Matthew J. Streett
Vladimir grabbed his dead wife’s wrist and yanked her around to face him. It felt like iron wrapped in velvet. Hair that flashed like black water in the streetlamps spilled over her right shoulder as she turned her head. She held a neutral expression as she took him in for a moment, calculating, the slight tug of a permanent smile at the left corner of her mouth. Then she chose alarm.
Her face changed, and twin pearls of light swelled in her eyes as time slowed for Vladimir. He reached up to his face as her eyes brightened to moons, then suns that blinded him as the flash went off. He felt the cloth of his shemagh covering his mouth and relaxed as his mind caught up with his nerves. The light faded.
“Bozhe moi,” he said. “Chto ty?”
Her face returned to its flat normal, her tone bouncy. “Hello, sir. I apologize for any disorientation, but I interpreted your action as assault and had to image and upload your face. Do you speak English or German? Hallo, mein Herr, ich entschuldige mich . .”
“You don’t have the right,” he said. “And it’s not assault. I would never hurt you. But you still don’t have the right.” He looked more deeply into her eyes, the spots in his vision fading. “Had your eyes ever been so deep a green, my love, like malachite, and not the creamy jade I remember?”
The crowd squeezed past them in the tight artery of the market’s cobblestone street, bounded on one side by buildings and on the other by the river Main. Nearly everyone wore shemags or niqabs – some in dun colors like his own, and some brocaded paisley, or rough batik in a spray of colors, or printed floral patterns. Silver pins and gold clasps held them in place as often as gnarled roots of polished cedar. One in ten wore no veil – each of those naked faces had flawless skin, with a plastic sheen that glimmered in the lamps. Odors of sizzling kebab and currywurst flowed through the air to join the subtle scent of produce and the river’s clean water as dawn pushed up from the buildings across the other bank.
“I thank you for the compliment, sir, and it’s a sign of the quality workmanship of Doppel Industries. However, I must also assert the legitimate and legal right I have to wear this face. This likeness is in the commercial domain, pursuant to European Common Licensing Standards, following from a ‘yes’ equivalent given on 1 Nov 2061, at GPS coordinates . . .”
“When . . . when did you say?” He dropped her hand, stunned.
“1 Nov 2061, sir.”
“What was the name of the place where consent is alleged?”
“The Universitätsklinikum here in Frankfurt, sir.”
He stepped back, shaking his head as a few people bumped into him. “Our anniversary. We couldn’t get another appointment date. She’d only removed her niqab for the medical exam.” Then he steeled himself and pushed forward again. “She never consented to this. Did the hospital sell her likeness?”
She half-turned. “No, sir, the company leasing the imaging equipment to the hospital sold her likeness.”
He followed as she moved away from him. “What do you do? Tell me you’re not a prostitute. How many of you are there?”
“I’m a receptionist at the branch headquarters of Rudolphs Mühlstein Bäckerei Aktiengesellschaft, known internationally as Rudolph’s Millstone Bakery Corporate Concern.”
“Do they have exclusive rights to her face?”
“I’m not privy to that information, sir. You should be proud, your wife was a very attractive woman.”
“I want her forgotten.”
The android stopped and turned. “She’s in the commercial domain, sir. I’m sorry for your losses. Please consider Rudolph’s Millstone Bakery the next time you’re in the market for rich, fluffy artesian bread. Rudolph’s Millstone Bakery: we’re authentic.”
She walked on. He didn’t follow.
Vladimir opened the door to the bakery’s corporate headquarters. His dead wife sat at the desk. A foot-thick millstone cut with a Spanish cross in its eye sat propped up on its edge, six feet high on its stand, and a bronze plaque sanctified it as the original millstone used by founder Johannes Rudolph Schmidt. He approached it, and the furrows cut into it were sharp, without a bit of wear. The air smelled like fresh-baked bread with a slight metallic twinge, an aroma that streamed out of a room freshener on the secretarial desk.
“Greetings, sir!” said Vladimir’s wife, cheerily.
His eyes half-closed. “You torment my soul,” he said. “Your beauty leaves ghosts in its wake.”
“Is this in reference to our earlier, non-business encounter?”
He shook his head. “Of course not, my nightingale. I have business with your company, even as your eyes tear at my heart.”
