Phaela woke up in terror of the ceiling falling above her fragile body. She tentatively opened one partially reflective eye, trying to focus on the weird bulge on the ceiling. The oddly shaped depression was beginning to peel the plaster at it’s outer boundaries where its structural integrity had been stretched to its maximum. It reminded Phaela of the old mutations that used to happen to her as a child. She used to be terrified that her skin would explode with the rapidly growing tumors, much like how her ceiling stretched out now. She forced herself out of her bed with latent alarm. Phaela’s bed was a humble old cot clumsily held together by rickety legs which had stopped aspiring to be a bed in the prime of its youth, much like its owner.
Phaela jumped over to a large dirty fragment of a mirror which had been scrubbed clean with all the strength of her undernourished arms so that some of its reflective power would validate her existence. At any given moment, the fragment could only show her torso, which satisfied Phaela’s needs. She had long since given up on the indignity of seeking her own face in the mirror. The face was a mirror of the mind, people had told her. But ever since she had consigned herself to this life, she didn’t want to think of what went on in her mind. The mirror was like the bed, like the rest of the modest room, like Phaela herself. Dysfunctional but functional enough. Living out its utility day by day.
“Save your skin” had been the original slogan. By the time she grew up, it was too late to get out of the system. So she had to create other lies to preserve her sanity in a world that was obviously not what she thought it to be. Until she had decided that sanity was too inconvenient to hold on to. The lies mercifully stopped. But the truth didn’t. Sometimes, when Phaela closed her eyes she could picture and see the bright advertisements blaring in the cheap, toxic neon.
The campaign had originated in the sub-terranean colonies as a beauty product. History laughs at the vanity of the surviving humans after the near-total destruction of the surface of the Earth. It was a dermatological repair technique that would correct mutated skin cells from the high levels of exposure. It was surprising how such a product sprang out onto the market without any sort of credible research behind it. Nevertheless, it became ragingly popular and if any citizen in those colonies ever suspected that he or she was about to grow a third arm or another head, they sought to apply industrial size packaging of the product. It didn’t stop the radiation however, and as the populations began to dwindle, desperate measures were sought to acquire more of the product. Trained cyborgs replaced human crews at the production facilities. Prices sky-rocketed as did the people’s demand. Within a few years, a humble product had now jumped to a socio-political statement. The organization that produced the cream had now acquired enough investment and power to monopolize the healthcare market as well.
Phaela had jumped onto the bandwagon a little too eagerly, giving in to the intellectual need of being different. But now it was ironic that her body dictated what her mission would be. Ever since she had decided to be a recruit, she knew that her biorhythms and her skin texture would soon transmit the same message going out to a million other, perhaps equally mediocre faces or bodies in the population. For about two decades now, her body skin had been conditioned to process the ink with which the messages were transferred. This turned her skin even paler and she was more susceptible to strong light. The treatment had been the cause of the layers of reflective pallor in her eyes, which made her look diseased in the daylight and made her eyes glow in the dark.
When the side-effects were first discovered, the sub-terranean colonies of the product’s humble origins had died out. It took at least seven years for the effects to show, by which time the original users had already been augmented into half-machines and so didn’t have the skin to show for it. Hideous accidents began to happen, but they were hushed up. Governments could not, or perhaps would not, stop the onslaught as the product infected the market like a weed, driving out whatever little good medication could sustain full-fleshed human beings.
From a user to a market-manager to a survivor, Phaela had graduated to the levels of which she could be a living testament of the product. Any day she knew, any day, her skin would fail her and she would be replaced by someone younger with healthier skin and with more money to waste than to hold. Phaela often wished the pathetic ceiling would perhaps collapse on the excuse of a self-constructed life, shatter the mirror, demolish the bed, conquer her fears and allow her to run away. She was now formally called the Propaganda Manager of the sub-colony. This meant that she had more people to lie to and convince them to use the product. Often, she would give in to a burst of radicalism and lead rallies through the partially constructed streets, interrupting the neat lines of industrial cyborgs prepared to go to work. From the LCD-coated skyscrapers, the advertisements had gotten a lot more individual and personal.
The campaign had taken a turn towards a fanatical cult, and it was now Phaela’s mandate to force the product on everyone. Either through the charms of advertising or through secretly stealing their identities and forcing their health care providers to make the product necessary for their well-being. Of all the identities that she stole, she knew that she could never ever adopt one of them. Some cruel merger of years of drifting without purpose, and the need to be important had now forced her to accept life as something that could only be mediocre. She knew that she would never be something remarkably fascinating, but she could definitely serve as the invisible catalyst for the multitude.
Phaela was now all too familiar with the other lies that went on. Sometimes, they would manipulate the daily radiation reports to frighten the masses into buying their product. Sometimes, they would lie about casualty reports. All the time, they lied about the “benefits” of their product, which was more a result of scientific lottery than consistency. Phaela had stopped accepting a salary for the last five years, as her skin grew to take on even worrying shades of white. Whatever salary she had, she sustained a meal, a broken bed, a broken mirror and millions of broken dreams.
Phaela’s skin began to prickle. It was on her left hip this time and it spread upwards on her stomach like a radioactive tumor. It was a tattoo of the logo. A perfect way to brand the users. Phaela calculated her odds of surviving another day. It stopped growing after a while and Phaela could finally pull her over-exposed clothes over her head. She was surprised by how parasitic the prospect of death made her. It wasn’t about money any more. It was about the terrifying prospect that she would not be alone in her death, no matter how painful. Every single new recruit to the campaign was someday going to be just like her, and it was small comfort that she wasn’t alone. She had stopped caring about how vicious it could make her seem, aggressively bringing new victims to the noble cause.
She emerged into the day, her eyes adjusting to the sunlight. She waited for the adjustment to complete before the neighborhood patrol strolled by. The scrawny neighborhood patrol always assumed she was crying as she left home. He even dared to fancy her somewhat, imagining that the large frightened eyes of such a small, faded person would definitely view an authority like him to be a savior by default. “Everything all right, ma’am? ” he boomed as he strolled over, projecting his ego on her. She smiled wanly, feeling strange sympathy for this poor creature that she thought needed just as much validation of his existence as she did. She hurried away as soon as she could and the figure she left behind imagined that the wind carried her frail being along.
“You’ve very pretty skin, ma’am,” he echoed in the empty lane after her. That’s exactly what you would wish for, wouldn’t you? Skin like mine. Phaela didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the admiring eyes of the people appraised her skin. In the world surrounded by blaring media and people, she had just become another ghost with a company logo.