Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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"Beauty", said the Beast

by Errett Williams



Everything is different now. I've seen what the Guides can do, what they will do. And I can't do anything to stop them. They're killing us, and I'm afraid I might be next...

####

It all started three days ago, when my mother opened an e-mail with an official-looking signature tag.

Dear Gray Family,

We have the privilege of informing you that your surgeries have been scheduled for tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 PM. Please report to the nearest clinic an hour before that time to check in and allow our physicians to begin preparing you for surgery. Enjoy your new life!

Bob Edwards

Director of Beautification, The Guide Tower

"Oh my goodness," my mother whispered as the message glinted on the viewing screen in front of her. "Jillian, go tell your father. I can't believe the day has finally come!"

"Yes, mother," I answered, trying hard to suppress the excitement welling up inside of me. I had been waiting for this day ever since the Guiders had announced their new initiative. I had seen pictures of the surgeries on the news, and I'd even seen a few of the lucky ones in the other city districts, but I never would have imagined that my family would be among the first Changelings in our sector.

My father was outside, busily polishing the steel-and-white marble that made up our domicile, and all those surrounding us. He had the compulsive need to make our home shine brighter than those of our neighbors, perhaps one of the reasons that we had been chosen first.

"Father, I have great news."

He motioned for me to step back inside the house and quickly re-polished the spot where my shoe had left a faint smudge. He looked up at me, a silly smile lighting up his wrinkled face, his good nature shining energetically from his eyes. He had always been skilled in more than one way at brightening up my world.

"What is it, Jills?" he asked casually as he accompanied me back through the doorway, stowing his polishing machine in the supply closet by the door.

"They sent us the notification today, Daddy. Tomorrow we're to report to the clinic for beautification!"

His head snapped around and he looked me straight in the face, his kind eyes now hard, a look of incomprehensible fear creeping into his features. I stepped back, surprised as he whipped past me, heading quickly towards his study.

"Daddy?" I asked cautiously, following him down the shadowy hallway. He ignored me, rummaging hurriedly through the papers on his desk, destroying the neat piles he had so laboriously sorted earlier that morning. He pulled from beneath one pile an ancient and weathered device, turning the knob on the top as it crackled with static. He looked up and seemed to notice me for the first time.

"Daddy," I whispered fearfully. "Isn't that item forbidden?"

He set the object down on the desk and took my small shoulders in his grip. His stare pierced me as he leaned forward, putting his face so close to mine that I could feel his frantic breath.

"Jills, I need you to trust me," he murmured, his eyes flicking to the door behind me. "You can't tell anyone about this, not even your mother. Everything is going to be okay, I just need you to trust me and do everything I say. Okay?"

"Of course, Daddy," I agreed automatically. I couldn't comprehend why he was acting this way, but he was the most important person in my life, and I would always believe in him. He shot me a tiny attempt at a smile and shooed me from the room, closing the door behind him. I stood outside the door, my mind in turmoil, contemplating my father's fear. My mother, on the other hand, was so excited she was dancing about the screening room in vain ecstasy. I watched her from the hallway for a moment, about to go join her when I heard the crackle of that strange device through the door. I stopped mid-stride. He hadn't actually told me not to eavesdrop.

Stealthily, I crept back to the door, pressing my ear to the crack in the side. Through the thick paneling, I was only able to make out bits of the conversation my father was having with the forbidden machine.

"...lose you. You're... important. We'll send you... Be sure to... before the procedure," the device crackled unintelligibly. My father's voice was clearer, and I could make out most of what he said in response.

"What about my family?" he pushed forcefully. "There are three of us."

"Only enough..." it whispered haltingly.

"That's not good enough. My daughter..." his voice trailed off to a painful silence. If the machine responded, I couldn't hear it. I stepped back from the door once more, even more confused than before. Who had my father been talking to? And what did any of this have to do with our beautification? I resolved to ask my father later, but he never left his study, and I never got the chance to confront him. That evening I lay in bed like a child before her birthday, except there was a dark feeling I couldn't shake creeping slowly beneath the surface.

The next morning, my mother prepared a feast to celebrate our last meal as Normals. I helped her prepare it in the kitchen, busily peeling potatomatoes and chopping cucarrots as she fretted excitedly over the roast chicken, one of the few meats the Guides allowed us to consume. My mother was facing the opposite direction when my father entered the room, so she didn't see his look of anguish before it changed to the shallow smile that remained plastered to his features for the rest of the morning.

