Dye Sublimation
by Selene Sun
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Amber leaned back, stretching in her chair as she watched her printers churn out meter after meter of patterned fabric. An interlaced L and V here, a pair of back-to-back Cs there. Another twenty minutes and this last print of the day would be over. There was still the cutting and the arranging and the sewing to go, but that was far easier. Even her five-year-old could handle most of that.

No, the hard part had been what she'd spent all of last night and most of the morning swearing at her computer over. The Met Gala had taken place last night and for most it meant a spectacle to the eyes, a night of fashion and glamour as the world's biggest names gathered, wearing clothes that barely matched the theme. For Amber, it meant a business opportunity like none other. Most years, the Met Gala theme meant yards upon yards of fancy and expensive fabric, intricately crafted jewelry, beautifully detailed embroidery. The kinds of details Amber's ancient textile printers really weren’t equipped to handle.

But this year, something had aligned in her favor and the announced theme was Sports. She could have cried when she'd heard the news. Very few textile printers in the world could handle the fabric or the details that usually went into haute couture, but sportswear? Colored polyester, cotton, and mesh (and sometimes silk for the rich). Even the oldest textile printers could churn out duplicates with ease. Dye-sublimation, a printing technique specifically designed to print on the specific constraints of polyester, was the exact technique her printer had originally been designed for. Naturally, she wasn't the only player in the high fashion black market and she had to act fast to grab the thousands of customers desperate to wear even a semblance of what their favorite star had worn just the night before.

Hence the all-nighter, pulling as many images and videos from as many different angles as possible to best digitally recreate the outfits she thought would sell the best. Sure the paparazzi feeds and red carpet images had some, but those only showed the wearer's best angles, not every angle. And that meant turning to increasingly grainy fancams, with her hacked-together computer vision capture programs trying their hardest to put together a full digital image, which would then be sliced and flattened into 2D sections and sent off to her printers. They’d only managed a full scan of three outfits. The rest she'd had to manually add in the gaps with her best guesses, relying on her eight years in the industry to not lead her astray. It was a slow, painstaking process, but looking at the piles of fabric and paper rolled up in the cramped space of her printing room, it was worth every minute.

With the last print finally finished, she gave the fabric one last check over. Satisfied by the print quality (a few nozzle hiccups here and there but nothing noticeable to a customer), she bundled the rolls, grabbed her bag and a couple shirts she'd stitched together while waiting, and headed out the door. Her older son would come in the take care of the rest and in the morning she'd have a pile of the ugliest sportswear in the world to ship around the globe.
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The walk to her apartment wasn't long, maybe twenty minutes or so. But she wasn't headed there, not yet at least. There was one last thing she had to take care of.

She couldn't recall when she'd first met Cerulean, but it’d been easily over ten years since their first communication. Not that they'd ever met in person, of course. No need for that. Their relationship was purely transactional, or so she liked to tell herself. They'd first met online, some sketchy dark web forum she'd found herself resorting to after her husband had died and her non-existent health insurance meant there'd be no way she could continue to afford her daughter's medicine. Not legally, at least.

For some reason, this woman who sold illicit 3D-printed reverse-engineered pharmaceuticals had taken pity on her and offered her the drugs her daughter so desperately needed. In return, Cerulean had only asked for whatever she thought the drugs were worth and could pay. Strapped for cash as she was, she didn't exactly have a lot of options.

But then she'd remembered the ancient fabric printer she kept buried in the garage, an old remnant from her college days, inherited from her grandfather who'd been on the team of engineers that'd originally designed the thing. It was an old enough model that it didn't contain most of the anti-counterfeiting software that companies stuck on fabric printers today. Only the most basic of security that she and her friends had cracked their way through as a weekend side project sophomore year

And to think that the burning desire to not have to re-wear the same dress for the sixth time for her college’s junior-year Spring Formal would become her saving grace, two and a half decades later.

She'd dusted it off and spent a week straight re-creating by hand the headlining dress from IXY's 2037 Spring Couture collection, with all its unearthly Seelie fae beauty and shimmering gossamer trains. She’d had just enough fabric and ink left over from her college years for the initial print, then spent countless hours over the next week painstakingly stitching in every leaf and vine until the dress was a perfect replica. It was the least she could do for the woman who’d offered her a lifetime’s supply of her daughter’s lifesaving medicine.

The sun was setting by the time Amber reached her destination, a quiet almost-abandoned strip mall bordering the edge of city limits. Of the many storefronts that’d once called this area home, only a small café-bookstore combination still did business. She headed past their battered hand-drawn ‘OPEN’ sign, past four more empty, overgrown lots, and stopped at one that traced the outline of an old Starbucks sign.