“An outstanding choice, sir! Rudolphs Mühlstein Bäckerei Aktiengesellschaft is always the choice of consummate professionals like yourself. We congratulate you for seeking out the best. Rudolph’s Millstone Bakery – it’s authentic!”
“Would that they had borrowed your words as well, that your visage might not mock the spirit that once lay beneath. What a hell is memory.” He approached the desk. “This is where you work, then?”
“You don’t grind with this, I suppose.” He pointed back to the stone.
“No sir, but that’s our way of honoring the heritage of our founder. Herr Schmidt’s company was later bought by Sun Bread Collective, and then Absolut Foods, and finally by Amalgamated Foodstuffs, which is honored to continue the Schmidt tradition through the new medium of edible polymers. Amalgamated’s wheat-simulating division, Rudolph’s Millstone Bakery Corporate Concern, continues to honor the Schmidt tradition, though unfortunately it can longer be called the Schmidt tradition because of copyright reasons. In any case, sir, do have an appointment with a particular representative, or did you want to contact one of our departmental service teams?”
He sat down in front of her, gazing deeply into her strange eyes. “What are departmental service teams?”
She smiled. “Departments.”
“I would like to have words with those who control your employee licenses. I have a proposal for them.”
“That’s very good, sir, does this involve the Patent- und Markenamt?”
He had to think a minute. “No, not a trademark issue. No lawyers are involved.”
“Human resources or simulated resources?”
“Simulated, my sparrow. Would that they were human, but no.”
She tapped the screen in front of her. “We do have an opening with one of our enterprise-level associates.”
He sighed. “Is that a low or high level?”
“Our enterprise-level associates are the first responders for customer care, and can respond to any of your business needs.”
Vladimir thought a moment. “Excuse me, precious one.” He walked over to the directory mounted on the wall, and searched for a while. After a minute he half turned his head back to her, and spoke, slowly and deliberately unspooling his words. “I’m sorry, I don’t know all these terms. What does one call a person in charge of licensing simulated resources, who would be able to make decisions about individual licenses?”
“That would be the Director of Synthetic Care.”
He turned back again. “Then I would like an appointment with Mr. . . . Mr. Beckford. Not a very German name.”
She turned back to the screen. “Mr. Beckford is from the Sheffield branch. I’m afraid he’s in meetings until 1330.”
“Then I will wait.”
Vladimir sat down and stared at his wife. Nests of wrinkles stretched out from his eyes, and red veins blotched out into the whites. His pale blue eyes watched her for three hours.
Mr. Beckford appeared at the door, glancing for a single moment at Vladimir before his eyes flicked back to the android. Mr. Beckford’s shemagh was made of black silk embroidered with pineapples, and its folds fell over an immaculate black suit with a faint herringbone pattern. His dress shirt had French cuffs with pineapple cufflinks, and his polished leather shoes came to a fine point.
Vladimir looked down at his own gray, shapeless coveralls. He had kept them clean but their thick fibers had still gone threadbare at the edges.
“I’m sorry, Jutta,” said Mr. Beckford. “Did you offer to assist this gentleman with one of our enterprise-level representatives?”
“Jutta?” said Vladimir.
Mr. Beckford fixed his gaze on him. “Yes, this is Jutta, I believe she dealt with you initially.”
“Jutta. That’s what you call the machine?”
“Please, sir, let’s not treat the android improperly, she’s approximately human, after all. In a roundabout way.”
“Svetlana,” he whispered to himself in litany. “Svetlana is a name that wanders through a cold wooded vale to a cabin of fire and light in the forest heart.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that.”
Vladimir came to his senses again. “I’m sorry, Mr. Beckford. Can we speak in your office?”
“I don’t know that it’s really necessary, sir, I’m sure an enterprise-level associate can help you.”
“I have an appointment with you, Mr. Beckford.”
Mr. Beckford paused. “Well . . . I . . .” He looked to the android for help.
She returned his gaze blankly.
Vladimir rose before Mr. Beckford could gather his wits and began walking through the door the other man still held open. “Why don’t you show me the way?”
