Deep underground, the prisoners begin to stir. There is no sun in this place, but they've been here so long that their internal clocks know when to wake. Bodies get off hard beds to stretch. Various pieces of patched and dirty clothing are pulled out of the pile. Murmured conversations are held. But not everyone speaks.
Like ghosts, the masked people move among them. In the Amarr colonies they wear chrome: expressionless ovals with a darkly golden sheen from the electric lamplights, with horizontal slits for eyes, nose and mouth. In Gallente space their masks are made of plaster, blackened with soot, sweat and blood. The Minmatars' are more functional: metal contraptions with hinges at the jaws, and lids that can be slid over the eyes.
Oddly enough, it is the Caldari who have lent theirs the most personality. Like the Amarr they have oval masks, but these are bone white and have been fashioned into the shape of a face. The face is the same on all masks: the same high cheekbones, the same curve in the eyebrows, the same thin lips. These masks are the only ones with no holes for the mouths, and their bearers must lift them slightly from their faces to eat.
A bell sounds. The prisoners head off to work.
"Yes?" a man said, responding to a ping from his secretary.
"Gilea Kiljaani here to see you, sir," said the secretary's voice through the intercom.
"Excellent. Send her in."
The door opened and a young woman entered. She was dressed fashionably, with a hint of business and more than a touch of wealth. Over one shoulder hung a small, black leather purse adorned with the logo of its designer. Her perfume filled the room like velvet.
"Miss Kiljaani," said the man behind the desk as he rose to shake her hand. He was dressed in formal, exact clothes. His desk was made of wood, a mark of wealth out here in space. It was perfectly bare and unadorned except for an ashtray and a small bowl of wrapped candies. The rest of the office was similarly plain: To one side, a holoframe on the wall slowly cycled through various famous paintings, most of them depicting farming landscapes. Opposite, a window looked out on the traffic far below. The wall behind the man was pitch black, and its glass surface cast ghostly reflections of the room's two inhabitants. The only light was a soft yellow brightness from a dome set in the ceiling.
The guest smiled perfectly. "Please, call me Gilea."
The man returned her smile. "Very well. Vertan Nejowin, at your service. Vertan. Please, have a seat."
She did, crossing her legs and placing her small purse in her lap.
"So, Gilea," he began, picking up something from a drawer and seating himself on the edge of his desk, next to Gilea's chair. "I understand you're interested in a makeover."
Gilea laughed, a genuine, unfettered laughter she nevertheless tried to cover with her hand. "I suppose you might say that. I did wander into the right office, I hope? You're not about to offer me makeup advice?"
"Wouldn't dream of it," Vertan said. He lifted the object, which turned out to be a remote control, and pressed a button. Behind him, the black screen lit up with a faint blue. Slowly, there materialized an image of Gilea's face, seen head-on.
"Oh my," she said, with a concerned look. "I look so ... worn."
"It's always a bit of a shock," Vertan said. "I remember the first time I chose a new face. Thought I'd have a heart attack when I saw myself on the screen.
"First time? So you've had a face swap several times?" Gilea asked.
"Oh yes. Most people at the company get it for free, or at least heavily discounted, and we strongly encourage them to try it. Official term is subcellular transfer, by the way. Which you may as well forget, since nobody uses that name except our lab people."
"You must have an army of geniuses working for you, to think up something like this," Gilea remarked.
"Definitely. Most of them in marketing," Vertan said with a grin. "The procedure is actually quite simple these days. The biggest hurdle is still in people's minds. They've got these ideas of us tearing the faces off people and pasting them on others, like butcher surgeons. It's been a lot of work to combat misconceptions like those."
Gilea fiddled with the strap of her purse. "You've earned some of it, though," she said in a low tone. "There was that story about the entertainer..."
Vertan got up, sat behind his desk and sighed. "Marlovian Joocasta. Yeah. We'll never live that one down."
"Story has it his face simply melted off," Gilea said.
