In the futuristic world of Indigo, reproduction is controlled by the government, guaranteeing that every baby is happy, healthy, and beautiful. But mistakes happen, and a rare few babies are accidentally born biologically, like Magdala Cled.
Because of her natural-born features, Magdala is an outcast in society--abandoned at birth, abused in the orphanage she grew up in, and branded with the cruel name "Ugly." But Magdala's world turns upside down when she's approached by Claudio Loro, a wealthy scientist who has created a beautiful artificial body. When he offers to transfer Magdala's consciousness into the body, she cannot refuse the priceless opportunity for a new, beautiful life.
However, unbeknownst to her, Claudio has crafted her new body to resemble Christophine del Jan, his rival scientist and former lover. Now Magdala must impersonate Christophine to infiltrate high society, court Claudio's advances, and decide whose side she is truly on--all while maintaining her real body lest it die...and she die with it.
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Quarry and Hunter
Ugly stood alone before the processing machine.
The machine made certain types of cottene clothing, but Ugly never saw the syntho-cotton fed in at one tube above, nor the crisp white garments snowing out from the other below. Neither did she witness the actual metamorphosis that went on inside the machine in front of her. In the restricted space, three meters by two, Ugly stood alone with the processing machine and ran her stubby hands, clumsily but effectively, over the bank of green and red keys. It was simple to keep the machine functioning. The task should have left her mind free to think of other things.
Unfortunately, Ugly had very little to think about.
Ugly's shift comprised three hours on alternate days-five days a Dek; that was each oneday, threeday, fiveday, sevenday, and nineday. Every fifth Dek was free. For this program of work, Ugly received two hundred astrads each calendar month (four Deks), of which about one hundred and fifty went on accommodation, food, and essentials. Fifty astrads were nearly always left over to be spent on relaxation and pleasure. Unfortunately, again, Ugly was not in an ideal position to spend them.
Ugly's name, of course, was not actually "Ugly." That was merely what most people-children, workmates-called her. It was not even a particularly cruel name any more, simply blisteringly accurate. No longer spoken in malice, it had lost some of its intrinsic offense-and gained some. Ugly herself had never commented on the matter, either way, nor on her real and registered name, Magdala Cled.
On any planet of the Earth conclave, fetal conception was the controlled result of selective, artificial impregnation. This ensured that all children born were healthy. Occasionally, however, mistakes occurred in the area of contraception, and a fetus was conceived biologically. Sometimes, such children were less than perfect. It had happened that Magdala Cled was one of these.
Her mother was a licensed prostitute; no one had bothered to identify her father. Intent on trade, the woman had forgone abortion until too late. She had subsequently dispelled her baby and dumped it, with the required five hundred astrads, on the State. Magdala had grown up in a state children's home.
A potential intelligence and interest had quickly submerged beneath regulation mechanical schooling that gave no outlet for speculation or the asking of even the most basic questions. It submerged, too, beneath the primitive malignancy of her fellow inmates, who (in their defense) were half-afraid of Magdala. For it was a society of regular features and well-formed physiognomy, and monsters were rare.
"Ugly!" the children screamed, as they tore Magdala's hair out, tripped her, stuck into her small sharp objects, pinched and kicked her. Almost as if, by constant assault, they could change her into something less dreadful.
But Magdala Cled, re-named Ugly, only grew uglier.
Just under one and a half meters in adult height, a great engine seemed to have descended upon her, squashing her downwards and sideways, and twisting her for good measure. Squat, square and irreparably leaning, Magdala walked with a sort of part-lagging, part-hopping step. From her skew shoulders, arms hung like afterthoughts, with spatulate afterthoughts of hands on them. And from her head, an afterthought of thin murky hair, chopped off at the neck. The modeling of the skull itself did show some mocking promise. Under other circumstances, it could have been the skull of an aware and creative woman. The face might have been poignant, though never pretty. But even that had not been possible for it. The flattened nose, the left eyelid which lay permanently almost closed on the gray-white cheek, had seen to that. Only the mouth was well-formed, though the teeth had broken long ago and been replaced by haphazard dental implants, shabby as the fate which had necessitated them.
Certainly, Magdala, in the most absolute sense, merited her second name. It suited her; she would have been the last to deny that.
Only inside her, never let out, the bewildered anger hid, the pain and fury. She hid them also from herself, when she could, did ugly Magdala.
On Earth Conclave planet Indigo, cosmetic surgery cost more astrads than a processory operative could save in seven years. Even the un-spendthrift Magdala. For there was not much call for such surgery, and the fee compensated. Besides, Magdala had only to glimpse herself in a reflective surface to know she would need more work upon herself than any physical human body could stand.
