Skin Deep


Sidney Blaylock, Jr.


 I. The Healing

A gentle breeze cooled the sweat from Mahalia’s brow. The island, like her, was a paradox.  Immutable, unchanging, Jamaica had an Old World feel to it with its tropical climate, azure waters, and lush green trees and shrubs.  Yet, aircars, hoverboards, and integrated AI littered the burgeoning cityscapes.  The golden glow from the sun suffused the tropical island in a light.  The sky would soon turn to a deep burnt red, but her next patient would be here before that happened. 

Mahalia was apprehensive about meeting him. His name was Draylin and he was the CEO of the Grayson Starliner—the company building the first passenger starship.  She had a Feeling about him.  Chaos swirled about him like a cloak.  She had not met him before, had never seen his face, but her gift gave her certain . . . insights.  The man, who had introduced himself as “Gray” in his profile was going to trouble her life in some unknown way.  She had almost passed his dossier by and referred him back to the hospitals, but there was something in his picture that captured her. 

It wasn’t an attraction to him, she told herself. It couldn’t be.  It was impossible.  She was a Healer.   Like her namesake, she had been given a great gift.  Her gift wasn’t her voice, however, but rather the ability to see what others could not, to feel what others could not, and to heal what others could not.  And besides, who could ever love her . . . with her deformity?  She shouldn’t even be alive.

In ancient times, she might have been called a witch. But now, in 2086, science had studied and categorized her.  Science still didn’t have an answer for how she was able to do what she did, but she wasn’t vilified for her gift.  She was one of a handful who were classified as “True Psychics.”  A whole new branch of scientific study had been born to try to explain their gifts: Psionics, the science of the power of the mind.

The bungalow’s AI pinged. The patient was here.  She asked the AI to open the door.  She checked her hijab to make sure that it covered everything but her eyes and triple checked to make sure that her deformity was covered.  She steeled herself, then went to meet him.

He was not native to the island. No, there was an almost indifferent confidence about him that he wore like a cloak.  American.  Still sure of his place in the world even after the Second Great Depression of ’49.  He was young—younger than her, but he did not have the fear and trepidation that most had who came to see her.  No, he was . . . unusual.  That was the only way she could describe him.  Try as she might, she could not grasp his thoughts.  This close to her, he should have been an open book, but she could get nothing from him.

He looked up when he saw her and she braced herself for his revulsion and pity. That is what she most often felt from her clients.  There was nothing in his mind but curiosity.  How could that be?  Surely he knew about her—otherwise he would not be here?

Mahalia knew she should not even be alive. She was not just deformed but also a medical mystery.  How does someone born without a lower jaw live?  She had no trachea and you could see her pulse coursing through her aorta.  Her hijab hid all of this from prying eyes.  Eating was a mystery.  She put food down the gaping hole that was her throat and somehow it found its way to her stomach.  She should have needed a feeding tube, but she did not. She did not know why, although she suspected it had something to do with her Psionic abilities and that somehow her mind masticated the food in much the same way chewing and swallowing would have, but how did it find its way into her stomach?  Doctors, scientists, and AIs had failed to discover how she achieved this just as they had failed to discover how her “gift” worked.

“Please, sit,” she said through the AI. “I need to do a Pre-Scan just to be sure.”  For a moment, she wondered what her actual voice might sound like and then shook the thought away.  The AI was her voice.  Although synthesized, speaking through it allowed her to have a voice in the world . . . a presence that was more engaging than simply Signing—which she could do as well. 

“I need you to close your eyes,” she said after he had taken his seat, “and please, relax. It makes it much easier for me to See.”

His body, which had been tight, loosened a bit. She closed her eyes and gazed at him with her mind.  Yes, there it was—the tumor that he had been told was inoperable. 

“Okay, I found it,” she said through the AI to keep him from tensing up. “Now, when I start, you’re going to feel weird, as if you are two separate people.  You’ll be able to hear, see, smell, and feel what I feel, in addition to what you would normally feel.  I’ve been told that it isn’t particularly pleasant.”

Mahalia eased into his mind. She rifled through his memories and settled into his synapses.  The unconscious mind understood the body far better than the conscious mind.  She let her consciousness flow across the synaptic gaps. Faster and faster she moved through his mind, down through his spinal cord, and out into his nerves.  She felt everything and yet, nothing at all.  He gasped.  She knew his entire nervous system was filled with her thoughts, her feelings, her perceptions, but she had to push through until she found her goal.

There. She could see the mass of malignant cells coiled in a tight ball.  Tendrils of cells thrust from the core out into his body, spreading out further and further every day. 

She gathered her will and focused it into a tiny pin. Like a laser made of pure will rather than light, she burned the tumor away.  Mahalia could feel him tighten up and she grasped his wrists while keeping her will tightly focused on the tumor.  Once it was scoured away, she turned her attention to the diseased cells inhabiting his body.  One after another, she attacked and destroyed them all.

