JK1113 examined his reflection in the mirror closely. There they were, dark sprouts covering the point of his chin, plainly obvious against his pink skin. Over the past cycle he had noticed them poking through, disturbing the even cleanliness of his visage. Many of his colleagues had recoiled in disgust after he had pointed this out to them. He had resorted to having the growths, known to the scientific community as "follicles" (JK1113 had taken to using the more colloquial "bristles" to describe them, much to his superior's displeasure) shaven off with a high-grade surgical blade and some foam from the lab's reserve, but for the past three millicycles he deliberately neglected to remove the offending invaders. He blamed his own scientific curiousity for this. On his personal log pad he wrote:
"bristles 3mm length + continuing growth. 110 total increase 7 from previous millicycle count. substance compare organo-plastic compound wire .06 gauge. historical antecedent to be researched. end log 12:11.19"
In his written records, if not his speech patterns, JK1113 prided himself on his adherence to The Word, and The Maximum From The Minimum. The Word was a principle everyone in The Life knew by heart - it meant that the most exact word that could be chosen to describe something was always to be sought. However, it was only recently that the new principle, The Maximum From The Minimum, had been introduced to common thinking. It was a logical step up from The Word: in addition to choosing the right word, the minimum number of words was to be employed in written communication, and eventually in everyday conversation. This meant that frivolities such as colloquialisms and even prepositions were to be eradicated from regular speech. JK1113 was skeptical that this principle could effectively be implemented in speech patterns - it did make writing easier, he found - but so much progress had already been made, so many strides forward in social organisation and enhanced evolution over t he past ten cycles, that anything was possible. Still, JK1113 was a scientist, and as such was expected to be on the leading edge of these steps forward. The Word was a path to Logic, and Logic was the path to evolution and towards perfection. The One and the Zero, hign and low, yes and no. Like any of the two million inhabitants of The Life, he knew these principles by heart.
After downloading his pre-day communications, JK1113 left his compartment and joined the throng on their way to duties. The lab where he worked was a short distance from his quarters, so there was little time for taking in the scenery as he made his way. Only the pink of citizens' heads and the silvery gray of their body suits (now to be known as 'outskins,' as per the latest revisions in the Word, in contrast to their own organic 'inskins' that they were covering up in the suits) stood out against the uniform omnidirectional glow of the white surfaces of the dwellings, structural pillars and passageways of The Life. His head was one of several thousands bobbing in a moving sea of community - being slightly taller, he could see the masses undulate in front of him, like bubbles in a pink plastic sheet. The men and the women were so uniform in stature, all smooth unblemished flesh and sleek fabric, that he sometimes found himself disoriented to the point of hallucination. At ti mes he had difficulty telling which of the anonymous figures among the masses was him, or if they were all him, cloned into infinity. Only the white triangle on his forehead indicated his higher rank, but not being able to see it he often forgot that he was indeed not of the others around him.
At the door of the lab he inserted his hand to have his fingerprints scanned. Watching the security glove process the natural complexity of the swirls on the thick underpads of his slender fingers secretly delighted JK1113 - it was proof that the organic structure of the human body (now known as 'I unit,' as the most recent revision of The Word would have it) was capable of uniqueness and intricacy that could equal any purely scientific process of design and manufacture. Not that his fellow scientists would care about it - the organic was to be improved and supplanted, not marvelled at. This was their mission, in fact.
JK1113 recieved his briefing files from EO9691, his supervisor, a stern individual who at 75 cycles was well past his termination age - the fact that he was worthy enough to bypass termination at 60 only added to his considerable air of authority. "I expect you to study your files carefully, JK1113 - the case we received today is an extreme one."
One of JK1113's most vital assets, as he put it, was his 'strong stomach.' He was unusually immune to the more bizarre and disgusting cases, particularly the Imperfects that the staff routinely studied. He could approach specimens and look squarely at them and their sundry mutations, all scientific forthrightness, while even some of his most senior colleagues often had to turn away in nausea. Recently, for instance, there was the heavy-set male Imperfect with the dense 'beard' of follicles all over his chin and upper lip. JK1113 was unmoved by the sight of this creature - he clipped follicle samples and examined the roots under the skin with a hyperprobe, moving about his subject with barely a word while the two other scientists kept their distance, struggling to keep from retching. There was also the young Imperfect boy with the patches of brown follicles at the top of his head - they were so densely packed in places that the scalp was completely hidden beneath them. Even EO9691 could not force himself to stay in the same room. JK1113 retrieved all of the required data without complaint, seemingly unaffected by the ordeal. He did not find such things pleasant, but neither did he let it interfere with his data-collecting duties. Even he had his limits, however - it was the labour droids, of course, who brought the specimens in to the lab. Being purely logical entities, the droids could bring in the specimens, purify them afterwards, and return them to the Unlife as necessary. The droids, in fact, made these studies possible.
