The Czar of Smiles
by J. L. Royce
Edited by L. M. Davis
Copyedited by Chelle Parker
2033 words — Reading time: around 10 minutes
Cosette awoke in the dim faux-dawn to a blinking notification. It was her sixteenth birthday, the end of childhood, though there was no one offering to celebrate. She lay in the closeness as she did any morning, considering her day: the books she might read, the lectures she might attend. Influence was the ultimate reward, reflected in consumption, and books were free. Cosette squirmed around in the low cubicle to check her appearance in the mix-mirror, to catch up on news. It was blank, save the flashing OFFICIAL NOTICE.
“Mirror, where am I?” she asked.
“In the Transitional Dormitory, forty-seventh floor, wing seven—”
“No— Why can’t I see myself?”
“My…. I’ve never bought any facial features.” Cosette had always been told she had natural good looks: teeth, lips, nose, chin, eyes… and smile. Besides, she had no money for features.
Cosette tapped the icon. The screen filled with a legal document linking to a web of property chains.
A synthetic voice spoke. “Multiple claims have been filed in the Mix Court, alleging that your features violate intellectual property rights to multiple non-fungible facial elements.”
“I don’t understand….”
“You are to appear before the Mix Court, in the real, for arbitration. If you do not appear, a summary judgment will be entered. The location of your appointment has been transmitted.”
Her wrist hummed as the message appeared. She glanced at the address and the travel chit glowing through her skin.
“Until the claims are resolved, a cease and desist order has been granted prohibiting your continued use of your appearance in the mix.”
“But I don’t use the mix! I can’t afford an augment.” She had an older pair of glasses — used — but only wore them to navigate the world, to avoid stumbling through the clutter of public virtuals and thus earning fines.
“You exist in the mix whether or not you choose to perceive it.”
“I can’t be a blank; people would walk into me! What will I look like?”
“Until the claims are resolved, you will be assigned an avatar.”
The mirror brightened and it appeared: her skin tone flattened, her curling hair a cartoon blob, her teeth a white bar, her lips a silly pout, her smile—
“No!” She looked away and buried her face in her pillow.
Cosette wore her best shirt — still threadbare — and hid within the folds of its hood. Though she did her best to conceal her face, she could hear the snickers of passersby. The old glasses didn’t improve her caricatured features; she imagined they appeared as ugly black circles around her pinpoint eyes.
With changes, the cross-city tube carried her to Court. On the way, she skimmed the legal brief, referencing texts to decipher the terms and grasp the concepts. (Education was free, so she had educated herself.) The tube brought her to the hulking Newtown arcology, visible as the route of the transparent cylinder rose to the transportation hub. The many-faceted hemisphere gleamed bronze in its anti-UV coating. Cosette emerged from the train, greeted by pulsing arrows on the floor.
“Welcome to Newtown. Do not deviate from your route,” said the building through her glasses.
It did not have to remind her about the consequences of wandering.
The transit pass guided her in the mix through people-movers and into lifts until she arrived at a security post. The portal into the Municipal Space, a double-blind kill jar, closed behind her.
“You are being scanned; please stand still.”
Bio, nano, and mech weaponry would trigger an immediate containment response. Cosette held her breath until the door before her opened.
The spaces here were vast, the surroundings drawn from legendary scenes of ages past. People in the Municipal Space were high-Tiered, eminently elegant in the mix, their flawlessly rendered faces borrowed from a thousand years of beauty in art and reality.
The arrows led her through another doorway, into another world.
Cosette proceeded along an oceanside boardwalk, a sweeping curve beside a long-lost beach on a once-limitless ocean. The air was full of salt tang and living smells, the sounds of large white birds swooping and calling, and sunshine: safe, healthy sunshine. She slowed, savoring the illusion through her glasses, but came at last to a weathered wooden structure. She opened a door.
The chamber was as stultifying in its emptiness as the hallway had been heartbreakingly rich.
A deep voice emerged from the darkness. “Oh, this is boring.”
The speaker stepped out of the vague shadows: larger than life, tall with broad shoulders, dressed in a glittering toga pinned at one shoulder to reveal a sculpted pectoral. His heavy black hair gleamed against startling azure skin.
He had a name but preferred to be called the “Czar of Smiles,” and he claimed to own Cosette.
“I’ll assume you can be reasonable.” He eyed her speculatively. “If so, you’ll accept my generous proposal.” Before Cosette could respond, he glanced away. “I’m ready.”
The Justice Mirror appeared beside them: a cheval mirror, very tall, a simple black frame reflecting nothing. Cosette drew back involuntarily.
It spoke in a rich baritone. “The Mix Court of the Tiered will now consider the claims brought by multiple plaintiffs, represented in the real by the primary claimant, against one Cosette—” her UID appeared on the blank surface “—an adult in the mix, alleging multiple violations of the Code of Mix Licensing. Step forward.”
Cosette faced the framed void. She appeared, her natural self: naked, dissected into hundreds of features, each pinned and priced. It isn’t you, she told herself. She drew back, but her rendering remained, revolving slowly to reveal the extent of her offenses.
“Ninety-two percent of your features infringe the plaintiffs’ rights in non-fungible property. Unless you can assert licensing arrangements, you will cease and desist from using these features in the mix.”
“May it please the Court….” The Czar stepped alongside Cosette, too close. She stood her ground, accustomed to the intimidation some attempted in the crowded dormitory. “As the owner of record of the majority of the infringed features — and in particular, eighty percent of the facial features — I offer a settlement I’m sure the young… lady will find attractive.”