When she finally released him, he slumped forward. Sweat stood on his brow.  The golden glow of the sun had faded to a dark night sky.  Stars winked as if in celebration of a life saved.

It took him a moment, but finally he came around and raised his head. She could tell that all traces of the sickness were gone.  He looked into her eyes.

How do you feel?” she asked through the AI.

Draylin held her gaze for such a long time. “You’re beautiful.”

Her hands were shaking, but she was too stunned by his words to stop him as he planted a kiss on her forehead. He rose and left into the night.  She could still feel his thoughts . . . he was determined to return after he canceled all of his terminal arrangements.

A tear slid down Mahalia’s cheek. It coursed down because she could still read his mind . . . and he was telling her the truth.


II. The Forbidden

What would she do for love? Mahalia sat in the hover chair, shivering and thinking.  It silently hissed air as it bobbed unconcerned in mid-air.  She knew what she was doing was illegal, but she had a right to be happy.  Didn’t she? Doctors—brilliant men and women—had been utterly amazed that she lived, but none had ever been able to explain how she lived.  It was a mystery to them.

Plastic surgery to repair her damaged face and missing throat was out of the question. No one knew what the consequences of grafting skin and giving her a plastic trachea would do to her and no one was willing to take the risk. 

That left only one option; an option that she had long avoided. Now, however, she was willing to risk anything to repair her face. 

And anything, in this case, meant Replicant technology. Never mind that it was illegal.  No other technology would be able to restore her as completely.  Like the bubonic plague, however, Replicant technology was not only dangerous, but also virulent.  Formed by combining living mitochondria with nearly microscopic nanite machines, Replicants took on the structure of the cells that they surrounded.

The problem was that the machines were able to synthesize A.I. routines on their own. Mahalia knew what the government scientists termed it—”group think”—after the psychological term.  With Replicants, however, it was impossible to determine how the Replicants would choose to act, no matter how many studies were done.  There were too many variables to calculate and isolate: age, height, weight, sex, race, mental stability, and genetic mutations were among the myriad of factors for the human host while colony size, distribution, mitochondrial formation, type of cell, and cellular decay rate played a role on the Replicant side. 

All this meant that it was impossible to predict the Replicant behavior. Some Replicant colonies had killed their hosts after deciding that the human body itself was a disease that must be purged—and then attempting to “infect” other humans to continue the purge.  Other Replicant colonies lay apparently dormant for years, all the while slowly releasing toxins into the bloodstream, killing the hosts because they were running their own experiments on their hosts, and some colonies performed as expected, without fail. 

Mahalia could not believe that she was about to risk her life—especially for something as tenuous and fleeting as physical beauty. She thought she was past that. Yet . . . his kiss seemed to awaken something inside her.  Something that she had thought would never be.  And that, as stupid as it was—and she knew it was stupid—was why she sat in the hovering chair waiting for her procedure.

She felt a prick. Of course, she thought, these “human engineers” would not want her to see their faces.  She strained to pick out their thoughts, but all she sensed was disquiet—the same sense of disquiet that she received when her abilities failed her.

There was burning sensation at the injection site. She tried to move her arm away but couldn’t.  She began to thrash. 

“Relax,” a heavily modulated voice intoned, “or the Replicants won’t form the Hive Mind needed for them to do their work. You want to be pretty, yes?”

Her heart thundered, but she took several deep breaths. Calm.  Calm.  Calm.  She repeated these words over and over in her mind.  Soon she felt a lassitude take hold.   Bemused she looked around her surroundings, assessing, categorizing, organizing.  It was as if she had two minds. 

She felt a buzzing around the base of her missing jaw that extended down through her empty throat cavity, and down to her breastbone. She could feel the Replicants working, building, repairing.  She began to feel a gnawing in the pit of her stomach.  She felt hungry, oh so hungry.

She closed her eyes, trying to make the hunger go away.

Slowly, she drifted away into sleep.


III. The Horror

She was ravishing.

Mahalia turned around again to admire herself in her new full length holo-reflector that she had installed in her secluded villa. The hologram of herself spun and turned coquettishly, mirroring her own movements perfectly.  Before, she had never wanted a reflector, or even something as old fashioned as a mirror, to remind her how disfigured she was, but now that the Replicants had cured her face, Mahalia took delight in looking at herself in the reflector. 

She could not stand around admiring herself all day, however. She twirled one last time.  Another patient was coming.  She could Feel it, if only just.  Her Pre-cog abilities seemed strangely muted, as did all her Psionic abilities.  Like the tide of the water that lapped the beach outside, her abilities seemed strangely affected by the Replicants.  It was if her abilities were at low tide, but if reduced clarity and strength for her extra-sensory abilities was the only price that she had to pay in order to be whole again, then so be it.  The thought of the man’s kiss on her forehead and his words echoed in her mind.  She would count it a bargain.