She was a hopeless case.
And if she thought about anything, as her stunted efficient fingers scrambled over the keys of her machine, ugly Magdala thought of that. A formless and useless sort of thinking, more like an ache in her brain than a thought. While sometimes superimposed upon the basic hopelessness was a list of that day's familiar miseries-the looks of strangers; pity and revulsion, the disgusted and desensitized looks of acquaintances (there were no friends).
And under it all, checked yet eternal, blazing anguish, howling.
At thirteen hours, Indigo noon, MagdalaÕs shift finished. However, MagdalaÕs relief was late, as her reliefs always were. Magdala, unprotesting, stayed at her post, until another girl slipped into the three-by-two cell.
"Thanks, Ugly," said the girl, and it was obvious she used the epithet now only as identification, no hurt consciously intended. "I guess I'm late again. Had to fix myself up." The girl was attractive, even in her cottene overall. She edged past Magdala and pressed at the key bank with an inch of raspberry nail. Her hair was the induced color of eighteen-carat gold, and she shook it contemptuously at the machine. "Three hours of this. Jesus. Still, I may be on the display benches next Dek."
Magdala stood in the cell doorway, watching the girl. Magdala's smeared plasticine face was quite illegible. The display benches had two-hour shifts only, and earned an extra fifty astrads per month, but, open to inspection, they were manned solely by the most good-looking men and women.
The golden girl yawned into a trap of raspberry nails.
"Go on, Ugly. Beat it. I'm expecting a bench supervisor by in a minute, and it's private."
Ugly left the machine cell, and made her stumbling exit along the corridor. Other machine cells opened off in the right-hand wall. On the left the lower extensions of solar generators thrummed. At the check point, Magdala shed her overall into a disposal chute. Clad in her own shapeless utility garment, she sank in the elevator and emerged presently in the ozonized city air.
It was Blue, the season that on Indigo preceded Fall. On the shaved sloping lawns of the city the amber summer grass was turning the shade of wood-smoke; on the umbrella-formed trees along the sidewalks, the leaves hung like lapis lazuli. Above, the tall slender blocks of steel and glazium rose into a sky which was also intensely blue, and warm with the zenith sun of thirteen o'clock. A steady concerted vibration came from the city; the hum of solar generators at work on the high roofs and sky-links overhead, the purr of unseen vehicular traffic passing on the underground roadways. There was, too, the murmur of countless small devices-automatic sprinklers and fans, vendors, clocks, the gem-bright advertisements on the walls of occasional buildings, the faint regular throbbing of the live pavement at the sidewalk's center, and of a thousand elevators, moving stairs, reversible windows, sliding doors.
There were not many people aboard here in the commercial area of the city, for the thirteen-hour shift had checked out almost an hour before.
In the isolation, a handsome young man, passing on the slow outer section of the live pavement, glided by Magdala. His hair was pale and silken, and he was listening to music through the small silver discs resting lightly in his ears, but his eyes, wandering, alighted on the woman, and at once flinched frantically into reaction. Once or twice Magdala had caught a comment from those who were shocked by her appearance. "It's horrible. If I looked like her, I'd ask for work in one of the out-city plants." And another: "If I looked like that. I'd take enough analgens to see I didn't wake up." Magdala was accustomed to it all, the looks, the words. She seemed not to register them. Seemed not to.
Carried a short distance away, the pale-haired young man risked turning his head. Glazed in his web of externally noiseless music, he stared at Magdala, disbelieving.
Magdala did not use the live pavement. Even getting onto the slow outer strip proved difficult because of her awkwardness. And people did not like to travel with her, would wait till meters of the strip had gone by before they would step on in her wake. For this same reason she avoided the sub-transport, the sensit theaters, and most public haunts. She walked a great deal, on lonely thoroughfares, in her agonized, lurching fashion.
Six blocks from the clothing processory, the sidewalks opened into arcades and apartment-stores.
These could be the most unnerving moments of Magdala's journey, as, head bowed, gaze carefully blind, she fumbled through the periphery of the crowds. Sometimes people supposed her shortness to be that of a child, stopped to guide her, and recoiled in alarm. But today the arcades were not crowded and there were no incidents.
On the far side of the arcades lay an azure park where tame white or black doves fluttered about. Beyond the park towered seven Accomat blocks, in the fifth of which Magdala lived.
The Accomat was one of the cheapest ways to exist. Each apartment had a single main area three by four meters, with a bathroom cubicle half that size, and the normal accessories of food-dial, pay-dial and Tri-V screen, and limited furniture which unfolded from the wall. The perimeter variety also had windows. The inner did not, and here washed-air came through vents and second-hand daylight through refractors and shafts. Magdala's Accomat did not have a window.