When they came into the office of the Director for Synthetic Care, Vladimir sat down straightaway in a leather upholstered chair dressed with brass tacks along the seams. Behind Mr. Beckford’s desk, itself a massive slab of Brazilian cherry, a large Jackson Pollock covered most of the back wall. The office itself was a bit dim, with a tiny rock garden fountain with a buzzing pump that sat at the corner of the desk. Certificates hung on the wall in cherry frames, and a row of cut-glass corporate awards sat on an open display cabinet facing the doorway so that it could be seen at once. A few mannequins of half-disassembled androids stood in the corners on decorative stands. Vladimir’s eyes, though, went to the human face mounted on a pedestal near the painting. He looked away and waited for Mr. Beckford to sit down again, and spoke before the other man could begin to probe.
“I want you to sell me my wife’s likeness.”
Mr. Beckford’s brow wrinkled for a moment. “Which one of our synthetic resources is currently wearing your wife’s face?”
“The one you call Jutta.”
Mr. Beckford’s face lit up. “Ah, I see. I do see. I actually get this a lot, Herr . . .”
“Herr Kandinsky. I do mourn your loss, and I am grateful for the financial benefits that you both received from the sale of your wife’s likeness. I can imagine that you needed the money rather badly, yes?”
He crossed his arms and tilted his head forward to emphasize his point. “She didn’t sell it.”
Mr. Beckford threw up his hands and leaned back in his chair. “There is no other way for it to appear on the database. We use legitimate companies.”
“It was a doctor’s visit.”
The executive tapped his finger three times and a computer monitor angled up out of the cherry slab. He reached under the desk and Vladimir heard the faint padding of typing. Mr. Beckford reached over the monitor and turned it so that Vladimir could see. “Yes, the Universitätsklinikum Frankfurt, Nuvosis Imaging International, looks like a . . . fifth party sale before she got to us. Perfectly legitimate. You see, sir, it may seem to you that her likeness was used without her consent or benefit, but the money generated from the sale of her image was passed onto her, the consumer, through the benefit of discounted imaging service. It’s been many years since noncitizens were eligible for care under Gesetzliche Krankenversicherung, so without these kinds of discount incentives, you’d be in a great deal of trouble if you got sick.”
“How much in savings was it?”
Light played across the screen. “So, look at that! There really was a substantial savings discounted from the total charge of fifteen thousand euro for the scan.”
“That’s a made-up number. It’s a bluff learned from the Americans. Read the details.”
Mr. Beckford sighed. “So, the imaging company billed fifteen thousand euro, and received 1208.55 euro from insurance, and the image sale part of that was . . . a bit over eighty euro subtracted from the bill. Eighty and change. You can do a lot with eighty and change. That’s almost three meals. Four or five if you economize, I suppose. Just get carrots and noodles and things. Not sure how much those things cost.”
Vladimir leaned forward in his chair, his voice growing slightly louder. “Eighty is how much the insurance company didn’t have to pay, money they kept for the most part. The savings for us was perhaps a few euro. For an eternity of dishonor.”
“I’m sure it’s more money than that.”
“I was a radiologist at the Mejdunarodnaya Klinika MEDEM before I sold shoes in Frankfurt. I know how the system works.”
“Sir, I realize that the Astaire process can be a bit upsetting to the survivors. In today’s business climate, it is quite a bit cheaper to simply buy a likeness rather than create one from scratch and risk being sued for identity theft. Even similarity can get you sued, and there’s always someone who looks like the face you might create. An actual, documented, sold face is the only legal protection.”
“How about not having them look like people?”
He snorted. “Well now you’re just being silly. Who would want to talk to that?”
Vladimir kept his perch, leaning forward, his eyes boring into the other man. “How much will it cost to buy her likeness?”
Beckford folded his hands. “Replacing a face isn’t just a matter of a plasticine graft, it’s a matter of administrative fees for changes in licenses, it’s the loss of the unit for a few days, and most of all, it’s the loss of that personal, face-to-face touch that we have with our customers. Our corporate customers know Jutta. They love Jutta. In many ways, she is the face of Rudolph’s Stone Mill Bakery Corporate Concern Hesse Branch 23.”
“How much. Just give me a number, Mr. Beckford.”
