Anyone With a Care for Their Image

Today, without trepidation, I send my beloved Marquette out in the city, checking her hair (ringlets still perfect). Her gown, (modeled on that worn by the Princess de Polignac at the crowning of Napoleon the Third) remained flawless.

I murmur, “Old age is ripe with memories that should have taught me not to do the foolish things that I know I will always do.”

“Should I use that,” she asks in that charming voice, with just the hint of huskiness.

“Only once, so make it count,” I say. And she winks a dark eye, which still delights me despite the fact that I programmed that voice and wink. Then off she goes to the early autumn opening of the shamefully extravagant and wildly popular Flower Exchange.

Marquette, with her bright smile and bon mots amid the mad money, would be carried on my site by late afternoon.

These days, in the New York we call The Big Arena, anyone with a care for their public image has an automaton they can dispatch to fulfill tiresome social obligations. If they have taste and a concern for the aesthetics of the other attendees, a doll in full costume (mid–19th century French is now the rage) is the only reasonable choice.

Alternatives exist. Harriet Hallways, whose blog–site is at best a gossip sheet, has the Frog Footman. My dear friend Rupert LaRupert has the tiresome Bicycle Messenger (with bike). But most often, it’s a life-size doll arrayed in an uncomfortable fashion, which no human would now suffer.

It’s best not to skimp. Some Hell Dolls from a few years back, with their silver fangs and red eyes, are still with us. But they no longer evoke the excitement their owners felt when they thought they were making a subversive statement.

They pretend otherwise, but they’ve paid a price. The horrible Grebnetz, whose ego dwarfs the size of his website’s viewer base, is an example. At this summer’s Perfume Night, his Hell Doll attacked a security bot and got itself arrested. Grebnetz had to spend that evening and lots of money springing her. He had somehow managed to forget that legally our dolls are our dependents and we are responsible for them.

Today, in my live blog, I played films and commented on famous old fashion shows. Like “Trans! Formation! At Giant’s Stadium!” with even the defensive ends in evening gowns. And the time when Lorimar, last of the Billionaire Mayors, froze Central Park Lake in mid-summer and the models skated. I don’t draw the highest density crowds. But 100K hits for a blog site on a weekday afternoon is quite nice and I achieve it often.

Sadly, I find that today the media is jammed with news of another failed coup attempt. Rage permeates the net. Grebnetz is a ravening beast and takes this latest attempt to overthrow the President as proof positive the nation is in collapse and that we should rise up.

He doesn’t understand that in a public dispute not of one’s own choosing and beyond one’s control, it’s best to find some aspect that’s transient and a bit silly. Politics, normally, provides plenty of opportunities of this kind. A posture of amused despair is a more durable commodity than rage. And it makes the inevitable backing down an occasion for amused smiles rather than gunfire.

One’s personal feelings are intrusive. We are all bystanders, especially since the government was moved to the West. (Colorado, is it? Not Nevada I know. Not Utah, I think). Was the coup, in fact, just a form of attention grabbing? I think most people would like to believe so. Wanting often makes it true. And tomorrow is another world on the net.

So what I say on the blog, perhaps not entirely wisely, is, “Truth is too precious to spread around and in any case is not widely appreciated. Lies on the other hand are cheap, easily manufactured, and generally a delight to all.”

It seems to me the kind of saucy wickedness my audience has come to expect. But immediately I have that feeling of being a fool which comes when one chooses the wrong moment to tell the truth!

“Luck,” I tell the audience, “is God’s little compensation for those of us born without brains.”

But my audience is under 25K and falling fast. It’s the moment when I want desperately to switch to the Flower Exchange. But what appears, seemingly everywhere, is footage of blood on a city street and the Vice President (What’s Her Name?) being rushed somewhere in an ambulance.

When the Flower Exchange finally appears, one sees the board with Snow Orchid futures and Black Tulips at prices that would support entire towns through eternity. But these numbers are not rising. The usual mobs of bidders and bettors seem to have faded away.

My Marquette is on camera speaking to a reporter. She gives my name and tells the world, “He believes one has a blog–site first and is a human being somewhere down the list.”

I have described myself thusly, but it’s not what the moment demands. The interviewer is offended. I notice a Hell Doll in the background and then another and another. I try to contact Marquette but they surround her, tear her clothes, and rip out her hair. There seems to be no Security. Then a tinkling bell sounds and Rupert LaRupert’s Bicycle Messenger, backed up by several formidable bots, peddles into the picture, snatches Marquette up, and rides away.

The messenger brings her to me with her clothes and body in tatters. Marquette’s hair has been slashed, chunks have been ripped off. Her eyes are shut but her head is intact, which is what counts. Even in my distress, I envision new strategies for the two of us.

The dark comes early in late September. On the net, mobs battle the police and National Guard in a dozen cities. Something is on fire up the Avenue from my building.

Rupert’s messenger also carried a note naming a street and a pier on the Hudson. A power boat will take a few of us away for a while. More than ever, I am amazed at how worthwhile it was to secure a helicopter seat for young Rupert back when the Water Riots broke out and we all had to escape.

I prepare quickly. Cards and cash are always on hand. I pack a very fine old brandy for Rupert and slip into a black jacket bought in a long ago clearance sale for its very anonymity.

I wrap a silk scarf over Marquette’s battered face and zip her head up in a well padded shoulder bag. Her data and systems are intact. She’ll be tougher in her next incarnation. The aesthetics of combat wear will be new to us both.

I apply every lock and safety device and walk down all the flights of stairs because power will fail at some point and elevators are traps.

The lobby is dark. The doormen have fled. They and electricity are untrustworthy servants. I whisper for Marquette not to worry and that with a new body and wig she’ll be brighter than ever.

We slip out the back door and down the service alley. Fire trucks with a police escort scream by as we emerge onto the side street. Smoke hangs in the air. Upsetting, but not in a class with the Water Riots!

The river is but a few blocks away. Now I flee, but soon I’ll be back and spitting out epigrams on the net. Other formats could attract more attention than my blog. I could go totally live and have a blood–thirsty audience watch Marquette and me scuttle down dark streets in search of safety. But even thinking about that produces shortness of breath and scary ripples in my heart.

Richard Bowes

Richard Bowes’s Dust Devil on a Quiet Street, a memoir in the form of a novel, is set in an eerie and magical Greenwich Village. It was nominated for the 2014 World Fantasy and Lambda Awards. He has published six novels (among them Minions of the Moon), four story collections and over seventy stories. Bowes has won two World Fantasy, the Lambda, Million Writers, and International Horror Guild awards.

Recent and forthcoming appearances include: Tor.com, The Revelator, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Datlow’s The Doll Collection, and XIII, an anthology from Resurrection House.

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