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The Skin Trader

Matt is addicted to abrasive Netflix comedy specials and listening to extremely long and unabridged audiobooks while running. He lives with his amazingly patient wife, three kids, and a dog named Sherlock just outside Armidale in regional Australia. The dog should've been named Houdini.

Auntie grunts as she heaves the last huge pot into place. A few wingnuts need tightening, but otherwise it's ready. She waves one hand in front of her face, trying to get the cloud of midges to give her some breathing space, but they barely react to her slow movements. It's this god-damn skin she is wearing. Thick, horny, mottled. She has skimped on the flexibility again, and it shows. She scowls. She should fix that. Customers, those that really need what she is offering, they don't want their skin to slow them down.
The spot she has found is down by the old river front. The market is huge, selling everything from local delicacies to semi-legal transports both on and off world. Strings of fission powered lights strung between the stalls twinkle against the dark indigo sky, and the air is full of market sounds, yells and calls and odd-canted music. This world boasts three moons, but they are all small, pitiful things. If she ignores them, she could be anywhere. The alleys of the smaller stalls meander almost aimlessly towards the water, and most of the shoppers have long since found what they need before they get close to the marshy water. It suits her. She plugs in the fission battery and then opens the pot. The goo inside is slowly swirling, on the edge of solidifying. She will have to cook it for a while before adding the colors and pumping it out on to the skintex expandable molds, but she doesn't really care. These ones are just for show, not the money makers.
She looks up as someone stops at the next stall, but she knows it will be days before a real buyer seeks her out. This woman is tall and willowy, wearing a pink and orange skin that is so thin and flexible Auntie can see her muscles and fascia underneath. A nice job, if you go for that sort of thing, but purely cosmetic. The pinkish woman glances at Auntie and then looks quickly away, sniffing delicately. Auntie twists her thick lips up into an open mouthed, breathy smile. This back water planet is like a thousand others. The people are uppity, and think they are so smart. And most of them are happy to ignore whatever stupid upheaval was going on. She doesn't remember the details, and she doesn't care. She follows the credits, and she can almost smell them here. She will just have to wait, like usual.
He comes at dusk. Auntie is stirring the goo idly with a broken stick, and watching the indigo sky. She has made some skins, thick, bumpy things, pouring them into molds and using the auto-stretcher to get them more or less to standard sizes before hanging them out for display. Of course no one wants them. The few who glance her way with what might be recognition in their eyes do not venture close. But like always, word carries, and like always, someone has come.
He wears a completely non-descript grey skin under his black one-suit. His eyes are pale and lifeless. They probably come with the skin, Auntie thinks. He fingers one of the skins.
"Pretty thick," he comments. Auntie says nothing. She knows what will come next. He drops the skin and pretends to look through the others.
"Tough enough to stop a standard fission rifle," he says, not looking at her. It is almost a question. Auntie says nothing, and the man goes back to fingering one of the skins.
"Can you do this mottling in brown and green?" he asks. She nods slowly. She has not got around to re-skinning herself, and her neck feels stiff and thick.
The man looks at her then, expressionless.
"DNA mixes?" he asks quietly.
Auntie cocks her head slightly. His pale eyes flick left and right.
"DNA mixes in skin making is illegal," she says.
"Do you do them?" he asks. "Can you?"
Auntie hesitates, looking at his pale eyes. She has learned to be cautious. Finally she gives an almost imperceptible nod.
"How many?" she asks. It turns out he wants a lot. They always do.
Days later, and one of the little moons has faded to a sliver when the man reappears. Auntie is waiting. She has his skins, not stretched yet, row upon row of them packed into small containers. They are very tough, very thick, mottled how he wants. They are ready for the DNA mix-in, and will take it deep, bleeding the changes throughout the body from where the nano-grafts take hold in the muscle. She is good at that, the best. They will pass all but the most invasive, most difficult checks.
They swoop in from all around. One presses a small firearm to the back of her head, while others start searching her stall. They pull apart her equipment, and one tips over the largest skin pot. Liquid skin bubbles as it flows across the dirt. The man steps forward and opens up the container as Auntie sits very still. It is empty, and he looks up sharply. His eyes are not flat anymore, and his skin is not grey. Both eyes and skin are now dark purple, like the sky, like the mark of the local ruling clan.
"What is this?" he snaps. Auntie sits very still, and with a sound of exasperation the man gestures roughly. A camo-skinned woman steps forward and grabs Auntie under the arm to haul her up. She collapses in a heap at the woman's touch, and the woman yells and jumps back, dropping the flopping, empty skin. There are gasps, confusion, yelling. The man looks around, his anger slowly being replaced by disgust. Such a simple trick, and they have lost her.
Auntie watches from a few stalls away. She has finally gotten around to making herself a new skin. Pinkish orange, and very light, very flexible. She hates it, but she has learned to be cautious, learned to blend in. She picks up her containers and sets off up an alleyway. For the first time she takes more than a passing interest in the people around her. She wonders who has a problem with this ruling clan. She wonders how much of a discount she might just give a genuinely interested party.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, February 28th, 2022

Author Comments

I've always been fascinated by how new technologies get morphed by what the consumer wants, and what people will do to stand out and be different. Over the last few years I've spent some time in some different countries for work, and on a couple of occasions I ended up not just in a street market but in some part of it that didn't feel that touristy, and where I really stood out as different. At the same time, those types of markets seem so alive and vital and raw that I couldn't see a far future without such playing a role. Those ideas came together in this story.

- Matt Tighe
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