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by Geoff Hart
A trim, elegantly clad woman emerged from the clinic, leaning heavily on the arm of her perspiring companion, looking like someone who'd just come out from under tranq. Her right arm was wrapped in a sling beneath a second set of breasts her companion was having a hard time taking his eyes off.
Nice. I shuddered and looked back at my grandaughter. "You're too young."
Lor frowned as only a teenager can. "C'mon, Gramps. Y'know I'm old enough."
"I know nothing of the sort," I snorted, trying to look stern. I'd been sixteen once, difficult though it was for her to believe.
"All right, already. You're old enough. Tell me again why I came along for the ride?"
She gave me that look, head tilted to one side, corner of her mouth quirked ever so slightly upwards, Patience personified—not. "You know I can't drive myself."
I knew. The State would let her mutilate herself beyond recognition, but wouldn't put her behind the wheel of a car, automated or not, without adult supervision. I reluctantly conceded her logic. "It's your birthday, and it's my responsibility to spoil you. Let's do this before I change my mind."
She grabbed her knapsack from the back seat, and did her best not to look too relieved. But then she spoiled the impression by flinging herself across the seat to hug me hard. I tried not to wince as my nipple rings caught on the fabric of my shirt. Even so, she was out the door before me—and with much less wobble in her legs than I had in mine. I caressed the tight row of half a dozen simple pewter studs in my left ear, enjoying the cool metal and remembering when their grey had contrasted with my hair. Remembering my own mingled trepidation and excitement far too many years ago when I'd snuck away for my own first piercing. I could still smell the astringency of the alcohol scrubs…
I smiled, drawing courage from those memories, and locked the door behind me, triggering the security. As I followed her, I found myself humming a line about being there for your baby—an old Smashmouth tune they played occasionally on the golden oldies station, leading to much head shaking and eyes cast heavenwards among the younger set.
"So have you decided?"
She smiled cruelly. "Maybe I'll do what Double Dick did…"
I shuddered. Richard had always struck me as a nice, normal kid, the kind you'd want to see dating your granddaughter—until the day he came back from the body shop on his own sixteenth birthday. Back in my day, a Prince Albert piercing was the height of macho, an explicit statement about who owned your body. Now, even accountants thought that kind of stuff tame. O tempora, o mores!
"It wouldn't suit you. You're not the hermaphrodite type."
She snorted. "So all we think about is sex? That's so pre-Web, Gramps. I want something radical."
That's not radical? But she already thought I was a fuddy duddy—albeit a sweet one—and grandfatherly karma would only carry you so far. "So what is radical these days?"
"Dunno. Maybe an extra liver so I can drink more at my graduation. I'll be old enough to drive then."
"No, you'll be old enough to call me to pick you up and bring you home alive. Like I'll be doing today."
"You have a point to make, young lady?" I kept the and for now you still are a young lady to myself. "I know where you wanted to go, and I researched them. Take you to that rat-trap where you're always hanging out and you'd be lucky to escape with hep-E."
"So I'm exagerrating. But I'm still not going to let some back-alley butcher carve up my one and only grandaughter. This place is good. It's got guarantees and real Harvard doctors. Jewish ones."
Silence for a moment. Then, her face gone quite sober, "Gramps?"
"You're welcome. Remember that at my funeral, when your dad spits on my coffin." George Junior was straighter than the lasers he played with at the linac lab, and Rachel—may she enjoy Seattle enough to never come back east again—had been worse. There were times I gratefully accepted the fact my son had no home life to speak of—that's why God made retired grandparents—but raising him had surely been some deity's idea of sweet revenge for my own youth.
The clinic's sign was an old holomorph, the proverbial 97-pound weakling turning into Arnold Schwarzenegger, a retro image carefully chosen to convey a reassuring sense of tradition and security—if the beemers and Mercs and Audis parked out front weren't enough to do that. You don't stay in business long catering to the establishment if you don't know your stuff. I glanced at her one last time before we entered; she looked about to say something, and I shook my head.
"Don't." She nodded, then all at once hugged me again. Forewarned, I adjusted my shirt this time, and savored the hug without the accompanying pain.
We pushed in past the door's automatic and overtly stately sweep, into the airconditioned comfort of the showroom, and were immediately swept up by the greeter.
"Welcome, Sir and Madame! And how may I have the pleasure of assisting you today?"
I kept the smile on my face, but it must have looked a little forced. A little self-mutilation, thanks. But what I said was, "the young lady has come for her birthday present."
