Headlife

In an exclusive excerpt from Shadow Show, a new anthology of stories inspired by Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood imagines a future in which “losing your head” takes on a whole new meaning.

  1. This short story is included in the anthology Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury, edited by Sam Weller and Mort Castle.

    “Everything on the list,” says Quentin.

    “Expensive,” says Dr. Derwent. “You’re sure?”

    “Dave, I own this fucking place,” says Quentin. He’s taken to swearing more as the decades have worn on. An inhibition thing disappears out of the brain with age, he’s read that somewhere. Angry old men capering around in their institutional PJs, dribbling pee and yelling at the nurses. That won’t be me.

    “So, everything?” says Dr. Derwent, smiling his unctuous ass-kissing smile. He seems nervous. Hope he’s not on drugs, wouldn’t want those pricey fingers to slip.

    “I told you,” says Quentin irritably. “We went over it point by point. I said everything.”

    “I suggest you read the contract,” says Dr. Derwent, smiling like a half-dead newt.

    “Suzie read it,” says Quentin. “I pay her to read shit like that. Anyway I wrote the fucking contract in the first place, remember? And I already signed it.”

    He pays Suzie for other stuff too, she’s added a whole new dimension to the Personal Assistant job description, but no need to go into that with Dr. Dave. He resists the impulse to add, You stupid dipshit. He’s seen the lecherous bloodsucker planting his hand on Suzie’s mercenary, gold-digging bee-shaped rump. And worse, he’s seen how she responds: the wet lips, the boob-heaving exhale, the butt arched up like a cat’s—a sequence of moves he knows intimately. She might as well be wearing a T-shirt: I’M IN HEAT. Though for him she was most likely faking it.

    They think they’re unseen, but I notice every fucking thing, I didn’t get where I am without noticing. I’ll settle scores with Suzie as well, once I make my comeback. With my new eight-incher and never a limp moment, no pills or injections needed ever again. She won’t know whether to scream Stop! or More! She’ll be terminally fucked in all senses of the word, and then I’ll toss her out. Sniveling and cringing, shuddering and begging and Oh pleasing. Naked onto the street. That would be a five-star vision. No more pitying looks, no more pretend orgasms from her, nor from her successors. Her many, many successors. Praise the Lord, as his mother would have said, the hypocritical old baby-torturer. Though Quentin himself wasn’t in the habit of praising anyone.

    “True enough,” says Dr. Derwent. “You did sign it.” He’s peering down at the contract through his half-moon specs. Probably thinks they make him look distinguished, though a bun-faced nerd like him would never get even halfway there. You need bone structure for that. Character. Hewn granite. Like Quentin, for instance.

    “One more thing,” says Quentin. “I already told you, but double-checking. If that scum-brained sleazebag Bryant wants to get the same procedure I’m getting, put him off. Turn him down. Make up something scientific. Unviable DNA or something. Last thing I want is to wake up and find he’s got the same equipment I do. I want to watch him decay like the rotten old carbuncle he is.” (Carbuncle, he thinks. File that for future use. Bryant, you carbuncle!)

    He has a daydream that incorporates this feature: Sid Bryant, carbuncular owner of the only rival to Hither! Ltd., the global communications network Quentin built from scratch—Sid Bryant, whining and pleading Let me in! as his sad old buns droop and his spine question-marks and his cells shrivel up and his teeth turn to yellowing rubble. But no dice, because Quentin owns the Medea Clinic and every single one of its patents, starting from the days when they were growing hearts and kidneys with your own cells seeded onto matrices, right up to the layer-at-a-time full-body replacement they’re doing now. And he’s sitting on those patents, he’s not licensing no matter what he’s offered, which means that right here is the only place in the world where you can get this stuff done. The private rooms are crammed with movie stars, rock legends, aging politicians. They’ll pay through the nose, their old noses and the new, rejuvenated ones that will grow on them soon, from the inside out. Plastic surgery isn’t even a pale shadow of what’s on offer at the Medea.

    Over the decades Sid has beat Quentin out on more than a few sweet deals—that university he almost bought, big plans for it he’d had; couple of hospitals; mega social-network and software company; gambling paradise in Vegas; at least three offshore money-launderette establishments. Far too many deals not to generate suspicion. Quentin would have a universe-crushing eureka, he’d see the huge potential in some whiz kid’s pathetic little startup, but by the time he got there Sid would’ve scooped it. He wonders who in his own outfit are the traitors—tipping Sid off. Once he gets his new body and has his old energy back, he’ll dig down, he’ll uncover them all, he’ll throw them to the crocodiles. Hack their e-mails, ruin their reputations, drag them through the dirt.