He sat down at the table and I joined him.

My mother brought us our brunch, jabbering on excitedly about the morning's events. We sat listening, but uneasiness hung in the air between us.

Later that afternoon, as the two of us waited at the kitchen table for my mother to gather our things, my father leaned over to me, squeezing me in a tight hug. When he released me, I was confused to see tears in his eyes. He stood up and walked to the fridge, pulling out a can of tea, my favorite. He poured it into a mug, heated it up, and brought it to me. Placing it in front of me, he kissed my forehead.

"Jills," he murmured, his voice full of love and sadness. "I know you know it, but I love you, more than anything. And I would do anything for you. You are my most precious treasure." His eyes were brimming with tears, glistening in the harsh light of our kitchen. He touched my face, pressing his forehead against mine. Then the moment was over. He was his old jolly self again. Jokingly, he pressed the glass into my hands and sat down, motioning for me to drink it. "I worked so hard preparing that for you, honey, you better drink it all up."

I giggled a little, startled by the change in mood. I downed the tea in three gulps, smiling mischievously at my father. Then, somberly, I set the glass down, taking his hand in mine. "I don't know what's going on, Daddy, or why you're acting this way. But ... I love you too." We shared a quiet look before my mother came bounding into the room, her golden hair bouncing all around her face.

"It's time, guys!" she cheered. She grabbed me and my father by the hand, and in a show of Amazonian strength, hoisted us up and out the front door.

We rode the sector shuttle to the clinic. I stood next to a wide glass window, watching the shining city flash by in a white streak. For no apparent reason, I started to feel nauseated and a little dizzy. I chalked it up to nerves and tried to enjoy the trip as best as I could.

By the time we arrived at the clinic, I could barely stand. My father, seeing my discomfort, offered me his arm, while my mother skipped on ahead of us. I stumbled along beside my father, determined to make it inside. My world was growing fuzzy, the bright glare of the white marble was dimming to gray. I collapsed before we reached the door.

####

When I came to, I was lying in a cold, windowless room. My head was spinning, and I couldn't figure out where I was. As I looked around, panic rising at the absence of my parents, a door appeared in the side of the room, sliding open to admit a tall Changeling woman with blond hair and brilliant blue eyes. This was the first time I'd seen one up close. All the flaws of humanity had been wiped from her skin and her body. She was perfectly proportioned, her body fit and powerful. As she walked over to me, she seemed to glide, her gait was so graceful. She was wearing a doctor's lab coat, the name on the front right pocket said "Knight" in curly blue stitching.

"Hello dear," she said in a voice that transfixed me. Everything about this woman was stunning, even her voice. "There is no need to worry. You're in the Sector 7 Clinic."

Everything came rushing back to me at her words, and I started as I remembered my collapse.

"It seems you suffered a minor seizure outside our office today," she went on as she checked my pulse and fiddled with the instruments beside my bed. "Unfortunately, we will not be able to begin your beautification until you've fully recovered. Your family is undergoing the procedure at this very moment, and you will be able to see them before you go into surgery."

Finishing her checkup, the Changeling doctor glided out the sliding door. It closed behind her with a small click, vanishing once again into the wall. I sat quietly in my bed. A seizure? I had barely ever even had cold, let alone anything as major as a seizure.

Without anything to occupy me, I contemplated what my parents would look like in their new Changeling bodies, what I would look like. If we were even half as stunning as the doctor...

A few hours later, around eight o'clock, Doctor Knight returned in a blaze of brilliant beauty. She checked my vitals again and proclaimed me healed.

"We'll begin your beautification tomorrow at two," she said reassuringly, her smile almost too wide to take. "I'm sure you'll enjoy the new you. These bodies are truly a blessing from our great leaders. You're parents procedure has been completed, and you will see them shortly." She glided out in a cloud of gorgeous euphoria. I began to grow excited. I missed my parents, my hyper mother and my loving father, and I couldn't wait to hear all about their new bodies. The dark feeling that had been creeping below the surface since yesterday evening was now just a tiny speck in the back of my mind.

When the sliding door slid open once more, two beautiful strangers stepped into my room. The woman was tall with blond curls arranged beautifully around her face. The man had dark hair and dark eyes. They both seemed young and healthy, everything about them was beautiful, but very little was familiar.