The A.I. announced that her patient had arrived. It was a local Jamaican man who needed Healing.  His sickness wasn’t inoperable, but this patient had no money. 

He entered and she greeted him. She felt a thrill as she heard her own voice.  She knew that it was the replicants imitating vocal cords and modulating her thoughts into vocalizations, but she never thought that she would hear her own words.

They made small talk for a while and then he cleared his throat.

“Um, so when is Miss Mahalia supposed to return?”

She smiled. “I am Mahalia.  Do you like the new me?”

His eyes widened and then focused on her mouth. “But . . . how?”

Mahalia smiled again and found that she could not stop smiling. Her mouth seemed frozen.  Suddenly, she felt sharp stomach pangs.  A voice in her mind—one that was definitely not her own—sounded in her head. 

So hungry, it said.

She felt her mouth ripple and twist like a snake uncoiling itself in the afternoon sun. It formed a leech-like funnel and surged toward the horrified man.  He tried to scramble backwards even as she tried to turn her face away.

He was too slow. The thing that was her mouth latched on to his chest.  The man screamed as his flesh, blood, and bone were sucked in through the proboscis.  Mahalia could only watch as the man was devoured right in front of her.  It took only a few seconds, so efficient was the replicant-mouth, but it seemed like an eternity.

When it was finished, the metallic swirling proboscis recoiled its form and settled itself back onto Mahalia’s face. It shifted to the color of her skin, but it seemed more flushed now that it had been before.

Nothing was left of the man except his clothes. The Replicants had completely devoured him. 

She looked at herself in the mirror. Nothing about her face was unusual in any way, but she felt nauseated, and she felt as if she could taste the iron tang of blood.  She wanted to scream, to wretch, but it would have meant opening her mouth and activating those accursed Replicants.

Grabbing as many cred chips and clothes as possible, she fled her apartment. But she knew that she could not flee from the monster that she had become.  A monster who led her patients to death.


IV. The Hidden

She writhed in the cramped bed. Her hands gripped her stomach and held it tightly, but even the pressure could not lessen her hunger pangs . . . or rather, the hunger pangs of the Replicants.

Gone was her luxurious suite and its AI. She had fled on the day that she . . . the Replicants . . . had killed.  She could not forget that awful day; it had been seared into her memory.  All she could do was run.  All she could do was hide.  She had converted her creds to hard currency and stayed in the worst dives she could find.  She never stayed in one place for more than a couple days.  Some of the hovels she stayed in were so desperate that the food turned her stomach almost as much as the memory of that day.

Her abilities were almost nonexistent. She could barely see through the fog that covered events and she rarely was able to touch the minds of others anymore.  She felt strangely blind and vulnerable.  The police could be right next door and she’d not know it.  Mahalia suspected that Replicants were the cause of the interference.  If she could find a way to rid herself of them, she was fairly sure that her abilities would return.

There came a knock at her door.

Mahalia started. Before the Replicants, she would have known that a visitor was coming and she would have gotten at least a sense of who it was and why they were here.  Now, however, she sensed nothing but her own dread.

Her heart pounded. What if it was the police?  What if they had finally tracked her down?  How would she be able to explain what had happened?

The knock came again, more urgently this time. She crept to the door.  Dare she open it?  The hunger pangs tore though her.  The Replicants were hungry.  She tried to turn away, but her body would not obey her.  Her hand raised slowly as of its own volition.  Mahalia felt like a desiccated zombie, starving and ready to feed.  Inwardly, she screamed as her hand stabbed the ENTRY key on the door’s access pad.

The hardened door slid open.

It was Draylin, the man she had Healed. No, no, no, her mind screamed!  The last person that she wanted to see standing at her door.   She had saved his life and now the Replicants were going to take it. 

Her jaw clamped shut. Her eyes widened as she struggled to open her jaw, to warn him of the danger he was in, but her mouth would not obey her. 

His eyes widened as he took her in. She knew she must look a right mess.  Dark, unbrushed hair flowed over her face.  Yes, she now had a chin and jaw, but her eyes were tear-streaked and both hands curled around her stomach. 

He reached out and helped her up.

Her mouth curled into a cruel parody of a smile. He smiled back.

No, you fool, she raged. Run! Her mouth remained firmly sealed.  She could feel tears of frustration building in her eyes. 

He reached up and wiped away her tears. She would have screamed if she could—the fool man misinterpreted even that gesture. 

He sat her down gently. “Here, you must be starving.  I’ll fix you something to eat.”  He went into the tiny room that was the kitchen and began programming the limited food processor with menu instructions.