He winked knowingly at me, then turned his attention fully on Lor. "Sixteen already, young lady? My, how the time flies." He put a reassuring arm around her shoulders and steered her across the entry hall, glancing across the top of her head at his wrist. "Ah, Dr. Chapel would appear to be free. This way."
I followed in their wake, resolutely focusing on the back of his expensive suit and ignoring the before and after holos covering the walls, grumbling to myself all the while. Quality, sure, but it was gonna cost me. Next time I'd pick a clinic with Toyotas and Fords in the parking lot.
The greeter ushered us into a comfortable office that smelled of cigars and old leather. The former was a vice they could tolerate easily enough, what with replacement lungs a dime a dozen, but they hadn't come up with a taste transplant yet that would cure the latter; if God had meant Man to sit on leather, he wouldn't have invented motorcycle jackets.
Chapel was a trim, well-groomed man about my son's age, with gymnasium muscles and eyes that sparkled far too much to be entirely natural. He assessed me with a single professional glance, inclined his head just enough to be polite, then turned his attention fully on my grandaughter. "Welcome, Miss…"
"Lor." Give her credit, her voice was steady. Just thinking about what this place did made me feel like I'd had a tail installed and wanted to tuck it between my legs and head for the door.
"Lor it is. Call me Grant. How may I be of assistance?"
"I'd like to know what the options are." She'd researched this for months, but it was only human to hesitate at the last. While the two of them locked eyes, I palmed an antacid tab and swallowed it dry.
"Are you interested in keeping in step with the latest trends, or are you thinking of something bolder and more individual?"
"Very good. A young lady who knows her own mind." He smiled at her, then returned his gaze to me. "And will there be any limits on the young lady's choices, sir?"
I suppressed the impulse to cut my losses and run, swallowed the lump in my throat, and simply shook my head. His smile widened ever so slightly, and I imagined the high-pitched digital hum of his terminal sucking my gold card dry. No, you vivisectionist. Turn my grandaughter into a grandson for all I care.
"Excellent. So, young lady, let's narrow down your choices. Are you interested in something functional, something cosmetic, or a combination of the two?"
"Combination?" we asked simultaneously.
"Well yes, of course! We're not one of those butcher shops that leave you needing prosthetics just to walk out of our office. For example, we've got something new today, fresh in from California." He tapped his notepad and set it back on the desk. The holo of a remarkably buxom blonde sprang up from the desk, smiling, breasts straining at a halter top that some psych engineer had designed to give passers-by whiplash. It was a tossup whether that or her wings most drew my attention. I settled on the wings.
"Wow!" Lor breathed.
"Yeah," I echoed. "What do you call that?"
"We call it The Angel, sir. It's a retro look, hearkening back to a more innocent time." He tapped the notepad again and the wings slowly and gracefully folded, those formidable breasts rising and settling slowly in synch with the movement of the wings. "You're probably wondering about the functional part, sir, and just to reassure you, the wings won't actually let your grandaughter fly."
"That's a relief." I doubt he caught the sarcasm in my voice. "And the functional aspect?"
"Well, that would be related to the mod itself, of course. It requires major modification of the pectorals and abdominals to support the weight of those wings, and the client ends up with a considerably stronger upper body as a result. Obviously, you won't be winning many swimming matches with all that encumbrance on your back, but on the other hand, your tennis game will improve remarkably. Would you like to see how you'd look in them?"
"Lor, you don't even play tennis—"
She shot me a wicked grin. "I could learn!"
"Gramps! Just kidding." Lor shook her head at our host. "No, thanks. I'm, uh, thinking of something less drastic, Dr. Chapel. Something more… cosmetic."
"Please, call me Grant. Hmmm… there's honestly not much cosmetic that hasn't been done already." He looked Lor over with a care that would have earned him a clout in those expensive teeth if it hadn't been so clinical. "Are we talking enhancements—" his eyes lingered on her chest—"or additions?"
Lor inhaled deeply and without noticing, thrust out her still-small chest a bit defensively, not having missed his gaze. "Tell me about additions."
"Well," Chapel furrowed his brow in thought and gazed off into space, "you did say nothing too radical. How about a second set of arms? It's very popular with the boyfriend, I can tell you, but you can't overstate their esthetic impact."
"Do they work?" I gritted out, thinking of Richard.