He crossed his arms. “Mr. Kandinsky, I simply won’t sell. It’s not profitable. On top of that, Jutta is very likeable as she is. You don’t have enough money to make it worth my while, since I see that you’re only employed part-time now, and your credit check is miserable. I’m sorry, I ran that in the sidebar. And when it comes right down to it, I simply don’t like your . . . concerns. You’re far too attached to someone who is gone now, so you might as well pack up and move on. It’s just a face. Let the grieving process end, Mr. Kandinsky.”
Vladimir was breathing more heavily now. “Just a face.”
“Yes. Just a face.”
Vladimir launched across the desk and grabbed Mr. Beckford, pulling him over the desk by what he could grab of his lapel. The meditative fountain spilled over and its polished oval rocks scattered across the floor. Beckford flailed and yelled as the edge of the desk scraped his chest, and Vladimir wrenched off the other man’s shemag. Mr. Beckford screamed with fury, and then Vladimir reached into his own pocket for his phone. Mr. Beckford howled, batting at Vladimir, who raised the phone high like a sacrificial dagger and spoke a single word. “Snap.”
There was an audible click as the phone flashed the area, capturing Mr. Beckford’s smooth skin, reddened from fighting, his tousled blonde gelled hair, the trimmed eyebrows. Mr. Beckford recoiled as Vladimir released him, skittering back like a bug.
Vladimir glanced at his phone. “It has uploaded, Mr. Beckford.”
“It is on my personal website. It is asking me to post. And now I have a dilemma. My network already owns the rights to your face by virtue of my uploading the image to their site. So it’s really only in the commercial domain. Yet if I post it, it’s in the public domain. Can you imagine that, Mr. Beckford? Your face used to sell insurance, toys, male prostitution? You’re a very pretty man, Mr. Beckford. They’ll find all kinds of uses for your legacy.”
He nearly spat. “You do that, and I release your wife’s face into the public domain.”
“You have already done more harm to her than she could have imagined. She was a very private woman, Mr. Beckford, and her face was hers to do with as she wished. You can only damage her honor. Yet I can still cause you pain, a lifetime of pain and shame.” He sat back, the phone raised in his hand like a weapon. “Svetlana had wrinkles, Mr. Beckford. And her eyes were so different. And that wondrous tug of a smile she still wears was nerve damage, yet you’ve removed the scar that caused it. Our flaws are our most precious asset. Yet look at you, Mr. Beckford. Look at you. Flawless.”
Mr. Beckford was frantically putting his shemagh back on, and cancelling the security query that had popped up on the screen he was speaking to. “No, we’re fine in here, my appointment accidentally knocked over my meditative rock sculpture. Garden. Fountain. The thing on my desk, it was knocked over, I’ll have enterprise custodial care take care of it in a minute. No, I’ll arrange that. Thank you.” He looked up at Vladimir. “What are you blathering on about? You want her license, I’ll transfer her license. I can buy back my own face, you know.”
“And I will always have a copy. You can sue me, but I will always have a copy, ready to enter the public domain with a single command. Or a dropbox with a deadman switch, which would be even better, something I’d have to delay every week or two to keep from posting. You hold the trigger to Svetlana, Mr. Beckford, but I hold the trigger to you. Always. Remember that.” He reached into his pocket. “And I give you my word, I will pass the savings onto you. Here. I’ll do it in advance.”
Vladimir rose and bowed low, opening the door. “My people have a phrase that used to be a blessing, and is now a curse. Vechnaya Pamyat. Eternal be your memory, Mr. Beckford. May you never be forgotten.”
Two euro coins clattered onto the desk and remained there.
© End ™
“Negotiations” © Matthew J. Streett
bio. Matthew J. Streett is a writer, military officer, Iraq war veteran, and clergyman with a penchant for Walt Whitman and Hefeweizen. His heroes are Fred Rogers and Bill Nye for the compassion and the science, respectively. He currently lives in Germany and cares for multinational forces as well as troops returning from combat zones. He holds a Ph.D. and M.A. in Biblical Studies from the Catholic University of America, an M.Div. from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and a B.F.A. in Creative Writing from the Writer’s Workshop of the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has also published nonfiction and poetry. Find him and his works at www.matthewstreett.com.”
Illustration: “Encounter” photomanipulation by Fran Eisemann. Stock used: “Moment”, “Wild is the Wind”, and by larafairiestock, and “stock_circuit” by supertako