That scientists trained from their third cycle to deal with the medical abberations inherent in Imperfects would be so affected was all the more reason for the scientific collective and enforcing authorities to make sure that the common individuals in the community never found out about the Imperfects. In fact, most of them thought that the Unlife, where the Imperfects lived, was a myth, like Heaven and Hell and all of those unreal fantasy lands whose legends never seemed to completely leave the public mindset, despite several cycle's history of revisions and restatements of The Word. But JK1113 and the rest of the scientists knew that the Unlife did exist, and the Unlife and its primitive inhabitants were their subject of study. The Unlife was the desolate remains of a civilisation that the architects of the Life had escaped before its final collapse. Buried a kilometer beneath these very wastelands, the Life was constructed, its inhabitants free to pursue evolution and conti nue the march from organic chaos towards scientific unity. But the Life was safe and secure only as long as it was kept pure and separate from the Unlife.
EO9691 squinted as he handed the last of the files to JK1113. "Why do you insist on nurturing these growths on your face? It is not pleasant at all."
"I know, superior, they are not going away on their own. I should have them lasered for good soon." JK1113 ran his finger over the file reader screen, held close to his eyes, flipping the page switch with his thumb. "Morbid curiosity. Knowing that I am the one in fifty thousand afflicted with the sprouts helps me to understand our subjects, I suppose."
"Understand them, yes." EO9691 shook his head. "But do you really want to go around looking like that? This strong constitution of yours is not something you should flaunt like that."
JK1113 appreciated EO9691 because he could be so elaborate with his vocabulary. Applying the principles to his speech was not a priority for him. The others, however, were far more devout in paring their language.
"Subject prepared enter now." This was KA2024, the newest of the scientists, breaking off the discussion.
"Good. Finished with the files?"
"Not yet. I understand this is very extreme. Another case of follicles on the scalp. Nothing we haven't seen before."
EO9691 ran a hand over the top of his head and grimaced, rubbing his white-triangled forehead. "Read all of the files, JK1113. This is an extreme case. Extreme." His lack of ease disturbed JK1113 - his own supervisor being this agitated over a case did not make for a promising start to the shift.
JK1113 read further, increasing the speed of his finger over the screen. He scrunched his brow nearing the end of the report. "Follicles this widespread on a case's figure? Superior, this is incredible."
His supervisor proceeded up the corridor towards the examination room. JK1113 followed his superior, leaving the finished reader with KA2024 for her to read over. EO9691 folded his hands behind him. "We have seen numerous cases of follicle proliferation over the past two cycles, JK1113. It is something I have seen less and less of over the course of my career, which I always felt was a sign that evolutionary science was progressing well and that the common body was being refined over time. I'm hoping that what you are about to study today is an abberation. It is like something out of the Dark Ages."
"'Dark... Ages?' " JK1113 recognised the term, but could not place its meaning.
"Oh, yes, Dark Ages, I say that meaning a long time past, in general. A time before evolutionary science, or evolution of any sort." EO9691 was known to confuse his staff with such colloquialisms - he often used these terms to keep them in line. It was one sort of knowledge to which the younger scientists had no access, and with the exception of JK1113, no interest in learning. Colloquialisms were without logic, and therefore without use.
EO9691 stopped at the door to the examination room. "I am afraid that you will be working with JZ5508 alone on this one. KB7892 from the previous shift had to be sent for medical observation; this case was too much for him to handle. KA2024 will help you later after she finishes with the briefing."
"You are not coming in either?"
"I did what I could earlier, but I can not tolerate any more of this one. As I said, it is an extreme case." EO9691 was a veteran scientist - for him to abandon the study like this really worried JK1113.
"I understand. I and the others will finish this study today."
EO9691 turned and left. JK1113 opened the door and stepped inside.
On entering the room the first thing he saw was JZ5508 with a file screen propped on his left forearm. HIs right hand alternated between typing information and cupping his nose and mouth. He seemed to be on the verge of throwing up. He saw a leg sticking out behind the wall screen.
"JK1113... good you here... difficulty..."
JK1113 approached his colleague, and as he passed the wall screen the Imperfect in question came into his view. As soon as his eyes met the subject he froze in mid-stride, his jaw slackening.
Seated before him was a female Imperfect, obviously scared, squirming in her poor-fitting outskin as she turned to face JK1113. She had sharp, angular facial features and light beige skin which stood in sharp contrast to the pink of the scientists' own - a sure sign of someone who had lived a lifetime in the exposed wilds of the Unlife. Both the chest area and the hips were unusually swollen in size, much more than an average female's, making her waist seem much smaller in comparison. There were follicles, too - two fine rows of them, on the brow over each eye in perfect symmetry, which was not unknown even among a few similarly-afflicted residents of The Life. But what was truly horrifying were the main mass of follicles - thick, dense, and extremely long, completely covering most of her head and shoulders, tumbling in immense waves midway to her elbows. There was so much of it that it was almost as if she could cloak her entire upper body beneath it if she wished. This was far beyond any case JK1113 had ever studied - no wonder JZ5508 was on the verge of vomiting.
The Imperfect peered up at JK1113 - her large, pale eyes followed his as he moved shakily to the console to retrieve his file screen and log on. JK1113 was not used to being unnerved by his subjects. "JZ5508, please summarise findings."
JZ5508 spoke, his voice muffled behind a cupped hand. "Female Imperfect, approximately in sixth cycle of lifespan... pronounced melanin from sun exposure, exaggerated mammary glands indicating..." He stopped mid-sentence, stifling a gag, and resumed. "Indicating... fertility... oh, permission to vacate lab!"
"Denied. Continue observations." JK1113 had collected himself, now in a pure scientific mindset. JZ5508, however, was fading.