Giving a quick glance around to check for human presence (not that there ever was), she nodded in confirmation and slipped in, the old glass door creaking and scratching behind her. Turning on her phone’s flashlight, she headed towards a sectioned off area in the back, probably what used to be the kitchen. The place was covered in a thick layer of dust from lack of use and she was certain that the spiders who’d made their homes here multiplied every time she visited, but they’d had years to grow accustomed to each other.

Amongst all the dust-covered void, one locker stood out if you looked close enough. It was just a little too shiny, a little too new for the rest of the room. The layers of ever-present dust weren’t quite thick enough. And those instincts would be right. This locker had made its home long after the rest of the room had been abandoned. And for the past so many years, this was where Amber and Cerulean had made their drop-offs.

An old-school mechanical lock guarded the insides of the lock, and after donning a latex glove, Amber typed in the combination Cerulean had given her last month. Cerulean had laughed when Amber told her about the glove several years back, told her there were far easier ways to track the users of this box were than determining her biometrics if anyone was so inclined, but Amber had stubbornly decided that if Cerulean was too scared to even meet in person, she was allowed her little paranoias too.

As if summoned by thought, a second phone on her body started vibrating. Fishing this one out of a secret compartment in the bottom of her purse, she quickly stabbed the “accept call” button and pointed the camera towards the nearest open wall. Cerulean’s beautiful smiling avatar, with its dark blue angled bob and charcoal three-piece suit and navy skinny tie, stared back at her.

“Hello Amber,” it said, a tinny projection of a woman’s voice coming out of the phone’s speakers.

“—Cerulean, hi,” Amber stumbled out. Damn this woman for calling without warning. Always without warning.

The avatar stood for a moment, sharp dark blue eyes studying her, scanning her. Abruptly, its head flicked back up to meet her eyes.

“You’ve lost weight again. Last I heard, your daughter’s condition has been improving greatly. There’s no reason to not be taking care of yourself too.” Her tone was sharp and reprimanding, but underneath, there was a layer of quiet concern. Something flickered in Amber.

“I pulled an all-nighter last night to get those Met Gala dupes scanned and made you know,” she snapped, though there wasn’t any heat in her voice.

The avatar on the screen sighed. Even Cerulean sighing was beautiful, damn her. Well, her avatar was. It was hard to separate the two sometimes.

“Of course you did. You know you don’t have too. You’ve been in the business for almost a decade, you have a reputation as one of the best dupe sellers on the market. Your customers are more than willing to wait the several extra days. You’re too old to put your health on the line. We both are, you know that. And if they don’t… well…” The avatar flashed a savage grin.

Amber glared.

“Show me?” The avatar asked, Cerulean asked softly, and almost by command, Amber started retrieving a sports jersey, fitted with half a skirt for some reason, from her bag and unfolded it. They’d been worn last night by an up and coming male actor last night, and he’d received mountains of praise online for the brave, gender-blurring choice. Similarly, she’d received mounts of orders for a dupe of the exact jersey-dress-skirt abomination the moment he’d stepped onto the red carpet, and who was she to turn down easy labor.

“Beautiful”, Cerulean whispered, breaking Amber of thoughts. The projection was grainy at best, but Cerulean’s face wore a reverent look at as she examined Amber’s latest work. The fluttering was back and damn it she was weak to praise. Always had been and being a single mother, she didn’t hear it often enough.

“You… think?” She managed out, face starting to redden.

“Amber.” Cerulean said frankly. “I’ve said this time and time again. Your works are beautiful. Take more pride in them. Take more pride in yourself. Your works deserve more confidence.”

They’d had this conversation before. They’d had this conversation several times before. At least three times in the past two years. Perhaps Cerulean was right.

“Have lunch with me,” she blurted out, mouth running before her brain had time to catch up. “In person, somewhere in the city, not just through a projector. Not like this.” Then she caught herself.

What the hell was she thinking? This was Cerulean, most famous illicit pharmaceuticals distributor. There was no way this woman, who probably had multiple government agencies trying to track her down, would ever be able to meet her in a busy to have lunch. Why did she even think they would live in the same city? Or country?

“This Thursday, 19:00. I know a good Thai place downtown.” Cerulean’s avatar said unexpectedly. “I’ll see you there,” it continued with a smirk, then the projector winked out and she was left gaping at an empty wall at the back of deserted Starbucks at the edge of the city.

Still in shock, her body moved by rote: opening the locker, taking the heavy bag of pills that’d been left for her, carefully refolding the jersey, placing it in a garment bag, setting the bag on the top shelf, and closing it again.

It was only after she’d walked outside to the last rays of the setting sun that her brain was finally able to parse what had just occurred. Her daughter’s health was improving, her business was booming, and most importantly, she had a date with the woman she’d been pining after for years. This might not have been the life she’d imagined when she’d graduated with her computer engineering degree twenty-seven years ago, but the experiences she’d lived through had slowly laid themselves out and sublimated into the one she lived today.
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