Skin Deep

by Miriam English

Ian was tall, strong, and confident. He was aware that he was handsome, but wasn't conceited about it. It was merely his lot and his good fortune. He enjoyed his life and the friendships and dalliances he had with his many women friends. He strode to the car waiting for him in the magazine's underground parking area. The small, rounded vehicle's cameras recognised him as he approached and opened its door at his touch.

Seated comfortably inside, Ian spoke the address of his destination and the car's dash lit, displaying a map. He confirmed the address and the car silently moved gently forward, smoothly accelerating while navigating its own way through the parking garage, then out into the main street traffic. Trusting the car to do a better job of driving than he ever could, he took his computer from the pocket of his expensive trousers and switched it on. He once more looked over over what scant little was known about Mariel Veldt, the woman he was going to interview.

She was in her early fifties, had grown up in the Australian bush in Gippsland, Victoria, had been home-schooled, and was now a recluse, living alone, about an hour's drive west of here. There were no known photographs of her and she had expressly forbidden him to bring a photographer. Perhaps she was ashamed of her appearance. The world was suddenly extremely interested in her, and he was one of the very few who had been granted an interview. The science and technology magazines had had their feeding frenzy, and now it was his chance. His editor had impressed upon him the importance of concentrating on the human angle; the science had already been well covered by others. He was to find out why this remarkable woman was an engineer and why she chose to give her invention away to the world. What drove her, and why did she live alone?

An hour is not a terribly long time to travel, especially through such beautiful countryside. It had been a warm and wet summer and the countryside was uncharacteristically lush and green. The little car was built for comfort so that he could stretch out and lean back, listening to some of his favorite music while watching the glorious landscape glide by. He'd given up thinking of ways to conduct the interview. With so little to go on he would have to use his intuition.

The little car had been travelling along single car-width country roads for about twenty minutes when it slowed and turned through an old, rusty, open gateway and crunched its way along an unpaved driveway that wound up a hillside under large trees, deep into forest. After about a kilometre the track opened into a small glade. Wallabies stood up straight, surprised by the intruder, and bounded effortlessly away into the tall forest. At the far side of the open area was an unexpectedly modern house, all dark windows and dark wood — sweeping lines that made him think of art galleries.

Ian got out of the car and breathed in the delicious, sweet, damp, forest air. This is amazing! he thought. He looked around the clearing, listening to the call of a whipbird echoing deep in the trees, and watching numerous dragonflies and small birds zipping and flitting across the area. Continuing to turn, he saw he saw the view back down the valley he'd driven up. He whispered a long "Wow!" Tree-covered hills stretched to a distant horizon misted by blue haze.

Suddenly he became aware of tiny bites on his neck and arms and thin whines filling the air around him. Mosquitoes! He slapped his neck, brushed his arms, and waved the insects away from his face.

"Yes, the mosquitoes are hungry. Come inside." The woman's voice came from the house behind him. He turned. On the verandah was a stunningly beautiful young woman. He was unable to say or do anything for a moment and she added, "I'm Mariel. You're Ian from the magazine." He could only nod, close his mouth, and walk forward.

A wind blew out of the doorway when they opened it. She explained, "The house is kept at a slightly higher air pressure than outside to discourage mosquitoes entering. Nasty little blighters. Still, they serve their purpose, feeding a lot of birdlife, and all those beautiful dragonflies." Inside was relatively dark and cool, and very luxurious. A large blue heeler was now standing next to her, looking at him sternly. "Ian, meet Puff." She scratched the dog behind the ear and it relaxed a little.

Indicating his surroundings with a sweep of his arm, he said, "This is certainly not the country home I'd been expecting." And she was not what he'd expected either. Closer now he could see that she was not quite as young as she'd at first seemed, but nevertheless gorgeous — elegant in a country-girl kind of way. She wore a black shirt with sleeve cuffs rolled up a little, faded blue jeans and riding boots. Her jet-black, shoulder-length hair fell forward over her face a little on one side. The other side was hooked behind her ear. Her face and neck so pale they seemed to glow in contrast to their dark setting. She wore no makeup at all.

She strolled into the open-plan livingroom area, indicated the lounge, and sat in an armchair. "Shall we get straight to the interview?" Puff stayed alert beside her, eyes trained on him.

He sat and they began. Over the next hour and a half they talked, but she herself remained steadfastly elusive. He was frustratingly unable to get her to say anything about herself and her background. The closest she came to revealing anything about herself was when she explained why she decided to give her invention away.

"I put the design in the public domain because people have enough of a struggle making ends meet without a relatively inexpensive imaging technology being overpriced by artificial scarcity. It needed to be available from many manufacturers so that real competition would bring prices quickly within the reach of everybody.

"With energy costs making transport increasingly difficult, and with the threat of more epidemics we need better ways to communicate. This 3D imaging system — it's digital holography, really — lets people talk with friends, family, and business associates face to face, as if they were in the same room. It lets them use actions and body language to aid conversation in ways that aren't possible with talking heads on screens.

"Communication is a very large part of what makes us human. Did you know that language almost certainly is what drove the evolution of our large brains? It seems there was great pressure upon us to communicate well. And do you know what brought about this marvellous capability? Gossip — aimless, friendly conversation. That most maligned of pasttimes. It strengthens group connections. And we humans, so very weak as individuals, are amazingly powerful together."