"Ugh... fertility... mmph... brow follicles six millimetres, count approximate two hundred over each eye... scalp follicles estimated several thousand emmmm... hahhh... emanating all over scalp of ... subject ... artificially scented with... vegetation..." JZ5508 was looking at the floor now, trying to control his breathing.
JK1113 retrieved a hyperprobe and scanned around the Imperfect's chin. "Vegetation in question is a mix of sunflower and strawberries. Likely perfuming."
JZ5508 looked up and shook his head. JK1113 continued. "Perfuming is a recorded ritual among Imperfect females, purpose olfactorial adornment." He jotted readings on his file screen. JZ5508 reached for a disinfectant canister, but JK1113 stopped him. "You are disturbing findings by doing that, please stop."
"Smell vegetation... overwhelming!" He pinched his nose and gulped for air. JZ5508 was obviously not going to last much longer. JK1113 was also affected, but his 'strong stomach' was holding up.
JK1113 put his screen down and approached the Imperfect. Her eyes nervously followed his hands as he moved to pick up a strip of her follicles to measure their length. JZ5508 could only slouch against the workstation and watch in horror as JK1113 dug his hands under the follicles and lifted them off of her shoulder for measurement. "Follicle length sixty two centimetres, estimate 1.5 cycles growth time." He lifted the follicles higher and moved around the Imperfect so that he was facing the exposed back of her head. "Follicle emanation all the way to one third down back of neck... finer and sparser on upper neck area, possible deprived of nourishment due to being covered by heavy upper growth... JZ5508 why are you not recording this?"
JZ5508 had let his hand drop to his side. He was shaking uncontrollably. "Sorry... I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry..." He weakly threw his file reader on the countertop and staggered towards the door. "Sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry..."
"JZ5508!" JK1113 dropped the follicles and moved to follow him. KA2024 was just entering as JZ5508, by now hyperventilating, was rushing out the door. "Sorry sorry I am so sorry!"
KA2024 grabbed JZ5508 as he collapsed in her arms. JK1113 held up his palm. "KA2024, take JZ5508 to get medical attention. I will finish the study myself." KA2024 nodded and helped her babbling colleague out of the room. Behind the closed door JK1113 could hear her scolding JZ5508 for his use of contractions.
Resigned to complete the study himself, JK1113 returned to the inner lab where the Imperfect remained seated, pulling her fingers through her mass of follicles. He picked up JZ5508's file screen, downloaded his entries to his own viewer module and edited the data together. He then recorded his newer findings and turned to the workstation for further readings.
"Why do you call it 'folligles?'"
The soft timbre of her voice was startling. Imperfects in captivity rarely spoke. JK1113 turned back and addressed the subject. "Folligles? You mean follicles."
Her large plaintive eyes were oddly mesmerizing - JK1113 returned her stare even as he fought the urge to look away. The Imperfect pursed her lips. "Follicles, then. You were holding up my hair and calling it 'follicles'."
JK1113 recognised the term "hair," even though The Word had banned it from usage generations ago. "Well, that is what we call it. That is the scientific term." JK1113 was in no mood to discuss The Word with an Imperfect, and so he went back to recording monitor readings.
The Imperfect stirred on her chair. "Are they really going to shave me?"
JK1113 did not look up. "Subjects are always purefied before we return them to their habitat. It is for your own good."
The Imperfect ran her hand over her hair, fingering the ends of it. "What if I don't want to be purified?"
"It is not your choice. Your mutation is studied, and then what can be done to rectify it is performed." He modified some settings and continued making entries on his file screen.
The Imperfect slumped her shoulders, letting her hair fall loose around her. "What do you all have against hair? Its just... harmless stuff that grows on you. It's never bothered me." She pointed up to his chin. "You have hair on your chin. Does it not bother you?"
"Yes it does." JK1113 was visibly annoyed by the observation. "Hair is a primitive attribute. It is unnecessary."
"Why does it have to be necessary?" Her courage was slowly asserting itself as she continued speaking.
"That which is unnecessary is contrary to evolution, which is contrary to logic. Hair is something that we have evolved past, because we do not require it." JK1113 addressed her as if she was a child, which she was in many respects, at least as far as he was concerned. "The body adapts over time. Science aids this adaptation. Follicle growth such as what you are afflicted with is incredibly rare, as is your swollen pectoral region - these may be abberations, or a sign of evolutionary failure. That is why you are here."
The Imperfect was having difficulty following his discourse, but did not back down. "Well why can't you just finish your studies and poking and prodding and just let me go as I am?"
JK1113 was becoming frustrated - he was not used to ethical arguments from his own specimens. "Why would you NOT want to be rid of your follicle growth? Does it not irritate your skin and obstruct your vision?"
"Hair feels nice. Those of us who have it are lucky. You melon heads wouldn't understand." Her mouth was curling upwards at the ends as she talked which caught JK1113 off guard.
"What is that you are doing?" he asked, puzzled.
The Imperfect paused, letting her lips slacken and pulling her head back. "What do you mean?"
JK1113 pointed at her face. "You were just distorting your mouth a minute ago. Is that for a reason?"
"What, you mean... smiling?"
JK1113 was familiar with the term. "Yes, smiling. Was that a defense mechanism of some sort?"