"The lab boys would have several things to say about that, but you're broadly right," Vertan said. "But remember, that was in the very, very early days of this procedure. Joocasta was hoping to revitalize his career, and we were a new outfit trying to prove to the public that we deserved their money. So some corners were cut, and some security procedures jumped over." He laced his fingers behind his head and leaned back in his chair, a neutral expression on his face. "We've been completely and utterly incident-free for a long time now, miss Kiljaani-"
"Gilea," Vertan said, showing the hint of a smile. "We follow the strictest regulations you could think of, our procedures are completely reversible, and we have thousands of satisfied customers. There is practically nothing you could ask of us that we couldn't do safely."
"Is that a fact?" Gilea uncrossed her legs and leaned slightly forward in her chair.
"Oh, certainly," Vertan replied. He waved a hand lazily at the screen behind him. "Now, if this took you off guard, you may want to close your eyes for the next one." He pressed another button on his remote control. A panel on his desk slid aside, revealing a lens beneath. The lights in the room darkened slightly, and a humming sound came from the lens. From it rose a holographic image of Gilea's head and face, revolving slowly. "This is you in 3D," Vertan said. "Bumps and all."
"I'm impressed," Gilea said. The face was a very strong likeness, marred only by a slight greenish hue from the projector. "You got all this from the data my people sent you?"
"All that and more," Vertan said. "We have enough details that we'd be able to recreate your face entirely from scratch if needed." He looked up at the holographic projection. "It has happened on occasion that we've been asked to provide medical services; treatment after fires, acid, crashes and suchlike. If people have sufficient funds, there's no reason why they should have to go through the rest of their lives marred by some unfortunate accident."
"So you're used to going beyond the boundaries, as it were."
"Gilea, all our work involves going beyond normal boundaries," Vertan said. "The only question is how far we're willing to go."
"Interesting," Gilea said and looked directly at him.
Vertan caught her gaze, then pressed a third button on his remote. The hologram disappeared, the desk panel slid back into place, and full lighting returned. "Now then," he said. "I'll be needing to ask you some questions in return. Most importantly, have you decided on what kind of swap you want to have?" He reached into a desk drawer. "I've got a few pamphlets here if you want to brush up on the details-"
"Do people really come in here undecided in that?" Gilea said, stunned.
"Certainly. Of course, many of them have made up their minds, more or less. But they occasionally need a little guidance during the final steps. Support, you might say. The very decision to have one's face remoulded is already beyond most people, let alone to assume the face of a friend or some other living entity." He handed one of the pamphlets to a reluctant Gilea.
"I've already made up my mind," she said.
"Please," Vertan said. "This one I'm required by law to give you. It contains the legal details for your procedure."
She accepted it, and idly flipped through its pages.
Vertan continued, "The same law demands that I tell you about the two options you have. The first is to create an artificial entity which you can shape and configure to your heart's desire, the electric equivalent of a clay doll. We would then alter your face according to those parameters. The second is the real face swap, to transfer an actual face of another human being onto yours, and in turn transfer yours onto them. Are you fully cognizant of both options as stated and of all possible legal ramifications?"
"Yeah yeah," Gilea said, tossing the pamphlet back on the desk. "I can't imagine that anyone ever takes the second choice, though."
"People who want more than a change," Vertan said. "A bit of a thrill, perhaps."
"There's no thrill in having someone volunteer to give you their face," Gilea replied. She stared fixedly at Vertan.
He stared back and, without looking away, picked up the remote control again and ran a fingernail back and forth over one of the buttons. "Who said anything about volunteering?" he said.
The sheen on the Amarrian's shaven head nearly matched his golden mask. He was kneeling alongside several others in the day's first prayer session, although none of them would come too close to him. Even though doctrine held that believers would be united in faith, the masked people were always given a wide berth. Nobody knew what they'd done to earn their fate, but all were eager to avoid having the same happen to them.
Chants filled the air. To anyone but the initiated it would be impossible to make out individual words; the general susurrus was more like a fading wave of sound, reverberating off the stone walls and the banisters. To the supplicant majority the voices were crystal clear, the words etched on their minds after years of daily recitation. But the masked men spoke their own tongue, and were understood by no man.
