How many nights has Johnny walked by the House of Mirrors? How many times has he glanced at its drab plastic facade and wondered? He was never scared to come, but they take the rules seriously in the House, it’s all legit, and if your biomet says you’re under twenty-one they won’t so much as look at you. So Johnny waited — not with patience, but with determination stubborn as faith. And now it’s time. Tonight he can do more than look.
The two on the door are built like nothing he’s seen, wearing sleeveless black T’s despite the winter chill just to show off their augmentations, slivers of silver woven through sculpted deltoids and biceps. Of course, it’s all just circus. Still, Johnny keeps his eyes low while they scan his chip. Only losers look for trouble, and Johnny’s no kind of loser.
The one on the left is Chinese, somewhere down the line, with a perfectly flat nose and electric blonde hair that glows under the neon strip. The scanner is fitted into a ring he wears, a red stone set in gold, which Johnny thinks is kind of cool. He stands palm out, lifting his arm slowly, the modded muscles shimmering. Snow still slants through the orange-bellied sky and Johnny, in cut-off jeans and jumptop, tries not to shiver. Then the ring flickers and the bouncer says, “Hey, happy birthday, man.” His voice is a tectonic rumble, devoid of accent.
Johnny finds it weird, this guy who could snap him in half giving a damn that it’s his birthday. Something about that shakes his confidence, just for an instant makes him want to walk away. Then the bouncer steps aside, scuffing slush as he reaches to push the door open. There are studs where his knuckles should be, dull metallic points. But it’s just circus, just show. Johnny nods and steps through.
Inside is all white tiles, with a hint of chlorine stench that stings his nostrils. The wide corridor ends in double doors, like those in hospitals designed to let the gurneys hurtle through. It’s nothing like what Johnny was expecting, but he’s not about to lose it now.
A cough draws his eyes left. There’s a booth set into the wall, and within it, a woman. She’s dressed in a white coverall that flattens any hint of shape. Her eyes are blindfolded with strips of bandage.
She says, “The charge will be five hundred Euro. Will you authorize it?”
She motions blindly to a stylus on the counter. Johnny takes it, sweeps broad curves across the surface; text blossoms, like ants marching from hidden depths.
“Our standard contract. Please read it all, paying particular attention to the health risks and substance allergy sections before you sign.”
Johnny skim-reads and the ants keep pace. He knows the risks, and his attention isn’t great at the best of times. He makes another broad flourish and immediately a scanner — this one built into the counter top — blinks its cyclopean eye. Half a grand shifts, somewhere in the ether.
“Go through the door,” she says.
Like magic, a door opens to his left. The room beyond is more white tiles, benches around two sides and lockers built flat into the walls. There’s another woman stood in one corner — same white coverall, blindfold, skin pale as ice, she could have been cut from the snow falling outside. She’s holding a garment in one outstretched hand, and that’s white too.
“Change, and put your belongings in locker nineteen.”
Johnny walks silently towards her on cushioned soles, and her blind gaze follows. Perhaps her hearing is aug’ed, perhaps they’re feeding her from some hidden camera. He takes the garment, lays it across a bench, then slips out of shoes and jeans, slides his jumptop over his head. The woman averts her bandaged eyes, an absurd impression of modesty that makes Johnny feel all the more naked. He stuffs his bundle into the open locker, struggles into the clothing: one-piece, elastic tight, cut to leave arms and legs exposed. A good job he’s in shape, because every bulge and crevice is exposed for anyone to see.
Suddenly he’s glad of the attendant’s sightlessness, whether or not it’s real.
“Come here, please,” she says, and now she’s holding out a small, flat box. Inside rest two translucent disks and, beside them, two grey cylinders like tiny corks. “Do you know how to apply these?”
Johnny just nods, forgetting — or maybe choosing to ignore — the blindfold. He’s worn lenses before, but these are thick and difficult; the earplugs are easier, seeming to morph until he can barely feel them.
“Can you hear me?”
“Can you see me?”
“Go into the corridor through the doors. Drinks are included if you need one, so is food, but l don’t think you’ll be looking for that long. Just find someone you like, pick a room.” She smiles sweetly. “And do your thing, pretty-boy.”
The room is as big as a hangar, as a cathedral. But the ceiling is low and it’s more like being underground. There’s a bar to one side, with two more blindfolded attendants. There are more bouncers too, one discreetly hidden to each side of the double doors. Sometimes there must be trouble in the House of Mirrors, Johnny can see that. What they give depends on what you want, how bad you want it, whether you even know. There are stories of people who’ve spent days here, never finding that right face, that right shape. The House can only do so much.
But Johnny knows exactly what he’s looking for.
How many others are there? The lighting is low and red-tinged, compressing the ceiling still further, making figures ethereal in their pink-stained garments. Johnny guesses more than a hundred, though it’s hard to judge. The space is so big that even with so many bodies it doesn’t feel cramped.
Some look awkward, as Johnny knows he must; others have paired already, are stood together, or sat at one of the small tables. His eyes catch a couple, a broad man in late middle age with a girl who looks barely old enough to be here, just about to disappear through one of the doors leading off to his left.