The Imperfect seemed confused by this remark. "Uh, I was just smiling. I don't know..." She gestured with her hand. "It's... a smile?"
JK1113's scientific curiousity was piqued. "Yes, a smile, it is very unusual. Only Imperfects smile, but we can rarely get our specimens to do so." He quickly jotted down more notes, mentally noting that further study would be required.
"Well, maybe we don't have much reason to smile, what with your droids drugging us and carrying us down here for 'study!'"
JK1113 was oblivious to her sarcasm. He began logging off on his file screen. "This session will have to be extended. You are a very useful subject."
"Gee, thanks! I'm really happy to hear that." JK1113 watched her roll her eyes as she commented. She shook her head, causing her abundant tresses to undulate and swish over her shoulders.
JK1113 watched her fidget and pull on her hair ends. "How can you stand that?" He was generally perplexed, watching her play with her immense mane.
She rolled her eyes again. "Like I said, you melon heads just don't know what you're missing." A strip of her hair fell over her eye as she talked, but she made no effort to remove it.
"Your vision is obstructed. Does it always fall over your eyes like that?"
"Not always. I can tie it back if I want." She looked at him from behind her tendril of hair, the ends of her lips curling upward again.
"But... you do not want to?"
She shook her head. "I don't want to."
JK1113 was unnerved by the sudden pause in the conversation. He reached over and moved the tendril of hair away for her face. His hand involuntarily paused on her hair, for a reason he could not explain.
The Imperfect looked up at him, rocking on her stool. "Feels nice, doesn't it?"
Shaken, JK1113 hastily retracted his hand, and punched some keys on the workstation console. A door on the far wall retracted, revealing the Imperfect's holding cubicle. "Please retire to your quarters, the session will be continued later."
The Imperfect stood up, her gaze fixed on JK1113. She sauntered into the cubicle. JK1113 found himself being overtaken with a strange dread. He had the door slide shut as soon as she was inside. All that was visible of her now was her head in the round observation window. JK1113 tried to collect himself as he finished logging off the console and setting up a basic monitor on the biorhythm console to continue recording until the next session. He heard a knock on the plastic window. "Hey melon head!"
He looked up to see the Imperfect smiling down on him. She ran her hands up and pushed her hair up, letting it fall over her. She rapidly shook her head back and forth, her thick hair flying in all directions, stopping to let the hair drop and blanket her face, obscuring everything except for her left eye and cheek. She laughed and puckered her lips at him, her stare unbroken even beneath the hair.
The illogic of her gestures was too much to bear. Overwhelmed and trembling, JK1113 rushed from the lab, passing AO9691 and KA2024 without stopping to explain himself. AO9691 called out to him to stop, but JK1113 continued forth out into the hairless, pink-headed multitude in the avenue.
Back in his domocile, JK1113 reported back to the lab via audio-com to explain his absence and excuse himself until the next scheduled shift at the lab. With no duties scheduled until morning, he was restless and agitated. He considered attending the exercise rally but in the end decided against it. Instead he opted for some sedatives: Neuro-relaxant B with a HyperSoma tablet thrown in for good measure. It helped him relax enough to sleep, but he did not sleep well. He dreamt he was alone in the lab, with the Imperfect laughing and blocking his exit. He watched helplessly as her hair flew around him, wrapping his face and seeping like water into the neck of his outskin, with the Imperfect pulling him in and smothering him against her large chest. He woke up sweating heavily despite the environmental calibration in his quarters, lucid yet unrested. Worse, there was a numb tingling between his legs that he could not explain. Never had a specimen shaken him so badly. He considered requesting a leave from duties for a day or two, or turning the case over to another scientific group, but he knew that his was the only group properly trained for this type of study. He also considered the Imperfect's earlier proposal - he could have the droids return her to the Unlife outskirts where they found her and leave it at that. Unfortunately, his scientific resolve prevented this - he might never be able to study such a pronounced case of abberation again. If only his 'strong stomach' could hold out until the study was complete...
JK1113 drifted in and out of sleep until the beginning of the next shift. After waking he made a point to shave off the bristles on his chin, trying to make himself look and feel as normal as possible. He was woozy with oversleep and the sedatives had not yet worked their way out of his system by the time he stumbled out the door and made his way to the lab. The pink-headed throng was as uniform and endless as it always was, crowding the avenues and crossways of The Life in noiseless communion. JK1113 tried to lose himself in the uniformity of his fellow commuters, but the dread of the upcoming session made this impossible.
When he reported to the lab, only EO9691was there to greet him. "JK1113, I know you are not going to appreciate hearing this..."
JK1113's eyes widened - he was hoping that the project had been terminated, but no such luck. EO9691 continued, "but it looks like you are the only one who will be continuing the examination today."
JK1113 sagged where he stood. "I can not do this alone, superior, you saw what happened to me yesterday!"
EO9691 sighed wearily. "I apologise to you, but there is no other staff who can handle this case. KA2024 has refused to continue duty because of this study. JZ5508 was sent for medical attention and has not yet been released. And I assure you I will be of little assistance being in the same room as that... thing. There is no other scientist I can assign to this. Think logically and you will agree with me on this."
Thinking logically was the last thing JK1113 wanted to attempt. Still, he knew he had duties to attend, duties he had neglected the previous day. The path to logic was a long one, and it was the only path available.
