Tommy tucked his shoulder-length hair behind his ears as he surveyed the art festival. Artists had booths arranged in a long, two-sided row, and attendees bustled between the booths, pointing out works they liked. Many of the attendees were carrying water or some other drink on account of the heat, but some had food as well — hot dogs, kettle corn, shaved ice.
Tommy spotted the hot dog stand and headed in that direction. His friends would be here in… 10 minutes, but they wouldn’t mind if he snacked. He kept his eye out for women — this kind of heat brought out the skimpy clothes, and Tommy wasn’t one to miss eye candy if it was on display.
Hot dog in hand, Tommy noticed a booth that was void in the crowd — people were giving it a berth, and there was only an old man in it. Tommy crossed the crowd slowly and stood at the entrance to the booth.It was full of limbs. Some with pseudoflesh, some shiny or dull metal, some more plastic-like materials. And all were decorated intricately. The metals were engraved with tight, swirling patterns covering most of the surface, and the pseudofleshes were scarred in similar patterns, as if the wearer had been burned or cut very, very carefully.
No wonder people were giving it a wide berth.
The old man sat on a stool and watched Tommy quietly. Tommy felt observed, but not sized up, as he stepped in fully.
Tommy cleared his throat of hot dog. “So, um, who buys this stuff?”
The old man smiled a little as he said, “Artsy arties, mostly.” Tommy blinked in confusion. “Artificials,” the old man clarified.
“Oh.” All the bustle outside felt far away in the quiet little booth. “But, um, isn’t the point to be as humanlike as possible?” He knew he and his friends would never wear anything this outlandish. He couldn’t imagine going to work with an engraved arm.
“For some,” the old man agreed. “But some models want their own identity, separate from humanity.”
“Crazy. You know how people don’t like unusual people.”
The old man smiled again. “Many of the people who buy these aren’t yet considered people. Why fret overly with terms like ‘unusual’ when you don’t have basic rights?”
“I guess,” Tommy said slowly. He reached out traced a finger over the designs on a metal leg. The leg was fashioned as if it were human bones without flesh — a strong, straight femur, patella and knees with little wires serving as cartilage, and tibia and fibula. The foot wasn’t skeletal but a thin, broad, relatively normal — albeit metal — foot. The designs ended with a swoop just above the ankle, like a short pair of pants.
“I don’t install them myself,” the old man volunteered. “Your medtech can do that.”
“No human can wear this,” Tommy said, still running his finger over the designs. To stand out, to not just be one of the crowd, to openly be “artificial”…
“It’d be much more difficult, yes,” the old man said. “That kind of surgery tends to be reserved for an as-needed basis, like after a bad accident. Very painful stuff, I’m told.”
Tommy glanced quickly at the man, looking him up and down. Without trying to connect to him, without obviously mechanical features, it was impossible to tell if he was artificial or not.
“How much?” he asked quietly.
“For that one? Ninety kilorupes. One of my better works.”
Tommy breathed out a little laugh. “Don’t sell many, do you? That’d break the bank.”
The old man grinned. “Aw, look at you. You’re an up and coming… what? Salesman? Consultant? You’re already making enough to afford that, if you haven’t been stupid with your money.”
Tommy rolled his eyes. “Yeah, but it’s more than anything else here, I bet.”
“What do you know? You just got here. I saw you coming down the road. Besides, this stuff takes a lot more bravery than anything else here to cart home.” The old man gave Tommy a knowing look. Tommy blushed. “Better that you do it now, when you’re young, than to wait until you’re a super Associate Whatsamajig, with a Name to overcome.”
“Yeah…” Tommy said. He took a deep breath and said, “You know what? I’ll ta–”
“Hey, Tommy! There you are!” He was jostled by Henri’s slap on the back. “Oh, wow, man. Check out this freaky shit.”
“Yeah, I was just, you know, passing through,” Tommy said, back-peddling away from the leg. He didn’t look at the old man, but put an arm around Henri’s shoulder and steered him out. “Where’re Justin and Lois?” he asked.
He glanced back quickly to see the old man watching him with an inscrutable look. The old man gave a little wave, and in doing so, his shirt sleeve rode up to reveal the end of an intricate pattern of scars above his wrist.