Ivan stared into Mei’s face in the mirror, her expression stunned. He turned his head experimentally, and her face followed suit, matching him exactly. Even the minute movements of his eyebrows and lips were perfectly replicated. Over his shoulder, he saw the real Mei cautiously approach.
“What… what’s going on, Ivan?”
“I’m not sure. I think it’s this new app.” He looked at the app, which had switched to a gallery screen, with the picture he’d taken of Mei as the only exhibit. He switched back to the cosmetic enhancement screen, and turned the illusion off. In the mirror, his face returned to normal. “That’s… interesting.”
“Is that a filter app? I’ve never seen an app change someone’s entire face before.” Mei seemed to have regained enough composure to be curious. “Try it again.”
He turned the illusion back on, and she reached out to touch his face. “Hmm. Feels like a standard filter to me. My finger’s going straight through at some points. Do you feel any different?”
He shook his head, making her ponytail bob back and forth. “Impressive. It even got the hair.”
“There are some apps that do that already. Coloring, extensions, and such. They only do hair, though - not the whole package. Looks like it stops at your neckline.” She ran her hand down his neck to his chest, where the illusion seemed to cut off. Her fair skin tone wasn’t too different from his, but you could notice a subtle line where the illusion ended if you were looking closely.
Even with the illusion on, he wasn’t going to pass for Mei anytime soon. For one thing, he was taller than her - she was pretty tall for a Halcyonite woman, but even so she only came up to his shoulder. In the mirror, Mei appeared to be touching a taller, leaner version of herself. With one big difference, of course.
Mei seemed to have noticed, too. A playful smile on her face, she pulled him in for a kiss while her hand ran over his body, going lower and lower.
“Is this… a turn-on for you? And you think I have strange kinks.”
“What can I say? I know beauty when I see it.”
“Narcissistic, don’t you think?”
Her grip and her smile turned dangerous as she shut him up in the best possible way. Catching his breath, he noted how surreal it was to see her face doubled in the mirror - one flushed and panting, the other smug and satisfied. He shut off the app, disoriented.
“Aw, I almost liked you better the other way.” She washed her hands in the sink, getting ready to leave. “Don’t get into too much trouble with that thing. I’ll see you later, ok?”
“Yeah. See you then.”
After she left, he tidied up the room - he kept the do not disturb sign hanging on the door permanently, not trusting the housekeeping. Then he showered, stretched, and changed in preparation for his meeting. Leaving his room, he took the elevator to the top floor, which had roof access.
The door to the roof was warded, since guests weren’t supposed to go up there. He brought out his skeleton keycard - another one of R’s hacks, it could bypass virtually any standard commercial security glyph. He’d risked his life for the information R had demanded in exchange for it, but it had paid for itself multiple times over. Swiping it against the runed panel at the side of the door, he moved through without a hitch.
From the roof, he nimbly leapt over the narrow gaps between buildings, bypassing the maze of alleys and streets below by going over them. Leigang was much easier to navigate this way, and he was quickly able to identify the alleyway he’d been told to look for, though he was still sweating bullets by the time he came down to street level.
No climate control here, not like the central business district or the expat neighborhoods, but that was a good thing, in its own way. Many things were possible through the Conflux, but all of them came with increased Hegemony oversight, and he knew the safest place for him to conduct his business would be the sleaziest, shittiest hole he could find in this artificial wonderland.
Shitty being the operative word, as he trod through something he hoped wasn’t sewage, slid sideways between a fragrant dumpster and a ventilation unit spewing caustic steam, and stumbled into a blind alley sandwiched neatly between two rows of shophouses.
Wiping his shoes off on a patch of weeds poking through the asphalt, he took a few deep breaths, trying to clear his mind of the squeaky-clean cityscape he’d flown through yesterday, a vision sprung fully-formed from the brows of some cabal of elite civil engineers in the Hegemony’s nefarious bureaucracy.
In its place, he thought on the scum and squalor he’d just waded through, the broken glass bottles discarded in puddles of beery urine, the wizened chain-smoker in a second-story window flicking his cigarette butts to the ground below, the discarded industrial fridge leaning against a dilapidated vending machine, both overgrown with weeds and rust.
Then he opened the fridge and stepped inside, swiftly shutting the door behind him. As secret passages went, it was a little obvious, but (as the junkie he’d bribed to lead him to the Underworld had explained) things worked a little different in Halcyon. If you weren’t the right sort of person, the fridge was just a fridge. But it wasn’t a secret handshake or gang-issued runemark that granted passage to the Underworld here - it was all a matter of perspective.
Halcyon’s Underworld was a city built in and from the shadows, forced to grow inwards to avoid the light of day, to create a world insulated from the Hegemony’s prying eyes. If a random passer-by tried opening this door, all they’d find was a dead end. But if you knew about the city within the city, layered beneath and woven through it like a tapestry, entrances like these let you step from one to the other.
With eyes shut and breath held, he stepped forward. The walls of the fridge insisted that they were there, that it was impossible for a person to simply walk through them, but in the darkness you could - if you were stubborn enough - disregard them and forge ahead anyway. His foot dipped through solid shadow, and landed on a set of stairs leading downwards. Keeping his eyes closed, he began his descent into the Underworld.
An indeterminate amount of time later, the quality of the darkness around him changed, and he felt himself cross some sort of threshold. Through closed eyelids, he sensed the garish glow of arclights from up ahead, and dared to chance a peek.
Shoulder-width streets stretched before him in a twisted snarl, an entire city’s worth of vice and crime condensed and collected into a writhing microcosm. Stacked one-room flats that doubled as both residence and business hawked goods and services, whilst street-level food vendors fried, grilled, and boiled all manner of animal, vegetable and mineral. He dodged droplets of scalding oil splattering from a vat of frying oyster fritters, and emerged from a narrow gap between a packed tenement and a brothel.
Despite the vast distance, despite his self-imposed exile, despite the fact that he’d be executed a thousand times over if he ever set foot back in Nocturnov, there was just something about wallowing in unfiltered debauchery that brought back nostalgic memories of bad old times.
It wasn’t home. But it was close.