He looked 18 or 19, well within the desired age range Avril was hired to target. His sparse scruff of wannabe beard was the same sandy color as his hair. There was no subtlety in the way he stared at Avril. He pushed off from the wall he had been leaning against and gave a playful shove to two of his half-dozen cronies, parting them to get a better look.
“Da-amn,” he said, elongating the word into two syllables, adding, “Look at this chiquita.”
For Avril, a male/dominant like this was golden. His reaction would have a greater influence on the marketing statistics than these other six teenagers combined. Yet it was Avril’s job to treat the m/dom like any other consumer: forget he was cute, don’t add twitch to her hips or throw back shoulders to thrust out her chest. Just be a normal girl walking the mall, don’t even think about the stats.
The outfit she wore today was stylish, yet bland: a long-sleeve cashmere turtleneck that showed just a hint of tummy, vintage Levi’s that fit well, but not too tight, and scruffy Chuck Taylor’s. People were to see Avril as a fashionable young woman in her early twenties, but not linger on her clothes or the shape of her body.
Avril loved modeling. She enjoyed being the focus of attention, turning heads and feeling eyes upon her. It was exciting. Yet, thanks to some training in disciplined anatomics, Avril kept color from flushing her cheeks. Any change to her body could skew the results for this job.
She glanced at the m/dom and made sure he was looking, then shook back her shoulder-length purple hair. Avril’s earpiece registered his eyetrace.
“I’d die to get with that,” the m/dom said and followed with a mime. He pulled the trigger of his finger pistol and mouthed POW as the mock bullet exited his opposite temple. A head snap completed the improv until the laughter of his fellows brought the m/dom back to life.
Avril ignored the performance.
A chime from her earpiece indicated that the requisite amount of consumer impressions had been reached. It had taken three laps around the mall to achieve the numbers. Now Avril could relax a bit and let go a few of her anatomizations.
Mall walks were hard work, even for someone trained as a Variegate. Well, partially trained. Avril had cut short her apprenticeship to model full time. She felt she had mastered her craft enough and it seemed like a good decision. Her career was progressing nicely. The agency had booked her for more runway jobs and even paid for Avril’s travel to better-paying mall gigs, like this one. If she could maintain her numbers, Avril’s future would be filled with the glamour and attention she craved.
She stretched her neck to pull out stress. Twenty minutes of forced anatomics took its toll. Tremendous muscle control was needed for a Variegate to configure specific body features, such as lifting the cheekbones or elongating the neck. She’d been told that a few more years of apprenticeship would train her to modify properly, without the stress that novices endured.
But Avril knew better and her status proved it. She was still a rising star at the agency, though that one job had gone terribly wrong. Every model had a bad day now and then, even full-fledged Variegates. Avril pushed the incident from her mind.
She trudged up carpeted stairs to the nondescript offices on the third floor of the mall and her skin darkened with each step. Coloration was one of the easier things to turn on and off, and reverting to her normal skintone saved energy. This assignment called for a specific look, so until the job was done, Avril could not totally unbuild her present augmentation. It took hours to construct the required anatomy and only minutes to lose it, should Avril’s concentration slip.
What she wouldn’t give to let the strong hands of a masseuse soothe her aches and stiffness. Avril often scheduled a massage following a job, not only to relax, but also to luxuriate in the feel of strong hands on her skin. Being touched was something she did her best to avoid while working.
She opened an anonymous door to a very small room. There was one desk on the far wall behind twin monoliths of frosted glass. The panels were four-feet wide, parallel to one another, and stretched floor to ceiling. They did not resemble a toaster, but that was the appliance Avril thought about each time she stepped between the opaque partitions. She couldn’t move for two minutes and by the time the download was complete, her skin color would be its normal, cinnamon brown. Cinnamon toast, she thought.