The Replicants began shifting. Hungry. Yes, we are SO hungry.

Mahalia had watched in helpless terror the last time. This time she was determined to do something—anything—to keep it from happening again. 

The Replicants swarmed. Her mouth elongated and struck like a snake, embedding itself, leech-like, into his back.  He screamed as his arms flailed.

Not again.  This could not be happening again.  She remembered the death of her patient.  How he shriveled to nothing right before her eyes.  And she had done nothing.   She was a healer . . . a doctor of sorts . . . and she had done nothing to help.  No. NO!  Not this time.

She had to do something.

Unable to even scream, she grabbed the writhing proboscis and tugged. Her muscles strained.  She wrenched the Replicants free of his back along with skin and blood.  He was bleeding but okay.  The Replicants had not yet managed to do any serious damage. 

He turned and stared at her as if she were some sort of monster. A part of her died as she watched him regard her as something hideous, but he was alive . . . that was all that mattered at the moment. 

She had a bigger problem on her hands, however. The leech-like proboscis, robbed of its meal, swung widely back and forth, seeking new prey.  With a snap, it doubled-back and implanted itself into her chest. 

The pain was so intense, but she could not scream, could not pull it out. She sank to her knees.  Her strength seemed gone.  Her own mouth was feeding on her body.  Soon she would be devoured just like her patient had been. Perhaps this is justice, she thought as she sank into unconsciousness.

Suddenly, Draylin was there. He grabbed the proboscis and pulled, just as she had done for him.

“Pull!” he yelled at her, shocking her out of her daze. She managed to weakly grab hold and she pulled with all her dwindling strength.   With one last mighty heave, together they both managed to tear the proboscis free.

The Replicants were in a frenzy now. They writhed, searching for either of them. The proboscis twisted and turned like a snake held by its tail. 

Mahalia saw the proboscis lunge toward her, much too fast for her to duck. She threw up her hands in defense, not realizing that she was still holding onto the trunk of the surging proboscis.  The leech-like mouth tore through its own body.

The Replicants screamed a metallic screech that was painful to hear. The base of the proboscis blackened and smoked as the Replicants ate themselves. The proboscis shriveled as the blackness traveled the length of the trunk until it finally reached the mouth.  Shriveled and blackened, the Replicants fell away. 

Mahalia was once again without the lower part of her face. Her mind felt clearer and she felt as if a cloud had been lifted.  She turned to Draylin, expecting to see nothing but revulsion.  What she saw instead set her heart on fire.  He was staring at her with love in his eyes and now that she could just barely touch his mind again, she knew that it was not feigned.  It was real.  It was gloriously real!


VI. The Hidden

Jamaica was and always would be an island community. Even though it was solidly part of the Global Economy Union, it would always retain some elements of the “small town” trait of everyone knowing quite a bit about everyone else.

Mahalia knew that the other women would not accept her. They did not like her.  In the markets, she would hear snide comments about her hijab.  Even in 2086, many didn’t see much difference between Psionics and witchcraft. She thought that she was ready for it, but a tear slid down her cheek when the whispered comments began as she strolled through the open-air market on her weekly supply run.

They didn’t know, couldn’t know, all the things that she’d been through, yet here they were judging her and taunting her. They were making fun of her because they thought the hijab was part of her religion, but she used it to disguise herself, to hide in plain sight. 

She could have implanted a mental suggestion in their minds, but she strode away, hearing their laughter slowly fade away.

Suddenly, Draylin was there, at her side. He pulled her to him. 

“Don’t worry about it,” he whispered in their ear, a nice counterpoint to their malicious looks and laughter as they walked by. “Their beauty is only skin deep, but their ugliness goes all the way down to the bone.”

He scowled at them. “You don’t need their approval.”

She looked at him. She had learned to project her thoughts into his mind. And what about me?

He smiled and hugged her even closer. “Your beauty radiates from inside.  You have an inner strength that they’ll never be able to match.  Ever.  Just keep being you and helping people and you’ll outshine them like the sun outshines the moon.”

Mahalia gripped his hand tightly in wordless thanks and closed her mind to their cutting comments. She focused instead on the brilliant glow coming from Draylin and the details from the profile of her next patient.  She was a healer and she was loved . . . that was all that mattered.


Sidney is a PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant in English at Middle Tennessee State University. He is an avid reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy, and writes creatively in those genres as well.  His most recent publication is a Fantasy story, “Childe Roland” in the November 30 Issue of  Other publications (in print via Amazon) include stories in: Visions VI: Galaxies and Visions IV: The Space Between Stars, edited by Carrol Fix, Fae, edited by Rhonda Parish (the story–“The Faerie Knight”–was selected for the 2014 Tangent Online Recommended Reading List), and Tales of the Talisman, Vol. 8, No. 3 edited by David Lee Summers. You can find his blog at