With trepidation, JK1113 picked up his file screen and proceeded to the examination room. Inside he checked the bio-rhythm console for any abnormal readings. He looked at the cybereye lens in the corner - EO9691 had activated the remote monitor, which only partially reassured him. After tabulating basic data JK1113 took a deep breath, and pressed the release for the door to the Imperfect's quarters.
"Please exit the quarters for further study."
The Imperfect stepped nonchalantly out into the lab area. There was none of the fear present in her from the day before when he had first observed her. She smiled at him but said nothing, quietly taking her seat.
JK1113 pulled out a hyperprobe and compared readings from the previous day. With his file screen set on the counter he jotted down readings with his free hand, speaking aloud as if dictating to the fellow scientists that would usually be in the room with him. "Specimen unchanged since last record... noted decrease in perfume... I mean, olfactorial adornment..."
The Imperfect reached up and tousled her hair, yawning. "That reminds me, could you have some more strawberries delivered to my room? I'm fresh out."
JK1113's jaw muscles clenched. "Please do not speak during data collection."
She screwed her facial features and crossed her eyes. "Bleah bleah bleah!" She jumped up from her stool and proceeded to the console, ignoring JK1113's protests. She stood at the console with her hands folded behind her, jutting her swollen mammaries before her. "That's a pretty machine. You Lifers are so smart to make something like that." She ran a finger along the edge of the workstation.
JK1113 grimaced and followed her to the workstation, hyperprobe in hand. "Please stand still, you are disturbing the collection of data!"
"What's your name?"
JK1113 picked up his file screen and scribbled rapidly. "I am JK1113."
The Imperfect tilted her head. "That's hard to remember. J,K... J,K... I'll just call you Jake, is that all right?" JK1113 ignored her and made more entries on his file screen.
The Imperfect swiftly turned to face him. "I still don't see why I have to be shaved before I'm let go. My hair does me no harm. You may think it's ugly and horrible, but it's still a part of me."
JK1113 tried desperately to maintain authority, but it was a losing battle. "It is an abberation."
"It's totally natural, just like that little beard of yours..." She looked closer at him. "Aww, Jake, you shaved it off! And you looked so cute with that too! I had names for our children planned out and all, and there you go breaking my heart like that, you big meanie!"
The colloquialisms were too numerous for even JK1113 to tolerate - the day before it was the Imperfect struggling to keep up with the discourse, but now it was his turn. "P-please sit down so that I may continue my readings... please..." He felt like a computer on the verge of overheating.
"I used to be so scared of you Lifers, do you know that? I heard all of the stories about your droids and your Logic and science and all that, but now that I'm down here, do you know what I've learned? You're weaklings! You wouldn't last a day in the Unlife!"
She paused and the two locked gazes. JK1113 felt his lower arms shaking, he was so enraged. The Imperfect looked up at the white triangle on his forehead. She grinned and poked a finger in the middle of it. "Bzzt! Room service!"
JK1113 exploded in fury. "END CYBEREYE MONITOR!!!" The cyber eye beeped and shut down.
He threw his hyperprobe on the floor. "The specimen will sit on the stool and say NOTHING until the study in complete! Failure to comply will result in the order to have droids take the specimen and rip it apart and deliver it in PIECES back in the Unlife! IS THIS UNDERSTOOD?!"
The Imperfect paused, fear returning to her eyes for the first time since the previous day. JK1113 was trembling uncontrollably. If EO9691 had heard him he would have been released from duty for sure. Resigned, the Imperfect sat down, her hands limply draped on her knees.
For the next part of the session she said nothing while JK1113 took readings and recorded data. She twinged as he removed a strand of hair at the scalp for analysis, pulling her mane defensively around her chin as she stared at the floor. JK1113 felt the calm return - he could even look at the specimen without any ill ease now. Science was prevailing, as it should.
She spoke up without warning, her voice timid. "Please don't cut my hair. I wish you wouldn't..."
JK1113 sighed - he was almost finished with the readings and did not want to be sidetracked now. "I fail to see what is so important about this... this disease of yours."
"It's not a disease. It's a gift."
JK1113 snorted. "It is a disease. It is a malignance."
The Imperfect looked up at him. "Do you have any idea what it is like to have hair?"
She cocked her head forward. "It is the most wonderful thing you could imagine. Especially if you're a woman."
JK1113 was caught off-guard. "What does being female have to do with having hair?"
"Hair is a very feminine thing. Men can appreciate having it, but for women there's something very special about having it, brushing it, feeling it rub against your skin..."
JK1113 started downloading his finished report. "It is not something I would care to know about."
The Imperfect raised an eyebrow. "Would you like to feel what it's like?"
JK1113 turned from the console. The dread was returning. "Why would I want to feel what it is... like?"
She leaned further forward. "You already knows what it is like to have a beard. It's not that much different. I can show you, it's easy." She stood up and threw the ends of her hair back over her shoulders. "Sit down and I'll show you."
JK1113 shuddered, but felt strangely curious. "It would be... interesting... to know..."
She bent forward at the hips and patted the stool, as if she was coaxing an animal out of hiding. "That's right, just sit down here. You can take notes while I show you." JK1113 dumbly picked up a file screen and sat down, trying not to feel agitated.