But the colors most important to Avril were the ones appearing on both slabs of glass; silhouettes of her body, front and back, rendered in reds and greens and blues. This was a visual aggregate of everyone who had fixed eyes on her; the colors translated to hot, medium or cold depending on which body parts had been gawked at the longest and those ignored:
The colors mixed and pooled into a body-cloud of subtle color variations: reddish browns and rosy yellows on all the popular parts, violets for areas receiving mixed assessments and shades of blue for least viewed regions. Finally, streams of numbers tallied themselves next to each body part. These were viewer stats based on audience type, categorized by dom, subgroup, age and sex.
Avril’s earpiece chimed again and she sidestepped from the toaster. The colorful outline of her body remained on glass. Avril studied the numbers and smiled. Round Three had registered neutral viewer stats on most body parts, except hair— those numbers exploded. Which was the whole reason for today’s job, to see which hair color attracted the most attention.
Avril felt a small pang of conflicting emotions; virtually no eyeballs had lingered on her tummy. Totally blue, for the third time today. She was pleased to a point because it meant she had remained body-neutral and wouldn’t have to re-do the session. But it could also mean that the poof of belly fat was viewed as unattractive. Avril didn’t like that. Neither would the agency.
Back to business, Avril thought.
She walked over to the desk, referred to the assignment board and typed Purple #122-3479-3 on the console. Thumbing the ENTER key made the anatomic heat-map disappear from the twin towers of glass.
Avril removed the purple wig from her scalp and placed it on the plastic headform. She raked her manicured nails where it itched most, just above her ears. Her stubbly sidewalls were growing out and would soon need another buzzcut. Avril rubbed, but did not scratch, between the five tight rows of crocheted braids, pulled back from her wide forehead. She checked to see that the tiny ring of elastic at the nape of her neck was still doing the job of holding the braids taut.
On to Round Four; twenty minutes with the jet-black wig and she would be done for the day.
Avril pulled on the hairpiece, aligning the mop-cut bangs above the arc of her eyebrows. She rarely wore make up, but this job stipulated lipstick. She reapplied the designated shade. One final check in the full-length mirror and she was ready for Round Four. There was only a moment’s hesitation as she pulled down the sweater to try and hide her belly. Avril was capable of redistributing her body fat, as she did for runway jobs, but there were only so many anatomical balls she could juggle at one time.
This was the one regret Avril had for leaving training; not being able to render all those fine details that a certified Variegate can do to perfection.
By the time she reached the mall’s first floor, Avril had repigmentized her skin and double-checked that all configurations were in place.
She recognized many of the people she had passed in previous rounds. Repeat eyeballs were an important metric. The eyetraces of those who had noticed her before would be compared, the differences measured, and any reactions to Avril’s hair analyzed in micro-impressions. Avril tried to walk the same path, at the same speed, with the same posture, to gather as many Repeaters as possible.
“Wasn’t her hair purple before?” The f/dom said it, a robust black lady, pack leader for six mall-walking seniors, all women. They were clad in colorful workout clothes, stretching in preparation for their walk, adjusting socks and sweatbands.
Avril had seen them before, gathering like a flock of hens, the f/dom headmost in the pecking order. She and Avril had locked eyes before. Now, the woman was really giving Avril the once-over.
“Kids these days.” The f/dom was talking to her group, obviously speaking loud enough for Avril to hear. “I mean, she struts around here with clothes tight enough to show everything God gave her.” The gaggle clucked and muttered in agreement.
Avril assumed the comment was about her breasts. Had she not been on a job, Avril could have shocked the women by increasing her cup size. It would require her to release the hold on the other body parts she was governing and rechannel fluids to her chest. Avril could only imagine the looks on their faces as her bust enlarged.
Avril caught herself smiling, then realized how the last few seconds might affect the results of Round Four. She needed to concentrate on maintaining the required configuration and keep walking or she might have to abort this black-wig session and start it all over again. One thing the agency did not like was a re-do.
Avril elongated her stride slightly, intending to put distance between her and the seniors.