The door shot wide in response to the pressure of her thumb in the print-lock. Magdala moved into the windowless, dim-lit, washed-air cell, just fractionally larger than the cell in which she worked. There was small evidence of her personality in this chamber, and what evidence there was had been cunningly concealed.
Now she did not hesitate, except for the constant physiological hesitation of her walk. She crossed to her pay-dial.
In answer to her index print, figures rose on the miniature screen. Today was pay day. Two hundred astrads had already been registered, and the rent, food bill, and tax on her apartment deducted and claimed by the Accomat computer. However, there was an impressive balance building up in her name at the central city bank. The figures showed just over five thousand astrads. She had only to index print and dial that figure to receive the corresponding check, which could then be cashed at any Bank Computer Station in the city. Instead, barely glancing at the screen, Magdala dialed a check for ten astrads.
On pay days, once a month, Magdala bought a meal in the Accomat Cafeteria. Once a month, that was thirteen times every year, Magdala slunk into the darkest corner booth of the bright and busy eating area, and ate the fresh meat, fresh vegetables, and fruit that the cafeteria could supply. The rest of the year, she relied on her food-dial, which dispensed plastic containers of revitalized frozen stuffs, vitamin capsules, and various fluids.
To visit the cafeteria, despite the dark booth, was nevertheless an ordeal. Generally, each restaurant served the inhabitants of its own apartment block, who were permitted to exchange and cash their pay-dial checks there, when ordering food. Most of the dwellers in the fifth block knew Magdala by sight, and scrupulously avoided her. Sometimes, however, outsiders would come in to eat, and they might see Magdala for the first time, registering the event explicitly.
The elevator sang gently as it flew like a bird up twenty stories.
Magdala stood in the elevator, her face its normal waxy blank. But even as her stomach tightened, aware of the coming meal, her mouth dried with an automatic inner cringing. She felt fear constantly but seldom revealed it, for she was used to being afraid, perpetually and instinctively tensed for the attitudes of the people about her. She often wished, positively and with no hint of childishness, that she might become invisible. Sometimes her fear rose to an extreme pitch. Otherwise, it merely breathed steadily within her, like the continuous steady breathing of the city.
The elevator stopped. Its door slid aside.
Magdala pulled herself out into the luminous sunlit space beyond, and began her arduous progress to the counter.
The two counter attendants leaned by the menu screen. One pointed Magdala out to the other. "Here's the cripple, like I said. She always comes in on processory pay days." She caught the words with ease. Swiftly she selected from the menu screen and the attendant tapped out her order to the mechanical kitchen. Magdala kept her eyes down. In this position, both lids drooping, her eyes seemed almost acceptable. The second attendant had submitted her ten-astrad check and returned now with her change. He skimmed it across to her, not touching her hand.
She was twenty-six. Since her birth, no one had ever willingly touched her, beyond the impersonal doctors at the state home and the children who had tortured her.
She took her tray and started toward the darkest booth. She was nearly there before she realized that someone was already seated inside.
Magdala was briefly confused. Today, the cafeteria was two-thirds empty and nobody took this booth when so many others, with access to the polarized sunny roof and glazium windows, were available. Then a new, more startled confusion overtook the first, for the seated figure in the booth was the pale-haired young man who had passed her on the street.
His profile, blond like his hair against a somber ground, was so fine, so perfectly made, it seemed machine finished. The long-lashed eyes shone translucent yet metallic. A glazium beaker of red alcohol on the table before him had been encircled by a notable, hard, flexible, and long-fingered hand, that appeared almost alive of its own volition. The silver music discs were no longer inside his ears.
Magdala threw her body hurriedly into retreat, commencing the turn which would carry her to safety.
"Don't run away."
Magdala halted in the midst of her turning, listened for what would come next. Nothing came.
Magdala completed the turn and assayed a step.
"Why do you persist in running away, when I just told you not to?"
The voice was cool and virtually expressionless.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a science fiction novel, which is a break from the pure fantasy ones that I've been reading by Lee. There's still a major amount of science so complicated it might as well be magic, in that a woman with a slew of "birth defects" (aka she wasn't genetically engineered to be perfect, and is usually just called "Ugly") is popped into a tank and her consciousness is transfered to a perfect and beautiful body. The man who masterminds this transfer is an unstable genius and he manipulates her to see how she reacts to various stimuli. The revelations that occur over the course of the story are very interesting and the final one had me rethinking my reactions to the events of the whole story.
[2006-10-12] Short sf novel exploring identity and manipulation via consciousness transfer into android bodies, with the usual Lee sting in the tail.