"Mom? Dad?" I asked incredulously. The woman's mouth smiled, but her eyes stayed emotionless. She nodded calmly. She seemed very reserved, not like my mother at all. The man stepped towards me briskly, businesslike and professional. He spoke formally in clipped tones.

"Jillian dear," he enunciated.

I stared at him. My father never called my Jillian. Never.

"It is good to see that you are well. We were extremely worried for your safety and health. Your procedure is tomorrow at two, so you must rest and be ready," he stressed. "We know you will enjoy being a Changeling like us. Now sleep well dear." He stepped forward and set his hand on my shoulder, then turned, heading back for the door. The joyless woman that was my mother walked out without a word. As my father reached the door, I called out, desperately searching for the connection we had shared.

"I love you, Daddy!"

He turned and faced me, a reproachful look on his face. "And I care about you, Jillian. But you know it is improper for a daughter to refer to her father by anything other than father. I don't want to hear you using that vulgar term ever again." This wasn't my father, I wasn't even sure it was human anymore. The thing gave me a terse smile and left the room.

I had never seen this world for how evil it truly was. The Guide Tower masked their true nature in cloud of beauty, but in truth, they were rotted from the inside out. My parents were as good as dead, their personalities deleted by a world that saw them as ugly and improper. I couldn't let them do it to me as well. I now realized why my father had been afraid. He must have known. Maybe he had caused my seizure? To his last real breath, he had protected me. I had to escape, I couldn't let his sacrifice be in vain.

From that moment on, I plotted my escape. Whoever my father had contacted with his forbidden device, maybe they could help me too. I knew that the doctor would come to check on me one last time before midnight. The sliding door wasn't locked, so if I waited until after she came, I should be able escape without anyone noticing. The Changelings wouldn't expect me to disappear. The things that claimed to be my parents would be staying here tonight, in another room. If I could escape the clinic, it would take me about three hours to hike back to our home and find the device. Hopefully then, someone would help me escape the city from there.

The doctor returned, but this time her wide smile seemed fake and manipulative. She bustled around checking my vitals. The beauty that had struck me before now seemed hideous to my senses. Her soothing voice was strident and cold. Her gliding walk was dangerous and stalking. She was a predator, disguised to fool and comfort me.

When she left, I waited until the clock on the wall pointed to 2 a.m. I rose from my fake slumber, approaching the sliding door. It clicked and peeled back. Outside, the hallway was empty. I snuck past hundreds or rooms, where thousands of people had entered as humans, and left as shells, devoid of emotion and personality. I reached the glass door without running into anyone. I pushed it open, and walked out into the plaza that encompassed the clinic. Three hours and a few close calls later, I reached my home. Entering the familiar halls, I headed towards my father's study.

Finding the device proved difficult. I couldn't tell where my father had hidden it, and it wasn't where I'd seen him remove it from before. After an hour, the sun began to rise. Giving up my search, I headed to my room to pack supplies for my escape. Right there, waiting for me on my pillow, was the device.

I turned the knob on the top as I had seen my father do. The machine hissed with static. A fuzzy voice crackled through the slits on the side.

"Has there been a problem, sir?" it asked me. "We're waiting to meet you at the rendezvous."

"This is Jillian Gray," I answered. "My parents have become Changelings." The machine was silent for a moment, the person on the other line seemed hesitant to speak again.

"Please," I pleaded. "I need help."

"We'll come get you," the voice finally responded.

####

That was yesterday. Since then, I've been waiting, sitting in the dark so it looks like nobody's home. And now...

Someone is knocking on the door. I open the door, squinting into the rising sun, and I know that I have made a terrible mistake.

It isn't one of Daddy's friends. It's Doctor Knight.

I try to turn away, but her perfect fingers catch me by the hair and pull, stopping me before I can take a single step. I see something shiny in her other hand, and feel 'a pinch' -- that's what dentists say when they give you an injection, "you may feel a little pinch". Numbness spreads through my body from the stinging spot on my neck and I feel my knees giving way, but Doctor Knight's strong, cold hand holds me up with little effort. "No need to worry, sweetie," she whispers. "You'll be beautiful when you wake up."

THE END


© 2011 Errett Williams

Bio: Errett Williams is a young Fort Worth, TX writer, just beginning to experiment with writing and publication. He is especially interested in science fiction and fantasy, but also enjoys writing flash fiction and short stories of other genres.

E-mail: Errett Williams

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