“Step lively now, ladies,” came the voice from behind.
Avril needed to tamp down her emotions, or at least keep them from affecting her appearance. Others watching her might see a thrusted chin, knitted brow or a narrowing of eyes. Any body differential could adversely affect the numbers.
Dealing with Instigants, like these women, was the worst part of mall jobs. Avril wanted to stand up for herself, but that would negate an entire day’s work. Sure, the data-collection system would weed out stats from anyone who instigated verbal contact with Avril, hostile or otherwise. But if a confrontation escalated to a certain level, it could nullify a whole job’s worth of data gathering. Especially if an Instigant touched Avril.
“I’d rethink that outfit if I was you. That top is too short,” the woman said from behind, between breaths, “And those jeans, a little snug in the crotch, don’t you think?” The mall-walkers chittered with laughter.
Avril realized she was clenching her teeth and the first taste of panic made her mouth go dry. What if the woman caught up and put a hand on Avril’s shoulder? Any unexpected physical contact and Avril could lose control of her body. It had happened in the past; that sudden gush of adrenaline would undo everything Avril was holding together.
Avril couldn’t afford another invalidation, the agency wouldn’t stand for it. She decided to make a hard right, go up the stairs to the second floor, hoping the women would not follow. But her escape was cut short by a familiar pack of teenagers.
“Chiquita,” the m/dom said as his posse blocked the stairs, “Long time no see.”
He angled his scruffy beard into a smirk, then reached out and grabbed one of Avril’s hands. He whispered something close to her ear.
It wasn’t the disgusting words that made Avril repulse and push away, it was ebbing of her restraint. She could feel all those little dams of muscle control start to give way. As hard as Avril tried to resist, the backslide progressed. And with it came fear.
The older woman changed instantly from antagonist to ally. She stepped up beside Avril. “Keep your paws off of her, young man. Who do you think you are?”
Avril held up her hand to keep the woman from intruding.
The m/com laughed and grabbed Avril again, this time by both her shoulders. Rage coursed through Avril’s body and she could no longer maintain the tenuous hold she had on her anatomy.
Avril shoved the m/dom. Hard.
“No, I got this,” she said to the woman. Avril’s voice lowered to a growl.
“That’s right. You go girl. Show ’em what you’re made of,” sang the chorus of mall-walkers.
Avril snatched off the black wig and threw it to the ground. She swallowed hard, letting loose an Adam’s apple that wasn’t there before. Fists clenched in anger, Avril took one threatening lunge toward the m/dom.
“I ain’t fighting no girl,” the teenager said as he backed off. “Or whatever you are.”
The flimsy sweater tightened around Avril’s bulking shoulder and arm muscles as they returned to normal girth. Avril took another step toward the teenagers and felt his penis and testicles descend, pressing on the inseam of his jeans.
“What in God’s name,” the old woman exclaimed when she saw the coarse stubble shadow Avril’s cheeks and chin. “Time to move on, ladies.”
It took every bit of restraint Avril had to keep from taking a swing at the scruffy teenager. The m/dom stood his ground for one long moment, then pushed past his six sidekicks and retreated up the stairs. They all followed.
Avril felt the heat leave his cheeks. He could have sped up the process, but didn’t have the strength. All he could think about was how the agency would react. His budding career was in jeopardy now that it had happened twice.
Picking up the wig, Avril walked back toward the office. He tried not to make eye contact with the shoppers who stopped and stared. Avril knew many of them had seen him before, as his earpiece chimed over and over again, still registering their eyetraces. Everyone was looking at Avril.
DL Shirey lives in Portland, Oregon under skies the color of bruises. Occasionally he lightens up, but his dark fiction can be found in Confingo, Zetetic, Liquid Imagination and in anthologies from Truth Serum Press and Literary Hatchet. Find more of his writing at www.dlshirey.com and @dlshirey on Twitter.