her wings last time, stiff cartilage arrays hooked into her spine and shoulders, feathered like a macaw in brilliant red, blue, and green. She can feel them clawing at her muscle with every step.

“Today is a special day,” the Host said. “It’s been two shows since the show began! Clap! Yes for me. Therefore, our program today is specifically.”

Una vaguely remembers the brief. She nods and smiles with ink-black teeth.

“What Una loves?” the Host asks. “What Una, beautiful Una, loves so?”

The question jars her, but she isn’t expected to answer. Holos are already blooming around her showing the airy pristine apartment with its smart glass windows and roving cleaner, showing Addy sitting in a small constellation of toys, stacking magnetic blocks together. Even in holo form, her daughter makes her heart sob with happiness. Addy’s soft swirl of black hair, her tiny pink fingers, her pale blue eyes—all of her so perfect.

The viewers agree; their avatars’ eyes bulge with hearts.

“Una has done work so much for to have her cherish, her cherish and excellent baby,” the Host says, and the holos shift, showing Addy younger, before she could sit up, wriggling around on the floor of the cramped housing block Una shared with a dozen others.

Una’s stomach lurches. She knows the housing block had cams everywhere, how all places do, but she never thought about the show using them. Now the holos rewind even further, showing Una pregnant, clutching the trough in a public piss, vomiting while strangers brush past her. They show her lying in her sleepstack, contorting herself as she inserts the fertilibar that cost her six months of fab pay.

“Now and,” the Host says. “For the excellent baby, I will make gobstruck. Surprise! Clap for me. The gift is here.” The Host crouches down and bangs its head against the floor—its real head; Una hears it smack against the metal—then straightens up. “See!”

From the other end of the operating theatre, a tiny scuttling gurney enters. Una’s heart stops. Addy has her eyes shut; she is asleep, oblivious to the cheers of the audience. Una once asked about the corrective implant for Addy’s optic nerve, but she was told that it would have to be redone every year until Addy stopped growing, so she abandoned the subject. She does not want Addy to live on the Table.

But if they have a new kind of surgery, a new kind of procedure that will let Addy see—is that the surprise? Una cannot sweat properly through her snipped glands, but she feels her scrawled skin turn clammy.

“She loves,” the Host proclaims, then turns to her directly, pointing the scepter at her. “You loves?”

Una nods, head bobbing on her extended neck.

Another holo: Una cradling Addy close to her and whispering I love you I love you I can’t live without you I don’t want you to even grow up Addy I want you to always be here in my arms Addy Addy Addy.

The gurney creeps closer to the Table.

“Yes so yes,” the Host says. “You loves! Be here in you arms always.” It lifts one leg into the air and tucks its heads underneath, contorted, and grins to the audience with both mouths as the holo shifts again, showing the procedure preview.

Una sees herself. She sees Addy. She sees the grafting, the bubbling new skin, the lattice of ligaments that will permanently connect them.

She tries to scream at the Host, to tell it no, no, not that, I don’t want it, I don’t want it, but her voice drowns in the cheers of the amphitheatre audience.  The gurney tips Addy onto the Table.

© Rich Larson