The Question of Perfection

It's a world where beauty is the most important thing. Humans have moved on from fighting over food and resources, and now strive for beauty above all. But when their experiments go further than imagined and the human race itself has changed, what is the fate of the few normal, truly human, "ugly" people on the planet?

NOTE: The cover was made by the awesome River_Summers, via her movella, the Movellas Cover Store.


1. The Island



            Two hundred years, the fireworks scream. They don’t actually scream of course, but they might as well. It’s the ostentatiousness of their display that pisses me off. The night doesn’t seem like night anymore, and I can’t fall asleep and ignore them like I usually do. I twist and turn on the handmade cot but it’s hopeless. I know that even people on our island are outside right now, cursing their lives and their own bodies.

            The way I see it, there are two ways to deal with rejection. One is with sadness, and the other with anger. Sadness isn’t going to accomplish much, but anger is explosive. I know I’m an angry, pissed off, person. I’m a pariah among the quarantined, and I embrace that.

            I wrap the old shawl around myself and step outside of my small hut, ignoring the smell that comes from it. Other people would call my hut a cottage, but I’m not an optimist. I live in a shit-hole, it’s better to accept it. The fireworks are reflected over the murky grey waters of the Atlantic, and I wonder what they used to celebrate in the Human Era.

            Alka is sitting on the ground outside my hut, nursing her usual bottle of cheap liquor and staring at the fireworks. Her cataract’s getting worse, and I know the most she can see is fuzzy colors. But still she looks up at them, with a stare so intense I wonder if she dreams of trapping them within her aged, clouded eyes.

            “It’s late Alka,” I say. She shakes her head. She’s wearing the yellow raincoat I gifted her two years before, a bit too bright for our dismal world and not much defense against the cold. I share the shawl with her and wrap my arm around her. She doesn’t eat nowadays, doesn’t sleep much either. I can feel her collarbones and her wrist is so prominent it makes me want to cry. The Synthetics would say this is what comes of living a life that’s too long, I say it’s what comes of living a life too alone.

            The finale begins, with a red, white and blue spectacle that is an inch short of a miracle. Alka takes it all in through her eyes and I embrace her. Two hundred years since that cursed first experiment. Two hundred years since the end of the Human Era, and the beginning of the Synthetic.

            Miranda Barriere. It’s ironic that she was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother, I think. She was the first one to trade life for youth and beauty. She lived her thirty-six years looking and feeling not a day older than twenty. And she started the flood of a billion others rushing to do the same. Growing old came to be seen as an inconvenience, wrinkles the worst fate that could befall a person. In a world already focused on fantastical ideals of beauty and a curious technology called photoshop, the new medical breakthrough was exactly what they wanted. They would take forty years free of disease and infirmity, instead of the eighty where there was degeneration and ugliness.

            For the models whose true lives ended as soon as they lost their looks, it really wasn’t much of a difficult choice. They were impossibly pretty for a couple of years longer, until the moment they dropped dead without any reason or rhyme. But being Synthetic was the new thing, the beautiful thing to do. In a world where everything was perfect, people finally found a way to fit themselves into their aesthetically pleasing surroundings.

            I think it would’ve been fine if it was a surgical procedure. But the scientists were far too advanced for that. Surgeries took time, skill, they had recovery periods and plastic surgery had already been around for centuries. Instead they took a new route. They created H32N89. The virus that would change the world.

            Injected into the arm it changes a person in a matter of days. Excess weight drops away, oil never accumulates on the skin, muscles that will never get used get far more definition. People end up as what they all want to see in the mirror.

            The scientists toiled at getting the lifespan up, and they did succeed. The average lifespan of the normal human now is 40.12 years for males, and 39.27 for females. That is, excluding us Naturals of course. In their eyes, we’re barely people, let alone citizens.

            The virus worked as estimated in the beginning. But Murphy’s Law does happen, and things changed. The virus mutated. People no longer ended up being just beautiful, they ended up being surreal. Waistlines that defied all logic, endless legs and enormous eyes. They compared them to ‘Barbie’ dolls, apparently some disturbing sort of toys from a few centuries ago.