This one, prostrating himself, didn't so much chant as moan. Unintelligible sounds came from beneath the mask, soft glossolalian wails. It was no prayer anyone else in the room could recognize, if it was a prayer at all.
The Amarrian lay with his head to the ground, rolling it slowly back and forth, his metal mask picking up dirt and dust off the floor. Instead of having his hands flat by the side of his head, he held them behind his back. In that position, with his neck extended, he looked like a prisoner awaiting execution.
Footsteps sounded. The praying crowd fell silent. The masked one looked up, and saw a pair of boot-clad legs standing in front of him.
"Get up," a voice said. There was a hiss in the air, from an electrical prod that had just been turned on. "There is work to do."
The Amarr rose. Patches of his mask had turned brown from contact with the earth, though his head still shone in the light.
"I like to play a little, in life," Gilea said, slowly combing her fingers through her hair. The feigned innocence of pampered riches slipped from her persona like a mask. "Take chances. Experiment. It's gotten me to where I am today. But recently," she sighed, "it's no longer enough."
"We also like to play," Vertan said.
"Do you mind if I turn down the lights?" he asked.
She grinned. "Be my guest."
Vertan pressed a small button on his remote. The lights dimmed slightly, and several hidden mechanisms hummed into action. There was a click as the office door locked itself shut, but Vertan made a show of tiptoeing over to it and pulling at the handle to check. "There," he said. "The room is now secure. No eavesdropping." He turned to Gilea. "How about you tell me exactly what kind of deal you're interested in?"
She hesitated, then said, "I've heard your company offers a third option. A face swap with ... unwilling subjects."
He smiled. "Where did you hear that from, if you don't mind me asking."
She gave him a hard look. "From people wealthy enough to afford that kind of service. People like me. Was I mistaken?"
Vertan walked back to the desk and looked at the screen behind it, where Gilea's face was still on display. "No," he said quietly. "No, you weren't." He sat down and turned to her. "We have access to prison colonies in all four empires. Their purposes vary, and the only thing they have in common is that they're all underground. They are secret places, funded in part by government forces and in part by private interests. People get sent there for life, and nobody goes there without reason. The prisoners are evil people, Gilea, you have my word on that. Anyone located in one of those places has earned their stay a thousand times over."
"Why not put them on open trials?" Gilea asked.
"Not all crimes are so open-and-shut. There are spies, traitors, wrongdoers against the ruling body where their actions, if revealed, might damage diplomatic relations. That's not to mention the sheer uselessness of open trials. Sometimes," he said, leaning in a little closer, "someone is so guilty that you simply cannot let them walk. You cannot give them a chance to cheat the system, to let some conniving lawyer dig up some stupid loophole that'll only set these people free on the streets. You simply know they will have to be put away forever."
"So kill them," Gilea said.
Vertan blinked. "Just like that?" he asked.
"Just like that."
"I would have thought you'd be shocked at this point, merely to hear about these people and the situation they're in," he said.
"Why? They've outlived their usefulness." She grinned and patted his hand, her facade of naivete entirely dropped. "My dear, I'm asking you to tear the face off one of them. You don't honestly think I'd be squeamish about such a petty little thing as human life. Why do you even bother to keep the colonies?"
"The prisoners are quite many," Vertan said. "They're worked hard, but treated well enough that they have reasonably long lives. There are plenty of tasks for them, work you'd be hard pressed to make anyone else do for very long. Some are in mines, some work in sweatshops."
"I see," Gilea said.
Vertan cocked his head. "You disapprove," he said. "Do you think of it as weakness to keep them alive?"
"I don't like loose ends," she said. "Nevertheless ... I suppose this prison arrangement has worked for your benefit. We wouldn't be having this conversation otherwise."
"Indeed," he said. "Though it's a shame, really."
"How evil," he said, "even when captured and known for what it is, can have such a beautiful face."
Continued in part two