    He likes picturing that, but even more he likes picturing Sid drooling in the retirement home, just sane enough to recognize Quentin attached to the twenty-five-year-old weight lifter’s body that will soon be melded with his head.

    In some of his more extreme fantasies he watches his new muscles rippling in the mirror like boa constrictors, then leaps out the window and soars from rooftop to rooftop like those ultrafit Chinese guys in the movies. The Whatsit movies—the word’s at the edge of his brain. Anyway, like that. Then he’ll swing in through some girl’s window just as she’s slipping into her peekaboo ruffles. Maybe hair will sprout from him like a werewolf, and he’ll lose all control and growl and rip and plunge and guzzle, and blood and flesh will…

    Violent. Criminal. Gucky. Surely he could never go that far. He’s not a total sicko. But what the fuck, no harm done, it’s only in the head.

    Just a couple of months, they’d told him. Nine on the outside. He’s put his deputies in charge for that period—they’re more than capable of running things, toeing the bottom line till he gets back.

    So he’ll go to sleep, drift around in dreamland, slipping on a new body in the process. And after a while, when that body begins to wear out, he’ll get another one. And then another. Why isn’t that immortality?

    “So you’re ready?” says Dr. Derwent, breaking into Quentin’s reverie. “No second thoughts?”

    “Never readier,” says Quentin. Pathetic loser. Derwent the Drudge. Doing procedures all day that he can’t afford himself.

    “Good,” says Dr. Derwent. He pats Quentin’s bony shoulder. “We’ll have that ol’ head of yours off in a jiffy. You won’t feel a thing. And then, when you wake up…Everything on the list!”

    “I can hardly fucking wait,” says Quentin. Which is true.

    ***

    Quentin opens his eyes. He has total recall: checking in at the Medea Clinic; the gourmet meal the night before, though he needs to speak to someone about the stuffed capon; his last hours awake, dictating arrangements; then Dave Derwent’s face leaning over him as he went under the anaesthetic, the light glittering on his half-moon glasses.

    Suzie had been there too, at the last moment just before he faded, leaning over him so he got a worm’s eye view of her luscious double-peach cleavage; she’d done that on purpose. Sweet dreams and see you soon, she’d breathed at him with her pouty pink collagen-inflated lips. She wasn’t a nurse or anything medical. Who’d let her in?

    No matter, he’ll find out everything now. Up in the morning, hot on the job, goodbye to care, flex the muscles both mental and physical, and begin the pleasurable business of ferreting out his enemies and those less than loyal than they should be and then destroying them. He lifts his new right hand so he can admire it—no wrinkly skin, no bulgy veins, no old-fart tendons—but nothing happens. Maybe there’s something that has to wear off: some anaesthetic or other.

    He tries to turn his head. Nothing happens.

    He seems to be looking through glass.

    “He’s awake,” says a voice. A woman’s face moves into view. Suzie. But Suzie enhanced in subtle ways, Suzie beyond cheap glamour, Suzie glorified. She’s traded Dr. Derwent for a few procedures, looks like. One guess as to the currency, the slut.

    “Hi there, Quentie,” she says. “Having fun yet?” Her smile says: Because I am.

    “What’s going on?” says Quentin. His voice is slurred and thick, but at least his mouth works. And his ears. “Where’s my new body?”

    Dave Derwent moves into his field of vision. He too looks different. That bun-faced roundness is gone; he’s more sculpted. Distinguished, even. “Hello, sir,” he says. That’s better, thinks Quentin. He’s sadly in need of some deference.

    “Don’t tell me you fucking fucked up,” he says. “You fuckwit!”

    “The contract covered this eventuality,” says Dr. Derwent. “Your head’s been assigned.”

    “What do you mean, assigned?” barks Quentin. At least he can still bark. “You can’t assign someone’s head!”

    “You wrote that clause yourself, remember?” says Suzie. She’s suppressing a giggle. “You wrote the whole contract yourself!” She’s bubbling with merriment. Quentin feels like decking her.