            Alka was a doll too, until she was thirty-two. She was a young wife to a handsome banker, the youngest child of an enormous Indian family of aunts and uncles (obviously no grandparents). She was the first of us. I think she believes she is the reason the rest of us came to be. The unfounded guilt weighs her down far more than her seventy years.

            “It’s pretty, isn’t it?” she asks. Alka suffers now when she sees pretty things, all reminders of something she’s not anymore. I see beauty in her innocent face, her voice that reminds me of herbs, but she doesn’t. I see beauty in the memories I have with her. It’s not a miracle what the Synthetics have achieved. They cannot see beauty in anything beyond smooth skin and sparkly eyes. I see beauty in my childhood with Alka. I see a miracle in the fact that we somehow captured happiness in a life where survival wasn’t guaranteed.

            Alka still remembers her husband, a man who never loved her sweet personality or her fragile soul. He loved a face, yet she loves him still. She huddles into me as the last of a magnificent tiger fades away, and falls asleep.

            There are moments when I forget that Synthetics are people as well. They no longer look like real people, they look like aesthetic imitations of them. Beautiful in a sort of way if they were inanimate, but disorienting when they’re alive.

            I was never one of those beautiful dolls. They injected the virus into my virus when I was two days old, but it never took. I never met my parents, although I suppose they’re dead by now. Maybe that’s what makes me different. You can’t feel the loss of something you never had. All these people around me, the virus stopped working on them. They returned to their normal bodies and their flawed skin, and hated themselves. They hated the bodies that alienated them to everyone they knew and got them quarantined to a rock in the middle of the ocean.

            The body I have brought me to Alka, and I sort of love it for doing that. She breathes softly, her pure white hair like strands of silk against her brown skin. She’s probably the oldest woman in the country, maybe even in the world. I can’t say for sure. I’ve never seen anything beyond this chunk of we call home, only the things on television and the few articles that come through on the outdated UniPad I fixed up.

            I get up and pick out the pots and pans to make breakfast. It’s a heinous place we live in, and the suicide rate is disproportionately high. The only way to move is to keep working, keep surviving. I check the pumpkin patch as the oatmeal cooks and start feeding the chickens. I work the largest farm on this blasted island, for me and Alka.

            It’s old-fashioned farming, soil and sun, not the hydroponics they employ in the mainland. The soil on the rest of the country is too toxic to sustain anything but tarmac. I pluck a few flowers from the rosebush. It’s my one luxury, the seeds something I had to pay through the nose to attain. The roses are multicolored, white, red, pink, coral and even blue.

            Alka is up, serving out our practical breakfast in the chipped plates we scavenged. The others are perfectly content to live the remainder of their lives surviving on the sparse food packets the Synthetics air-drop every month. It’s more than enough in quantity, but it’s only oats and a cheap, rough bread.

            I step in into the hut and take my place on the ground. Our dining table is Japanese-style, one of the few pieces of furniture Alka and I made of some old wood we found. We didn’t have enough wood for longer legs or chairs. It’s covered with a baby blanket, something I had brought with me on my arrival here. We make these attempts at civility, and being something more than the outcasts we are. I don’t know if it’s funny or pathetic, but I do it anyway. I place the roses in the vase at the center of the table, and for the first time in a week, Alka smiles.

            We don’t have much technology, but there is some. Throughout the centuries the rich have always liked to feign generosity, giving without genuine feeling. Power lines are present on the island, basic lighting and electricity. Communication wasn’t deemed necessary, and the only signals we get are on Sundays, when distress calls are sent out and we’re supposed to inform them of the death count.

            I check the cupboards. We’re low on bread. It’s ten o’clock and I guess that the mid-day airdrop will be down by the time I reach the island’s shore and talk to the few people here I don’t pity or hate. The October air pinches and I wrap the shawl tighter around myself. Alka has made it a priority to knit me a sweater, but I don’t keep my hopes. The cold makes her joints hurt more than ever, and she ends up putting her needles down every five minutes.

            Going down to the shore isn’t a pleasant experience. The newcomers to the island frighten me, for lack of a better word. They’re the personification of misery, of loss. Ironically, they pity me more than I pity them, because they figure they at least had a few years of experiencing perfection, while I was born as a mutant.

