Kréa-D locked the heavy door of her cubicle, a ten-foot square carved from solid granite. The door muffled the constant tramp of feet and the constant murmur of voices from the corridor outside. Three miles beneath the New Mexico desert, Undercity was a crowded, noisy place. The commotion from never-ending construction and expansion was always within earshot.
Every seventh day Kréa emptied and scoured her cubicle with a high-pressure steamer, the machine bought with her first mid-rank officer’s allowance. Steam scalded the tiny, flesh-eating grubs, contagious fungi and bacteria that infested almost half the people in Undercity.
Kréa also inspected her body on a regular basis, starting with her scalp and ending with her toes. She used hot water, liquid antibacterial soap and a soft brush. The timer flashed ten seconds before her hot water quota expired. Afterward, she dried off and stood in front of her full-length mirror, eyeing her reflection for anything that might catch the eye of a Health Inspector. Kréa kept her hair shorter than mandated to facilitate this ritual. In the revealing glow of the UVD light, her scalp shimmered through one-half inch of thick, white-blond stubble. She used a magnifying glass, a bright, handheld light and a palm-size, magnifying mirror.
Satisfied with her scalp she moved on to her face, ears and neck and noted the small spider-shaped biopsy scar at the outer tip of her left eyebrow, there since age ten. She checked its size, shape and color—a quarter inch long, plump and pink from the heat of the shower. Her face and neck were otherwise clear. Shoulders clear. Turning her back to the door and holding the small mirror in her hand, she located familiar scars—one on her lowest right rib, one somewhat new scar on her right elbow. Buttocks clear. Back of right thigh, two short, slender scars. Knees, calves and ankles, clear.
She turned again, faced the mirror and examined her chest and arms, stomach and abdomen inch by inch, holding the magnifying glass close to several small freckles, the one tiny mole near her pubic hair. Clear. Thighs, clear—but then she spotted a small mark on her right knee. She squatted, held the magnifying glass over the spot and probed, sliding the skin back and forth. The spot was pink-brown, slightly raised and uneven in texture.
A wart? A colorless mole? A bruise?
Krea knew what would have happened if her childhood biopsy had come back positive. They would have euthanized me.
Kréa continued the inspection until the tender flesh between her toes proved clear. Inside her bottom drawer, inside airtight containers were her eating utensils—a small metal bowl, a spoon, knife and fork. Behind them, a mending kit—needles, threads, scissors, and swatches from old uniforms. In the second drawer were underwear and a stack of bleached, menstrual rags. Inside the top drawer were her Chaparral rank pin, wrapped in a square of wool, three pair of white gloves, her knife and tracer in their sheath and holster. She lifted the holster, checked the tracer’s power pack, and placed the weapon on the floor beside the mending kit.
Kréa remembered Dr. Gatt’s flat, emotionless voice.
“Ten year old female with small, uneven facial mole—proceeding with excision and immediate biopsy.” The two male assistants placed Kréa on a cold metal table with a trough along its outer edge and a corner drain. The drain fed into surgical tubing, and the tubing attached to a copper sump low on the wall.
The assistants pulled wide straps from beneath the table’s edge and cinched them tight across her chest, hips, knees, ankles and wrists. A narrow band belted her forehead down and positioned her head snug between two padded braces. The doctor stretched transparent gloves over his spidery hands, picked up a scalpel from a tray and sliced into Kréa’s temple—no anesthesia. She remembered how she jumped, how her arms strained under the straps, trying to break free, wanting to fight. It felt like he was digging her eye out.
“Hold still, you little bitch,” Dr. Gatt said, and the threat in his eyes made Kréa squeeze her own eyes shut. Instead of struggling against the straps, she grabbed fistfuls of her Orphanage uniform. When she felt him cut deeper with the scalpel something warm run down into her hair. She bit her lip and shuddered—but she didn’t cry.
Twenty years had passed since then and not once in two decades had she ever cried.
Kréa spread a towel on the floor of her cubicle and sat down. She withdrew her standard-issue military knife and held its gleaming edge to her knee. She took a steadying breath and then sliced into her flesh, making a short, deep crescent-shaped cut alongside the imperfection. She cut again on the other side, a mirror image of the first. Blood drops blossomed on the towel. She dropped the knife and squeezed the spot until more blood streamed down her leg. The obstinate nubbin of flesh held its ground. Krea grabbed the knife again, went deeper and severed its root.
The bleeding stopped as she stitched the incision closed. Kréa wiped her hands on the towel and picked up the tracer, dialing its power to high and its radius to SLIVER—something she’d learned during basic training. A standard issue tracer was more than a weapon. On its high setting, it could slice an enemy in half, cut through metal or stone or start a fire. On lower settings it heated food, cauterized a spurting artery or sealed a wound. Using her tracer she could have burned out the blemish but Krea had never tested the weapon on human flesh. It would have been a guess on her part. She knew a clean cut healed faster than a burn, and a stitched incision left a smaller scar.
Illegal drugs that had been pumped down toilets were often traced back to their originating quarters—the same with garbage drains. No one must ever know about her private surgeries or physical imperfections.
Flaws signaled weakness. A weakness became an identifying trademark, like Makk-A with his grubs, scars and smelly ointments.
Inside the metal bowl lay the bloody bit of flesh. Kréa aimed the tracer into the bowl and fired. She flinched at the blue-white flash, the metallic zing, and the sweet-sour odor. Three, silvery, fine ashes floated in the air above the empty bowl. DNA destroyed.
Kréa bandaged the wound, stowed the mending kit in the bottom drawer and bleached the towel. No sign of imperfection. No flaw. No sign of weakness.