She paused for a moment, taking a glass of water from the coffee table between them and sipping.

He said, "And yet you live as a recluse..."

She shook her head. "I have many close friends I communicate with every day."

He realised she was talking about her worldwide circle of high-tech friends. He asked, "What did you mean earlier when you said that conversation is a need and should be a right?"

"Why is solitary confinement such a brutal punishment? In some cultures someone who incurs the wrath of a community is ostracized and people refuse to speak with them. In some English communities it is called 'being sent to Coventry'. On ships it was called being 'black-balled'. Being unable to communicate can produce great anguish. Have you ever spent any great length of time alone? If so, you'll know how difficult it can be to stop talking when you finally meet another person again. Words come gushing out until the need is sated. Because that's what communication really is: a need. And like other needs, it should be a right, not something available only to the privileged. In cities this seems almost irrelevant. You are surrounded by people and can talk to them easily any time, but beyond the population centers people feel the need. And if we get another epidemic, a bad one with quarantine restrictions, then especially in the cities, people will learn again about isolation. My technology fills that need cheaply and easily."

She said a lot more along this line, but not much of it would be useful for the article. His computer beeped telling that his time was at an end and he needed to get back. He stood and thanked her for her time. She had been a patient and polite host, but he couldn't help feeling a little annoyed. She'd held back everything that was of importance for his article. He knew no more about her than when he'd arrived... apart from her unadorned beauty, the breathtaking house and surroundings in which she hid. There must be a story there, but she'd changed the subject each time he'd tried directly or indirectly to get her to talk about it.

Feeling defeated, and wondering what his editor was going to say, he got into the little car and it drove him away, back down the dirt driveway. He looked back and saw her standing on the verandah, with her dog, not waving, just watching.

He was almost at the gateway when he received a call from her on the car's viewscreen. He instructed the car to stop and answered the call.

She said, just voice, no image, "Ian, I'm sorry. I know you needed a human-interest story for your magazine. Please understand that I'm a very private person. If you want to come back now I promise I'll give you something more useful for you to write about."

He happily thanked her and told the little car to go back to the house.

The driveway was the same until he rounded the last bend. In the meadow where Mariel's sleek, modern home had been, there was now a small, shabby cabin. He thought at first that he must have taken a wrong turn, but of course that was impossible. The car was infallible and there had been no side-tracks anyway. Puzzled, he got out of the car and walked up to the verandah, where a frail, gray woman wearing faded blue jeans and a black shirt stood beside Puff, the blue heeler.

"Mariel?" he asked uncertainly.

She nodded. "Come inside and I'll explain."

There was the same gentle wind from the doors as they entered, and it was still dim inside, with the same general layout, but the timber and furnishings had seen a lifetime of use, no longer shiny and new.

He said, "The imaging system. You projected false images onto yourself and your home."

She nodded. "Yes, except they weren't false. They're old images, from decades ago, but genuine."

"The house used to be bigger?"

"Well, no. The exterior images were false. It's how the place was intended to be when I began building, but my needs proved much more modest."

He was grinding his teeth. "I don't understand. Why would you mislead me this way?"

"I thought long and hard about whether I should do this interview. I hate the fact that people are so superficial and see only the surface. Everybody says not to judge a book by its cover, and that beauty is only skin deep, but almost nobody really believes that, deep down. At least, they act as if they don't believe it. People lie to themselves about how important appearance is. Sadly, it's how we're wired up. No matter how smart, helpful, or kind, an unattractive person simply isn't treated fairly in a world obsessed with appearance. How many times have people missed their potential soul-mate due to this appearance bias. We are shortchanging ourselves and under-utilising the wealth of human potential all around us. It worried me that my digital holographic technology would pander to that in a similar way to how movies and glossy magazines do, but then I realised, why not use it against superficiality? Why not play to our flaws and subvert them? With my technology the lie can be lied to and undone, like a double negative. A homely person can be pretty. A modest dwelling can look like a mansion."

This seemed a terrible idea to him. "But we couldn't tell what's real anymore."

She shrugged. "How can you tell in an era of makeup and plastic surgery? It just means you'll have to get to know people and find out what they're really like, underneath. Isn't that a good thing?"

He stood, looking at this thin, gray, tired woman, old beyond her years, and contrasted her with the image he'd been so smitten with shortly before. His feelings roiled underneath. He felt betrayed, irritated at the attraction that had been so suddenly shattered. Instead of him steering the interview as he was used to doing, she had controlled it completely.

Frowning, he shook his head, "This is what you brought me back to tell me?"

She nodded, apparently relaxed, dispassionately observing him, as she might watch an experimental animal.

Indignant, he turned and strode back outside.

She watched from behind the glass doors as he got into the car and it drove away down the dirt track. Then, when he'd gone she reached out to the panel beside the door and switched off the projectors. Suddenly she was not quite as old, more like the younger, attractive image, dark haired but now with streaks of gray. The house was fresher, not as run-down, but no larger. Puff was still standing beside her, unchanged through it all. She sighed, reached down, scratched behind the dog's ear and murmured, "You don't care what I look like."