            I think Synthetics are the ones that are mutants. There are movies and books on alien invasion, but we have been invaded by our own, who are no longer our own. I know this opinion may be wrong, it may be a coping mechanism. But it’s what gets me through the day, and I let it be.

            I hear the sounds of other people and I stiffen. In the old days of survival people fought for the right to live. They fought for food and water, but none of that exists here. They yearn for the things they lost and they pine for death. There are a few dozen people sitting on the beach when I arrive. The huts near the shore aren’t safe, but it’s where they always stay.

            Like always, I take my seat on the seat and wait for the air-drop. There’s always some crying to be heard, and I try to ignore it. When I was little I would go and try to comfort them, but these people are inconsolable. Especially when faced with the ugly face of a redheaded child that could never understand the enormity of their loss. I pick at my shoes, chunky brown boots, and look out at the sea. I wish I could come here more often, without the other people and the sorrow that seeps into everything.

            There’s no airdrop, which means only one thing. We have a new arrival. They come by every few weeks, in some rundown fishing boat and drop new arrivals at our doorstep. The new arrivals stumble onto the sand, in their sky-high heels and ill-fitting clothes. They never last more than six months. Their sadness eats them from the inside out and their bodies are taken away by men in protective suits.

            The boat comes into sight and the lifeboat reaches shore. The crates of food are hiding our new arrival. None of the others are as interested, they simply want to put an end to the ache in their gut. The lifeboat reaches shore and the people crowd around for the food. The crates are unladed and the fishermen stop for a minute to get their breath.

            “McNally,” I call out. He turns around at looks at me. His eyes are larger than mine, disproportionate against his high cheekbones and thin face. I never look directly at them, it’s unnerving. McNally is the one I trade with, the reason that I have a UniPad and shoes. He’s the reason Alka has painkillers some of the time, and the one reason I don’t hate the Synthetics entirely.

            “Emmy,” he says in relief. I take a chance and look into his face. He’s thirty five, but looks twenty. I pass him a quick smile as I walk up to him.

            “I need two winter coats and some painkillers,” I say. “And I have some pumpkins to pay for them.”

            Ground-grown vegetables are a luxury the rest of the world can’t afford. Hydroponics isn’t the same. Apparently hydroponics isn’t the same in taste. I give him produce that he could never afford any other way, and get what I need in return. McNally nods absentmindedly and pulls me aside, casting a worried look towards the crowd of Naturals grabbing at their rations and leaving.

            “I have something to ask you,” he says.

            “That’s a change,” I say, raising my eyebrow.

            “The new arrival,” he says. “Take care of him, Emmy.”

            “You know they never listen to me, McNally. They cry and waste away here,” I say. I’ve tried helping before. It only hurts more when they die. “This place is just a gateway to death, and we all know it. It’s only the absolute mutants like me that can survive here.”

            He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t know what to say, I guess. I know he hides it, but he has trouble looking at my face too. He turns away as the last of the Naturals grab their bread and walk away. I can finally see the new arrival.

            And all I can think is… he’s beautiful. His hair’s a dirty blonde, tousled like he’s just gotten out of bed. He’s holding onto a teddy bear almost too big for him, and wearing a little backpack. Barely visible freckles dot his nose and cheeks, and his hazel eyes are full of sleep. A child, thrown out of his world before he was ever really a part of it.

            “Hello,” I say to him. He doesn’t look away, and smiles back. He looks distracted, and I wonder if he knows where he’s been brought. This is probably the place Synthetics frighten children with, a new version of the old Bogeyman. “I’m Emmy.”

            “Who are you?” he asks. “Where’s my mommy?”

            And that’s a question I can’t answer. How do I tell him that in one day he’s gone from being a normal child to an outcast and an orphan? I can’t, and he turns his head and looks at the ancient crumbling statue. It’s the defining feature of our island.

            “You’re going to be staying with us for a little while,” I say. “On Liberty Island.”


Author's Note

So, this is the end of the competition entry. When I say that, I mean this is what I would like to be considered for the competition. I will be continuing the story, but whether the judges read that or not is up to them.


Thank you for reading. 

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