The Imperfect stood behind him and placed a hand on either of his shoulders. She lowered her own head on top of his and then gathered her hair around her cheeks, letting the abundant ends trail over either side of his face. His back stiffened at the wierd sensation of her hair draping his bare scalp and ears.
"This is what it feels like to have hair on your head." She gingerly stroked the locks of hair across his cheekbones, letting her hands rest on his shoulders and slide lowly down his chest. He could feel her warm breath on the top of his head as she spoke. "If you were to start growing hair it would stick up at first, but would eventually fall as it got longer, covering your ears and brow. If you grew it for a year it would just reach your shoulders..."
JK1113 struggled to convert the old unit 'year' into cycles. The sensation of the soft hair and the creature stroking his shoulders and upper arms made it difficult for him to concentrate. He felt paralysed, scared even to breathe.
The Imperfect paused. "I'm going to try a better position here." She lowered her head next to his and let her hair drape over his scalp so that the entiretly of his head was blanketed. JK1113 gasped, his senses flooded, barely taking in the Imperfect's words. "One of the nicest sensations is being in the open plains of the Unlife, letting the wind blow through your hair. Hair keeps your head warm, and your shoulders too if it gets long enough."
She dragged a palm down his arm and grasped his hand in hers, squeezing it gently. "When I was a girl I found an ancient manual in the rubble of an abandoned city in the Unlife, showing pictures of women with hair, some longer than mine. That book must have been hundreds of years old... I treasured that book for years - I learned how to comb and maintain my hair, and I taught myself how to curl it with heated metal or with dampened rags. I stopped cutting it to look bald like the others in my tribe, even though I was banished from it for a time. They took me back in but even now I'm regarded as a freak of nature, even by the Imperfects, let alone your people..."
The Imperfect let her head rest on JK1113's temple, oblivious to his panicked state. "Do you know how lonely a person can get when her own kind rejects them? I remember looking at those photos, these women who in their time were seen as beautiful, and I saw myself in them. And I looked around and nobody wanted me. My god Jake, you are the first person I can recall being able to talk to like this..."
JK1113 was so overwhelmed with terror he could barely move. He tried calling out for assistance from EO9691 but his mouth was without voice. Why had he not sent in any assistance? Surely they saw what was happening... it was then he realised that he never gave the order to re-start the cybereye.
"Jake, I hope you understand what I'm saying here... I know you hate me and you think I'm just another lab specimen for you to study and throw away, but I feel so close to you right now..." The Imperfect's voice trailed off as she glimpsed at a point just below JK1113's upper body. "Oh my. Jake, look down for a minute."
JK1113 did as she said and was mortified to see that his crotch was bulged. He forced his hand between his legs and felt the swelling - his organ was stiff and solid as muscle. What was happening? Had the Imperfect somehow infected him? He furioulsly worked his jaw, trying to scream through his clenched throat.
The Imperfect reached down and rubbed his crotch. JK1113 yelped as the flood of sensation subsumed his nervous system. It was unlike anything he had ever felt in his existence.
"Jake, did I do this to you? I did, didn't I?" There was a palpably sly delight in her voice as she purred in his ear. JK1113 watched helplessly as she pulled on his outskin seal and opened it from his neck downward. "You'll have to come in my quarters until this passes. Follow me."
JK1113 lay naked on the mattress, trying to figure out what had happened. The Imperfect, also naked, was resting her head on his stomach, her soft hair spread over his chest and neck. He was in an unsettling state of calm, as if recovering from a long sickness. He thought back to the disrobing, the mad pawing, the unexplained thrusting of his hips, the final explosion of warmth that surged through his body as the Imperfect screamed through deleriously smiling lips - it was all senseless, without Logic of any sort, and yet in its own way rational and naturally ordered. The sight of the Imperfect beneath him, a figure which once made him queasy and unnerved, now was all he wanted to look at.
She turned up and moved her hair aside so that one eye was exposed. "So tell me again about mating in the Life."
JK1113 snapped out of his contemplative daze. "Mating? Mating is not performed."
"I can't believe you don't have sex to have babies! It just so... weird."
"There is an incubation chamber where all of the citizens of The Life are produced." He struggled to remember the terminology from past studies, words that disappeared from common usage a hundred cycles previous. "In... intercourse is not a necessary part of it."
The Imperfect traced a continuous circle on his stomach with her palm. "How can something so simple as sex not be necessary?" JK1113 was by now used to having his Logic frazzled by her endless questions, but he did not mind it. These were questions he too now found himself asking.
She pulled herself up on top of him so that their noses touched. "You know you Lifers are so wrapped up in your Word and you Logic... yes and no, yes and no... It's that gray area in between you've forgotten about." She brought a finger to his lips for emphasis. "You've all forgotten how delicious a maybe can feel."
The corners of JK1113's mouth turned upwards. The muscles in his cheeks hurt from the effort, but he smiled anyway.
A sudden buzzer from the lab sounded out. JK1113 sat up. "The comm buzzer! I haven't reported back to supervisor in all this time!"
The Imperfect moved away and let JK1113 stand up on his thin legs and look for his outskin. Watching him stagger around the cubicle reminded her of the shaky newborn colt she had seen among a herd of wild horses near her tribe's settlement in the Unlife. She sat back on the bed cushion and watched him stuff his gangly frame into his now rumpled outskin.