“I propose to acquire the defendant and settle the other claimants myself. I have already obtained letters of intent from them.”
Cosette stiffened. “You can’t own me.”
He smiled unctuously. “That is to say, acquire the defendant’s mix representation in toto. Her physical form holds no interest for me.”
They can’t buy and sell your body, just your image. But Cosette remembered the histories she’d read, and wondered how this was different.
“No!” she said, face hard. “I’ll leave the mix.”
The Court spoke. “You would then forfeit all intellectual property rights to your appearance and be declared Untiered.”
The Czar’s tsk came with a moue of disappointment. “You wouldn’t want that. No status, no home, no social — just the dole. You’ll be no one.”
“I’ll be me! I’ll see myself in every shiny surface, every pool of water, and it will be me.”
“You’re passing up the opportunity to monetize your charms!”
Cosette resisted the urge to reply, to concede, her face a mask disguising her uncertainty.
The Czar’s expression hardened as realization dawned. “Oh, you’re a clever one. I like that!” He pondered. “Very well: License yourself to me, one hundred percent, and I’ll grant you—” he scanned the cloud of market valuations hovering around her naked image “—three percent of net income.”
“For one hundred percent of me?”
“No.” Cosette licked her lips. She pondered the bargain; he offered comfort in exchange for her identity. Or she could hold on to what little of her was unclaimed. She cleared her throat. “My counterproposal. I relinquish my claim to the ninety-two percent you say infringes. In exchange, all plaintiffs agree that I retain all rights to the remaining eight percent.”
The Czar had not expected a counter. He frowned. “I don’t know….”
The Court intoned, “A counterproposal is before the Court. We disapprove of delay.”
The Czar chewed his lip, black eyes wandering the Mirror, longing not for the lovely body but the revenue stream it might generate, through tourism, marketing, the pleasure industry.
“I’d like to see a rendering of the eight percent,” the Czar said.
“No,” Cosette replied.
The Czar threw out his chest. “What do you—”
“The claim is noted,” the Court stated. “An owner does not have to reveal their property unless presented with an offer to license or purchase.”
“I might ask the Court to contact the minority claimants,” Cosette said. “Perhaps they would agree to my terms….”
The Court spoke. “That is the proper course, should—”
“No,” the Czar interrupted, with a troubled glance at the Mirror. “Please grant me five minutes to consider the proposal.”
“Granted.” The Mirror went dark, though the empty frame remained, recording.
The Czar loomed tall at Cosette’s elbow and spoke in a low voice, as though the Court might listen (as if he could prevent it).
“Listen to me, girl: I’m offering you Tier 2, mid-range or better — if you agree to my original one hundred percent buyout. I’ll make you an Influencer for a new trend — we’ll call it something healthy, natural…. Natural!” His smile pleaded. “Tier 2 — you’ll be regarded as superior to ninety percent of the population.”
The Czar, of course, was Tier 3, the top one percent. No one knew how high the Tiers went, since the handful who owned most of the world controlled the world’s access to information, including their own.
“You’re taking a big risk!” he said. “Your eight percent might be ugly — or worse, mediocre. What then?”
Cosette took off her shabby glasses. The Mirror vanished, as did the rendering of the Czar. He was not much above her height, pot-bellied, and not particularly attractive. And as he hunched forward, pleading, she knew what to do.
Cosette drew in a slow breath. “I don’t need to be a trend. I am a movement of one — freedom — and I will be myself.”
“You can’t rise in society without augmentation — accept my proposal, and I’ll cover the payment of your surgery as part of the deal!”
Cosette stared down at herself in her worn, shapeless shirt. “Before the mix, people cut themselves to fit the trends set by the likes of you. Slimmer or shapelier, darker or paler, taller or shorter. I read this — they would cut their flesh, with lasers and knives! Always trying to look like someone else. Just because it’s simpler in the mix doesn’t make it happiness.”
The conversation continued, Cosette defending her position, the Czar criticizing, until the man started and turned to the emptiness beside them. Cosette reluctantly slipped on the ill-fitting glasses as the Court called for the proceedings to resume.
“Has the plaintiff reached a decision in the matter of Cosette and her counterproposal? Namely, to relinquish all claims to the ninety-two percent of her appearance in the mix claimed, in exchange for clear title to all rights, real and irreal, to the non-fungible characteristics comprising the remaining eight percent?”
The Czar was once again tall and blue, but in Cosette’s eyes still somewhat deflated. He swallowed and said, “I accept the plaintiff’s counterproposal, on behalf of myself and the minority claimants.”
“Very well,” the Court said. “The decision of this Mix Court is to approve the arbitrated settlement of disputed rights and dismiss the minority claims, to be settled by the majority plaintiff within one standard day.”
The Mirror flashed. “Cosette, the Mix Court now displays your new default public façade.”
Cosette reappeared in the Mirror, in her natural state. One by one, the flagged infringements disappeared. Her eyes rounded, deepened, angled; her cheeks rose, rounded, widened; her lips broadened, thickened, curved. One by one, the stereotypes of human beauty vanished, leaving only the unacknowledged eight percent.
Cosette studied herself, reborn in the Mirror. She smiled and saw her image smile. She laughed in delight and watched the delight spread across the Mirror.
The Czar’s eyes went wide. “My dear,” he murmured. “May we talk? I have—”
“No,” Cosette replied.