"Of course. First-generation mods were purely decorative, but the new generation are, oh, 90% as functional as your natural-grown arms. You can even brush your teeth with them once you've spent a few months training the neural circuits. And again, the additional work we have to do on the pectorals has certain beneficial cosmetic side effects…"
"I'm perfectly happy with my breasts, thank you very much." I wasn't the only one who saw the frost forming on the air. Chapel's smile faded ever so slightly, but he rallied quickly.
"Ah. No pectoral work, then. Let me see… I've got it! Have a look at this…" He tapped the notepad again, three times, and a new image flicked into existence above the desk. Unmistakably Lor's body, complete with puffed out chest and frosty gaze, but as we watched, her hair lengthened and thickened. In a moment, her head was crowned with a mass of thick tendrils, writhing disturbingly.
"We call this one The Medusa, a truly classical look. And fear not, sir, the tendrils are perfectly harmless. We're well aware of the perils of taking our own symbols too literally."
Lor pursed her lips. "Do they come in different colors?"
"But of course. And different forms and textures: snakeskin is the most popular because of its smooth, leathery texture and ease of care, but we also offer something approaching normal hair—" he tapped the notepad and the tendrils flattened—"or more modern possibilities, such as biomech." He tapped the screen again and the holo's tendrils became a net of gleaming metal strands. "Of course," he glanced measuringly at my grandaughter, "that's pretty radical. Would you like to see feathers? We do a marvelous cockatoo crest." He reached out to tap the notepad again, but Lor shook her head.
"I kind of like my hair the way it is, thanks."
"A woman of ample self-confidence. Good for you! But if you like hair, perhaps I have just the thing for you." He tapped the screen again, three times, and this time Lor appeared on screen, unclad. I sat up straighter, preparing to protest, but Chapel was too much the pro; anything a grandfather would have protested had been tactfully blurred, and Lor looked about as anatomically accurate as one of those Barbie dolls kids used to play with. He cocked a sardonic eyebrow in my direction, then returned his attention to Lor as I settled back into my chair.
"This one we call The Kitten. It's a bit of a retro design, harking back to the first mods of the late 20th century, but we feel we've updated the classic look with a modern sensibility." He tapped the screen, and the virtual Lor was suddenly covered with long, silky fur. "We have a variety of patterns—Siamese and tortoiseshell are quite popular—and several optional accessories, such as pointy ears and cat teeth to accompany the fur. If you're feeling a trifle bolder, we can modify the choice of integument more radically."
"Skin, sir," Chapel replied smoothly. "Reptilian is quite popular, though a trifle cool for the New England climate. And of course, we offer feathers, sharkskin, scales, and so on." He cocked an eyebrow at Lor, who seemed somewhat taken aback.
"Um… I don't think I like hair quite that much. It would take an awful lot of care, wouldn't it?"
"Well yes, but that's the price of elegance, young lady. We can refer you to a local salon that offers steep discounts to our clients." He gathered himself together, sighed, and carried on. "Very well, if skin modifications aren't your thing, how about some sensory modifications?" He tapped the notepad sharply several times in a row. "Ah, here we go. We call this one The Illuminatus." The hovering Lor sprouted a third eye in the middle of her forehead. "The eye can be visible or not, with a variety of sensory modifications: infrared, ultraviolet, doppler radar, and so on. Or it can have a variety of additional functions added: digital video, sound, holographic projection, tickler field..."
Lor shot me a bemused look. "Um, let me think about that one. What other sensory whatchamacallits can you do?"
"Here's a particular favorite of mine," Chapel smiled a bit quickly for my taste. He tapped the notepad once, waited a second, then twice more in quick sequence. "There you go." The image of Lor opened its mouth, and the display zoomed in until all we could see was her face. A sinuous forked tongue uncoiled langorously from her mouth.
"Trust me, young lady, it's not nearly so odd as you might expect, and less uncomfortable and lower maintenance than the tongue piercings your grandfather's generation liked so much. And, if I may add a personal note, it makes for some fascinating sexual possibilities."
Somehow, the smooth bastard made that line sound a lot less slimey than it should have sounded. Still, I shot him a warning glare. He ignored me, his attention now entirely on Lor.
The silence dragged on long enough for Chapel to lose some of that slick smile, and I sat back in my chair and crossed my legs. After a time, Lor looked up from the notepad, with the wicked grin that I knew and feared—and loved. "I know just exactly what I want, Dr. Chapel. Gramps? If you wouldn't mind leaving the room? I want this to be a surprise."