Fully clothed, JK1113 rushed back into the lab and pressed a switch to silence the buzzer. The cybereye was powered up despite his never having given an order to re-start it. He could only hope that EO9691 had not been watching all this time.
"JK1113, you have been in the lab for almost the entire shift without a report. Is anything the matter?"
JK1113 gathered himself. "I am in good order, superior. I have merely been... refining data."
He could hear the suspicion in EO9691's voice. "Refining what data? You have not entered anything since the first quarter-shift."
JK1113 worked hard to control his facial movements. "I... request that the study be extended another day. There is much data that this subject can still provide us."
EO9691 sighed through the speaker. "JK1113, I will trust your judgement on this one. I was concerned when you de-activated the cybereye earlier. I could see the specimen was giving you problems."
"I understand your concern, superior. I have her under control now."
"That is good to hear. If it were not for you this study would have to be abandoned completely."
A plan formulated in JK1113's mind. "The Imperfect will be sedated until next session, so continuing bio-monitoring between shifts will be unnecessary, and the data will be superfluous regardless. Permission to disable the bio-monitor."
"Granted. Please be quick as shift is almost complete." EO9691 de-activated the comm.
JK1113 grabbed an osmosyringe and pretended to be making up a sedative solution, making sure he was visible to the cybereye. He rushed back into the Imperfect's quarters and spoke lowly and rapidly. "I am going to get you back to the Unlife. The lab is unused during the fourth shift, so I will come for you then."
The Imperfect was confused, but glad to hear the news. "How are we going to get out?"
"The fourth shift is when we update the main server throughout the Life. All inhabitants are confined to their quarters or in duties when the update is performed, so the passageways outside will be empty. We will have exactly two microcycles to get from the lab to the ventilation network access point."
"Can't we go out the way I was brought in without going through The Life itself?"
"Droids patrol those passages constantly - at least in the main avenues of The Life we only have the security eyes, and they are disabled during the update. It is not that difficult, the access point is only 1.1 kilometres from this facility."
The Imperfect knew what a kilometre was, but not a millicycle. "How long is that in minutes?"
JK1113 did the calculation instantly. "Six mintues, fifty-seven seconds."
Seeing the worry in her expression, JK1113 clasped her hands between his own. "You must follow my instructions here. If we wait until the end of the study they will purify you before they release you - not only will they cut off your hair, but they will also reduce your hips and mammaries to genetic spec..." He found that his right hand had rested itself on her bare breast while he talked. Why did it keep doing that?
The Imperfect leaned forward. "Jake, are you coming with me?"
JK1113 was surprised by this question, and could see that she was expecting a particular response. "Maybe?"
She smiled. It was a good enough answer for the time being.
Shortly after the end of the third shift, the Imperfect awoke to see JK1113 entering her quarters. The light which had been reduced for her comfort was returned to its harsh omnidirectional glare.
"Get up. The server update is about to start."
She followed him out through the examination room and up to the outer door of the lab. JK1113 checked the time display in the wall, waiting for the proper moment.
JK1113 pushed the powered-down door open and turned to his right, breaking into a run. The Imperfect followed and quickly overtook him. "Which way?"
JK1113 was not used to such sudden physical exertion. "The access point door is... straight ahead..." His face flushed and his run slowed to a staggering jog.
The Imperfect looked over her shoulder and saw him struggling to keep up. She grabbed his hand and pulled him forward. "Keep going Jake!" Her voice echoed off the white dwelling walls on either side.
"Go ahead! I... can not make it!"
"You have to show me the way out! Keep going!"
They ran through the empty avenue, the access point bay floating in the distance without seeming to grow nearer. JK1113's lungs and throat burned as he struggled to keep up. They were a hundred metres away from the door. The Imperfect was laughing, knowing freedom from the Life was now within reach.
Then the server update ended.
JK1113 and the Imperfect stopped in their tracks as the Life slowly re-activated. Hundreds of doors opened all at once in a single metallic clang, and citizens poured into the avenue. Thousands of pink-headed figures swarmed and filled the open space, forming a circle around the them.
JK1113 felt several thousand eyes on him and the Imperfect. The citizens stood motionless. None of them had ever seen an Imperfect face to face, and now here she was. Their expressions were confused, trying to take in the sight of the strange-headed, large-chested creature holding his hand. For a sliver of time, JK1113 heard nothing but the breathing of several thousand individuals, like a single giant beast about to devour them.
All of a sudden the air was pierced with screams. Citizens started screaming, one after another, covering their eyes. Sheer terror was taking over the crowd. One by one they moved back. There was a growing stench of sweat and vomit as more mouths opened and the screaming grew even louder. The circle grew wider and wider and citizens started fighting each other to get out of the monster's sight.
The Imperfect grinned. She took a step forward, and dozens of figures toppled over. She dug her hands in her hair and held it aloft, and citizens fainted and collapsed. She laughed and pulled on JK1113's hand. "Let's go, Jake!" She walked forward, swivelling her hips and tossing her hair back and forth, delighting in watching the citizens fight and struggle to stay out of her way. JK1113 could only look around in disbelief as he followed her to the access point door.