    “In the eventuality that the Medea Clinic is sold, any unprocessed clients are assigned for fulfillment to the new owner,” says Dr. Derwent.

    “And as it turns out, in the interests of the bottom line, the Medea Clinic has indeed been sold.” He’s smirking openly now. He slips his arm around Suzie’s shoulder.

    “And it’s been renamed,” says Suzie. “In the interests of the bottom line.” An actual giggle this time. “We knew it would be much more profitable this way—more than growing new bodies. We just stored away the heads until we had enough famous people for the grand opening.”

    “It’s now called The Headslave Reruns Gallery,” says Dr. Derwent. “Catchy name. We did focus groups—very memorable, high scores on the curiosity quotient. It’s a branch of Bryant Entertainment. People pay top dollar to come and see the inner lives of their favourite…”

    “I don’t believe this!” says Quentin. “You can’t turn me into a freak show! Anyway, who’d pay to look at a bunch of cutoff heads? This is a joke! I’m not awake!”

    “Oh, it’s much more than the heads,” says Dr. Derwent. “It’s hardly a living waxworks. Biographies, gossip sites, reality TV, they’re all obsolete. With our patented blend of neurology and technology, we can activate any memory or imagined scene or even dream you’ve ever had, and then we can project the images onto a viewing screen. Sound is included.”

    “But that’s, but that’s—call my lawyer!” says Quentin. He can hear the futility in his own voice.

    “None of this is precluded by the terms of the contract,” says Dr. Derwent. “While you’ve been asleep, we’ve been running your programs, so we could offer the clients a wide selection.”

    “My favourite is the one where you screw me with your new big dick—you have a kind of light-up effect with that—and then you kick me out onto the street naked,” says Suzie. “Actually it’s kind of a turn-on.”

    “It’s been popular with the general public,” says Dr. Derwent. “They find it very amusing. I myself relish the sequence in which you humiliate me in front of my peers and then fire me. I’ve played that several times. That werewolf episode is in heavy demand as well, and we can up the price now you’re awake. The fans love it when the, ah, when the former—when the headslave has to watch too.”

    “Sid Bryant likes the one where he’s a driveling senile old guy in a retirement home and you visit him and then abuse him,” says Suzie. “He laughs a lot when you call him a carbuncle. He’s ordered a clip of that so he can have it on the video-art screen in his office.”

    The two of them smile at him happily. Then they kiss, a lingering, smouldering, hormone-sodden kiss, nothing faked about it. Suzie presses herself against Derwent’s lab-coated, discretely-logo’d torso. She utters a soft moan. Quentin feels himself writhing in pain, even though he has nothing left to writhe with.

    “Want a demonstration?’ says Dr. Derwent. “Of the system. It’s really remarkable, very hi-def images. You can watch the screen right along with the viewers. But you don’t have to, because the exact same thing is playing in your head.”

    “Even if you close your eyes,” says Suzie. “Maybe Quent would like to see the one where he beats up his first wife. The umbrella whippy accessory is so totally weird! It’s kind of a rape thing too, though that part doesn’t go too well. But there’s some good lines, aren’t there, darling?” She nibbles Derwent’s ear. “You couldn’t make it up!”

    “That one’s been a general favourite,” says Dr. Derwent. “Or the one where he’s whimpering, and his mother pulls down his little jeans and hits him with a...”

    “Get me out of this bottle!” Quentin howls.

    “Oh no, Quentie,” says Suzie. “That would kill you. And none of us would want that, would we?”

    ***

    About Headlife

    I read Ray Bardbury as a teenager and those stories really sank in, especially "The Martian" and the other stories in The Martian Chronicles, and Fahrenheit 451. Some writers jump straight to what we might call "deep metaphor," writing at a mythic level, and that is what these stories do. To quote Elias Canetti in The Agony of Flies: "To withhold meaning: nothing is quite so unnatural as the constant uncovering of meanings. The merit and the true power of myth: its meaning remains concealed.”

    My own story is just a pale little riff. Cut-off heads were one of the tropes of '50s SF, both written and filmed; perhaps the Headslaves are another, more sinister version of the Illustrated Man.

    —Margaret Atwood

    Buy Shadow Show: All-New Stories in Celebration of Ray Bradbury on Amazon, Apple's iBookstore, and Barnes & Noble.

Originally published in Byliner, May 2012

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