Our eyes met, and reluctantly, I uncrossed my legs and rose from the chair. "Of course, darlin'. I'll be just outside, Dr. Chapel." We locked eyes, and he looked away first. I left my card on the desk, beside the notepad, squeezed Lor's shoulder, and closed the door behind me.
Outside, I paced the entry hall, watching the few other customers. To my right, a tall, overly muscular man with a Harvard pinkie ring stood awkwardly beneath a large holo of a naked male figure. I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of what had drawn his attention, then quickly turned my attention elsewhere. He did, after all, have unusually large muscles, and I didn't want to be within arm's length if he spotted my snicker. Always thought it was the Yale boys who needed the penile enhancement!
I tried to divert myself by checking out the before'n'after holos but that did nothing for my equilibrium; the satyr was merely strange, and the security guard with the innovatively concealed stilettos was eminently practical, but the man with the womb left an unpleasant feeling in my gut and the vagina dentata was going to take some counselling to expunge from my memory. I curled up in the waiting room and tuned the vid to a local newscast. Might as well expand the mind while I waited, and keep it off less pleasant things—such as what the doctor might be discussing with Lor. I think I caught about half of what the talking heads were saying; my mind was too busy dwelling on what I'd say to George Junior if I brought his daughter home with an extra set of breasts or—and I shuddered despite myself—that forked tonque.
Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the door to Chapel's office opening. Lor emerged, a dazzling smile on her face that more than made up for the Doctor's professional poker face. But it was the turban-like swath of cloth wrapped around her head that drew my attention.
I stood, a bit more shakily than I'd have preferred. "God, Lor… You didn't get the eye, did you?"
"Gramps. They can't do something that complex that quickly."
"Of course not, sir." Chapel handed back my card, and I pocketed it without looking. Damned if I'd let him catch me checking the tab. Damned if I'd let Lor catch me checking. "We do only quality work here. A neuro mod like that would require an appointment for day surgery, and an overnight stay while we trained the eye."
"Surely not the hair…"
"Oh, please." She rolled her eyes up in her head as if I'd pulled off a mask and suddenly revealed myself to be her father.
Chapel shook his head, and this time a genuinely warm smile grew upon his face. "May I just say, sir, your grandaughter is a young woman of rare and discerning taste. You should be proud, sir."
"And neither of you is going to tell me what she chose?"
"Of course not, sir. Our confidentiality rules are quite strict about this sort of thing." The twinkle in Chapel's eye was positively incandescent, and he took my numb hand and shook it firmly. "Please do come again on the young lady's next birthday, and ask for me personally. I'd be delighted to serve you again." And with that, he turned on his heel and strode out of the room.
"Wait 'till we get to the car, Gramps." If her look got any more smug, I was gonna hold her upside down and shake her until the canary popped out. Instead, I sighed and reflected wistfully how much of her grandmother was in her as she preceded me out into the parking lot. We walked to the car in silence, but once inside, I turned on the seat to face her.
"All right, darlin'—spill the beans. What did you choose?" What did that ghoul do to you?
Lor gave me her serious look now, the uncertain one that said she actually cared what I thought. "You promise you won't be mad?"
I glared at her. "As if!"
That earned a weak smile. "All right." She tugged at the end of the wrap that had been tucked up under the rest to hold it in place, and slowly unwrapped it. I'd been less impatient watching the New England equivalent of the dance of the thousand veils as a teen, but the wrap finally flopped into her lap.
"Do you like it?"
I looked from the row of new piercings in her ear, jade-green to match her thankfully still-natural eyes, to the worried half-smile, and back again. Then met her eyes, my own vision having grown a mite blurrier than I was prepared to admit. "I like. But I thought you said—"
"Something a bit more radical, yes. I did say that." Her own eyes had grown a trifle moist, but the girl had spunk. "And just when was the last time you saw earrings on anyone younger than 80? Can't get much more radical than that, Gramps. Now drive. I can't wait to get home and show Richard."
I told the car to get going, and we slid out of the lot, into traffic. Lor put her hand on my shoulder, and I caught it in my own and squeezed hard.
I fondly remember John Varley's many tales of painless and near-instantaneous body modifications, up to and including sex changes. The notion stuck with me for many years, and it wasn't until I had my own children that I figured out how I could put my own slant on the notion. It was difficult to strike just the right balance between honestly portraying the grandfather–granddaughter relationship without straying too far into sentimentality, but when I workshopped this story at Boskone (with Richard Chwedyk, David Marusek, and a few other really good authors whose names currently escape me), the consensus was that I'd succeeded.
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