JK1113 punched a security code into the panel beside the door, trying to plug his ears as he did so - the sound of screaming was hurting his eardrums. The door slid open and he and the Imperfect stepped inside. The muffled silence of the inner chamber came as a great relief.
Stooping, JK1113 led the Imperfect down a series of cylindrical tunnels. The light was still emanating from all surfaces, but was dimmer here, and there was a movement of air that JK1113 was not used to feeling on his face.
The Imperfect was silent for most of the journey through the ventilation network. Turning a corner, she broke the silence. "I like feeling this breeze. It feels like I'm back home already."
"I suppose you are used to this?"
The Imperfect put her hand on JK1113's shoulder. "Oh sure I am. Jake there is so much you're missing down here."
They entered a round, high-ceilinged chamber with a single shaft in the centre, towering up into the blackness above. "Inside that column is a row of rungs that will take you to the Unlife." JK1113 took a look around, squinting in the half-lit space. "This is one of the first parts of the network they built when the Life was being developed. The pioneers tunnelled straight down and started building the life straight out from this very room."
The Imperfect let her eyes wander around the featureless space. "No offense, but I hope this is the last I ever see of this place."
The voice behind them was deep and booming. Before either of them could run for the exit shaft a large hand grabbed both of them by the shoulder. JK1113 recognised the genetic modification in speaking voice immediately. He turned his head and saw a large face with the blue square on his forehead that indicated a security agent. "Citizens halt!" he repeated, even though both JK1113 and the Imperfect were incapable of wriggling from his clutch.
JK1113 twisted his torso, trying to face his captor. "Agent, as an upper rank citizen I demand release immediately!"
"Denied!" The security agent tightened his vice-like grip. "Citizen charged with public disturbance causing disruption!" He pulled the two figures backward. "Return for interrogation!"
The agent turned the Imperfect to face him. "Second citizen identify!" The Imperfect thrashed mightily under the agent's hand, her hair flying over her eyes as she yelled in pain. "Second citizen remove face covering identify NOW!"
The agent's fingered immediately grabbed the hair on her shoulder and pulled upward. The Imperfect cried in pain as her body was pulled upward by her hair. The agent paused, his brow furling. "Why has second citizen secured face covering?" He pulled upward, letting the Imperfect dangle in mid-air.
"Agent, please release her, you are injuring her by doing that!"
The security agent ignored JK1113, watching the Imperfect thrash about, trying to figure out what the substance was covering her head. His face shrunk in revulsion. "Second citizen... stop noise and movement immediately... explain growths on head... "
JK1113 ordered the agent again to release her, but the agent ignored him, engrossed in the bizzare sight of the Imperfect struggling in his grip. Enraged, JK1113 pulled mightily under the agent's fingers, growing ever tighter and digging in to his shoulder blade.
JK1113 balled his fist and swung at the Agent's face. "LET HER GO!" His fist sunk into the agent's nose, cracking the cartilage. Stunned, the agent released both JK1113 and the Imperfect, who picked herself up and immediately ran for the exit shaft.
JK1113 mutely watched the Agent bring his hands to his face. He could not believe he had actually hit his fellow citizen, much less a security agent. He could not even begin to find the Logic in his own actions. Bodily assault was totally unknown in the Life.
The agent put his fingers to his nostrils. Drops of blood trickled on to his fingertips. The agent held his hands up to his eyes, completely bewildered. "Citizen... why did you... strike me?" His face distorted and he started crying, squealing like an infant.
JK1113 felt a hand on his elbow. "Come on Jake, we have to get out of here!" JK1113 stumbled behind her towards the exit shaft, watching the agent sink to his knees, his hands covering his bleeding nose, howling miserably.
The Imperfect ambled up the rungs of the exit shaft, with JK1113 struggling to keep up. His arms ached from the constant climbing. The Imperfect stopped several times to let him catch his breath. "Keep going, Jake, we're almost there. I can see the top of the tunnel."
She pulled herself up through the mouth of the shaft and onto the landing, and reached down to pull JK1113 up to the surface. A single rectangular door faced them. She put a hand on his shoulder. "Jake, please say you're coming with me. You still haven't said if you are."
JK1113 bowed his head, panting. "I can not go back. I ruined a study. I made someone bleed. I will be terminated if I go back." He looked up at her. "I am coming with you." He forced his sore reddened cheeks into one last smile. "I want to be with you."
The Imperfect smiled widely and hugged him tightly. "Oh I'm so happy! You will love the Unlife, I'm sure of it! It's amazing - the light is warm and it all comes down from the sky, and there's plants and wind and water and birds and trees..." She held him again. "I know you're sad, but trust me, you won't miss the Life at all!"
She leapt to her feet and pushed on the door. Her hands
reached around the large round wheel that secured the locking mechanism,
and she threw her body weight to turn it. The lock groaned and cracked
open, and the door swung out. JK1113 was blown back by the rush of wind,
startled by the leaves and bits of grass thrown in his face. Outside he
saw nothing but a vast plain of deep green, and an endless ceiling of blue
clotted with white patches. The Imperfect pulled him outside and ran into
the Unlife skipping and laughing gleefully, with JK1113 stumbling behind
her, squeezing her hand, her long tendrils of hair dancing across his neck
and face, the hot light stinging his eyes, his senses swimming in incomprehsible
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