What are they seeing?
A shiver runs the length of Johnny’s spine. He’ll never do this if he thinks too much. There’s a throb of music, tuneless but heartbeat-steady, and he focuses on that, steps out with it pulsing in his blood. Once when he was little they stayed up at Tahoe and he stole a rowboat, not realizing until he’d pushed out that it had no oars. The feeling now is just the same. The faces, the figures, seem no more real than mannequins. Johnny’s heard they put something in the air, and everything seems so unreal that he can believe it.
He locks onto one woman — early thirties maybe, yellow hair purpling in the strange light, a pretty face that he no more than glances at because her breasts are amazing, majestic, and the one-piece is so tight that he can see sharp outlines of nipples and even the aureoles around them.
She wouldn’t work, but he stares anyway, until he realizes he’s getting hard. Then, embarrassed, Johnny turns away. Seeing a table, he sits, his face warm and bright-feeling. He shifts his gaze to the lacquered tabletop, imagining her eyes on him, scouring his body with the same awful scrutiny he devoted to hers. But a minute passes, and if she was then surely she isn’t now.
Johnny dares to look up — just for an instant.
The girl across from him is without doubt staring; for a moment their eyes catch and lock. She breaks first, ducking behind a hand, not quite turning away. Johnny keeps looking. She’s pretty, but that hardly matters. Height and build are ideal, the shape of her face too. Could it be so easy?
“Hi,” she says, with a strong trace of some accent he can’t place.
“My name’s HaIey.”
They say not to give names, numbers, addresses. Maybe that accent is country. Maybe she doesn’t even know the ropes.
He could lie, but what would be the point? She could never trace him off that.
“Hi, Johnny.” This could go on all night. If she won’t say it, he’ll have to.
“Look, you’re okay for me. I guess I want to, if you do.”
Her cheeks flush; her voice is barely a whisper over the vibration of music. “Yeah. Yeah, I want to.”
There it is, the demarcation between real and what the House offers, it’s go now and nothing can stop it. Johnny feels a tense surge of excitement, a tingling in his skin.
“I want you to look like me,” he says.
At first, there’s nothing. The shift is subtle, like heat haze, slight changes building layer on layer. Eyes tint, widen, edge fractionally apart; nose compresses, nostrils flare; mouth swells by degrees to new fullness.
Five years ago, this was bleeding edge, and it’s none too blunt now. It’s not so much the way the lenses feed back false data to the optic nerves, that trick is a decade old at least. No, the true wonders are all out of sight.
Her voice trembling with need, she asks, “Is that okay? Is that what you want?”
Johnny will never know what she actually says. The earplugs only let through what the computers think he wants to hear, everything else is invention.
“It’s near, but I mean, if I was a girl. I want you to look like you’d look if you looked like me.”
Will the House understand? It makes sense in his head. Johnny’s been with girls before, guys too, and he liked the girls better, but neither felt really right. He thought a lot about that, and finally he realised why. It was because the only face he truly wanted over his, torn up with ecstasy, was the one he saw in the mirror each day.
Even her voice has changed. Gone is the accent, replaced with something like his own sharp city-speak. He thinks he can make out her lips moving, fights not to wonder what she’s really saying.
“Closer. Only, your hair’s a little long.”
“Is that it?”
And it is. Maybe the changes are superficial, but that’s okay. She looks like what he’s dreamed about for so many nights — and now Johnny wonders how she’ll feel.
He offers a hand. She takes it. They slide from their stools. He’s a little dizzy, unsure on his feet, but suddenly her shyness is gone and she leads the way, threading through the crowd. A door ahead flicks open, slides closed behind them, seals with a hiss.
The room beyond is just a bed and a few square metres of floor. It’s all they’ll need. She’s already kissing him — violently, her tongue driving at his teeth. They fall together, and the bed catches them. Her hands claw his back, while Johnny struggles with the straps of her one-piece, all the while watching her face that’s almost his own.
“Oh god,” she moans, but it sounds weird, fizzy.
He manages one strap and the top slides down diagonally, cupping one angular breast in an elastic tangle. Her face, his face, like mirrors in mirrors, and it’s everything he’s waited for.
“Oh god,” she breathes, “fuck me Danny. Fuck me, little brother.”
For a moment, Johnny isn’t sure he heard right. Then something turns in his guts. He has just time to roll to the edge of the bed before he starts to puke. Over the sound of the acid slop tearing from his throat he hears her scream, but there’s nothing he can do; he can’t help himself.
In his peripheral vision, a door hums open where there was no door. His eyes are streaming with hot tears, and the figures outlined there look like angels haloed with crystalline blue light.
One says, “Fuck man, get him out of there.”
Johnny guesses that means he’s no angel. The other reaches down, catches hold of Johnny’s shoulders, and eases him onto his feet.
“You’re okay, kid. Jesus, that stinks. Hey, it’s all right, not your fault. You good to stand? Just follow me. Let’s get you out of this mess.”
Johnny follows. Through the door and down a corridor that seems interminable until they turn into a side passage, and then there’s another room and Johnny’s new friend is ushering him into a chair. A minute later and there’s a Styrofoam cup of coffee in his hand, and everything’s finally starting to seem real again. He’s sitting in what might be a staff office or waiting area, somewhere behind the scenes of the House.
“What the hell happened? That wasn’t right.”
“I don’t know, kid, I’m just an attendant. If you’re up to it then it’ll take you to see the boss. He’ll set you straight.”
Johnny nods, suddenly exhausted. He just wants out of here. Instead he follows, back into the passage and further, to another door. The attendant taps the frame and says, “The client, sir. Mr. John Parchek.”
From nowhere: “Show him in.”
Johnny’s attendant offers a wide grin, waving him towards the door just as it slips into its frame, and Johnny steps through.
He’s never lived around money much, but he knows it when he sees it, and the office screams of money: red plush walls, a grand desk of dark wood and behind it a suit cut with such mocking elegance that it can only be ludicrously expensive. The man within the suit looks out of place. His face is too thin and pock-marked, his hair is scarred with grey, imperfections money could easily wash away. His voice has a certain elegance, but only that of the butler in some old movie, polished but servile.
“Mr. Parchek, I’m Mr. Dominus. It appears I owe you an apology on behalf of the House of Mirrors.”
“Damn right you do. That was screwed up.”
Dominus nods like Johnny’s said something profound. “You’re right of course, and we’re most genuinely sorry. There was a malfunction, a rare and unlikely malfunction — and you heard something you shouldn’t have, which you understandably found upsetting. Just because we’re comfortable with our own fantasies, doesn’t mean we necessarily accept someone else’s, eh, Mr. Parchek? So I’d like to offer you our sincerest apologies, and to recompense you for your distress.”
Even through the ache of tiredness, Johnny hears that loud and clear.
“Five thousand Euro and a refund of your payment. Does that seem reasonable?”
Johnny knows he could argue for more, but he could do a lot with five thousand.
“I guess, yeah, it’s reasonable.”
“Well then, that’s excellent.”
Dominus waves narrow fingers and a patch of desk lights with pale text.
“All we ask is that you’ll keep this matter between ourselves. If you’ll read and sign.”
Like before, Johnny skims. Of course they want him to keep his mouth shut; all that matters is the number. Dominus offers a stylus. Johnny takes it, makes his flourish, and thinks about things that money can buy.
“Yes, excellent. Just a moment …”
Dominus toys with a corner of the desk.
“There we are. Five hundred Euro.”
“You mean five thousand.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Parchek, I think you’re mistaken. If you look at the contract you agreed …”
“Hey, that isn’t …”
“You said five thousand, plus my refund. It was there, right there.”
Dominus looks genuinely aggrieved, like a doctor giving bad news; but Johnny can’t help noticing how his finger hovers. Maybe the security weren’t so much for show after all.
“Mr Parchek, I know you’ve suffered an unsettling experience. Obviously you’re confused. I keep audio and video recordings of all my meetings, so if you’d like clarification, I can …”
“No, I get it.”
“I get it,” Johnny repeats, worn out.
He tugs at each ear for the plugs, which he’d all but forgotten until a minute ago, slams them with all the energy he can muster down on the desk. It takes a few seconds to get the lenses out, and it makes his eyes water, the gesture’s not as dramatic as he’d have liked.
“Yeah, I heard wrong. I saw wrong. I understand how that might happen. If you’re done then maybe you could just give me my clothes back. I’d like to go home now.”
They let him out through a side door into a courtyard, some nether region of the club where overfull bins prop up mounds of rotting boxes. The snow has stopped falling, leaving the ground dirty white and the sky a phosphor-scalded yellow. Johnny picks a direction and begins to walk, trying not to think about the biting cold, or the slush soaking through his thin soles, or what happened to the girl after he left.
The waste-strewn passage opens finally onto the front of the House of Mirrors. Was it only an hour ago that Johnny last stood here, and not the lifetime it seems? He tries to keep his head down and sidle away; but the bouncers, who look bored now that the prospect of dawn is frightening their custom away, glance over.
The one who checked him in calls, “Hey, kid.”
Johnny can’t read the bouncer’s tone because there isn’t one. He wants no trouble. He just wants to be gone.
“Hey,” he calls back, slowing but not stopping.
The wide face breaks into a grin, a strangely innocent expression on such hard and very ugly features.
“You enjoy your birthday, kid? Party hard? You come back for the next one?”
“Sure. It’s been interesting.” Though Johnny knows he’s no kid, not anymore, he can’t help returning the smile. “But no offence, man, next year I think I’m gonna keep things simple.”
David Tallerman’s short fiction has appeared in markets including Lightspeed, Digital Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online and Bull Spec. He is also the author of two novels, Giant Thief and Crown Thief, with a second sequel, Prince Thief, and his first graphic novel, Endangered Weapon B, both due this year.