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Hex Publishers is an independent publishing house proudly specializing in genre fiction: horror, science fiction, crime, dark fantasy, comics, and any other form that explores the imagination. Founded by writers, Hex values both the author and the reader, with an emphasis on quality, diversity, and voices often overlooked by the mainstream.

Her Oh So Pretty Face

By Steve Rasnic Tem

Carol asked them several times who designed her new face, and if it was based on another woman. Usually they avoided the question, or they’d make vague reference to “the complex series of variables involved.” Of course it was all BS. Turns out the lead engineer modeled her look on an old high school crush he’d never even spoken to. She’d never understood why otherwise intelligent men could make such fools of themselves over a pretty face.

An icon shaped like a tiny smile nagged in one corner of the heads-up display built into her new eyes. She acknowledged and Saunders’ voice came like an annoying fly buzzing in her right ear. I think we have our first candidate. Thirty degrees right, approximately one hundred yards. Thin, tall, gray hair going to white. Carol supposed Saunders couldn’t help it, but the woman’s voice was like a nail through a metal eardrum, which Carol’s was, she’d been told. Some metallic alloy too expensive for other than military use.

“Is Rick watching?”

Yes, he is, but I’ll say again it’s a bad idea. This is no place...

“You people agreed. I want my husband watching every moment of this.”

Very well, as long as he stays...

“Send me this guy’s record,” Carol said without moving her synthetic lips. Not exactly sub vocalization in the traditional sense since she no longer possessed actual speech organs, but close enough.

Words and images streamed down the left side of her view. Thomas Walters, age sixty-eight, had a record of several minor sexual assaults. But according to his search history his more recent interests were the new living dolls and prosthetics. And he’d used his credit card to spend seven thousand on a doll of his own six months ago. No sexual offenses since then.

“He no longer fits the profile. His kind isn’t what I’m out here to catch.”

Looks like he’s chosen you anyway. Remember—act timid. Just don’t hurt him. Too badly.

She turned her head for a better view. It still moved jerkily and off balance. This face was heavier than the rest of her skull and she didn’t always compensate correctly. A few men glanced her way, a couple of women. One of the men was clearly the predator type; her new face appeared to attract those. When her face had been all flesh and bone men barely noticed her. They’d made her new face too pretty, but at least she had a face now.

Her auditory hardware detected the minute sound of electromagnets hastily applied—one of those large gravity buses braking. Her head snapped around with unnatural speed. There was some distant visual turmoil, an accident, bodies thrown about. It made her want to grab her face protectively and howl.

Are you all right? Don’t lose focus.

Carol zoomed in—his pupils were dilating. As he grew closer his heart and breathing rates increased, as did his blood pressure. A subtle red flush spread down his face and neck. Once he was a few feet away blood flow increased to his pelvis and genitals. Shit.

Your pulse is too high. Calm yourself. They’d lent her out to the local police for this test run. They’d assured her that she’d have more important targets in the future.

The first time Carol ventured out after training she couldn’t control her expressions. She’d performed admirably during exercises, able to make a smile or a frown or even a pout with some effort, and her new eyes tracked appropriately. But that had been inside with only people she knew watching. Outside, among people who had no reason to treat her with either kindness or patience, she’d been so nervous that she’d done nothing, and allowed her features to relax into something inanimate. She’d sat on a park bench, her mouth open and compliant, and her eyes fixed on whatever happened to pass in front of her. She’d been, in fact, a perfect doll. That’s how she’d picked up her first pathetic stalker, and this trial assignment.

Walters sat down beside her and squirmed closer. “It’s almost a flawless day, don’t you think?”

Carol knew what to do. She would smile ever so slightly, cross her arms and nod, giving him a compliant look as she said, “Yes, yes it is,” and they would talk more, and eventually he would cross the line. But she did none of those things. She tried to pretend he wasn’t there. She stared and breathed with her mouth open. I won’t backslide, she told herself, with no confidence.

“,” he whispered into her new ear. She could feel her facial skin reacting to his presence, artificial nerves alarmed, synthetic tissue warming. She was aware of her mechanized pupils dilating as electrical impulses sped through her system, readying her to run or strike. Would he notice, or did he see only what he wanted to see?

“Just like...a real...girl,” he said, his breath pushing against her, her sensors analyzing the changes in his chemistry. He squeezed her bare arm gently a couple of times, as if testing it for composition.

She shivered slightly, which cascaded into a rippling effect throughout her body, and an amplified panic took hold. He moved away from her just as her re-engineered larynx created a sound unlike anything she’d ever heard a human throat make before. Walters ran, and she had a foolish urge to run after him. Her eyes shifted mode without her bidding, and suddenly she could see right through his jacket, and the handcuffs he’d hidden inside. So maybe he was one of the predators she was meant to catch after all. It made her scream more loudly—she’d lost control over it. If the military people who’d given her this new face had weaponized her eyes she might have burned the creep up.

Everyone was looking now; people surrounded her. Her pained, not-quite-human scream had lured them. She didn’t want to know what they thought of her, what they thought she might be. “It’s her. It’s that woman with the artificial face,” one of them said. Others agreed. Now that they recognized her from the news feeds they would be too curious to bear, or too cruel.

She could feel the men gazing at her. Her crotch, her breasts, her rear, wherever fabric stopped and either flesh or imagination began. But now her awareness had become strategic. Each gaze had become like a physical touch. The impulse to reach out and defend herself from these unwanted touches was almost impossible to ignore.

How could she turn off this scream? Obviously it was a design flaw, what with her doubled over, hands clamped over her ears trying to stop the sound she was making herself from her artificial voice box.

She became aware of herself grinning around the scream, impossible but somehow appropriate to the circumstances. She had a broken voice box, as if she were some kind of defective talking toy. Maybe she’d become a doll after all. Poor broken doll.

Does Rick see me? Does he hear? she managed to broadcast between electronic screams. She waited for Saunders’ answer. But they came and chased the crowd away and scooped her up.


“That could have gone better,” Saunders said, “but it was just a practice run. You’ll improve, I promise.”

Saunders never looked at Carol directly. It was one of many things Carol didn’t like. Another was that Saunders was confidently sure of things she couldn’t possibly know.

Saunders brushed a finger across an implanted silver eyebrow. Something changed about her left eye, and she cocked her head as if she was trying to see around Carol. So she had an ocular device. Carol had thought as much but hadn’t been sure. Saunders’ high cheekbones were sanded and textured. Her lips had been suppressed into a slash. There was a strategy behind this particular appearance; Carol just didn’t know what it was. So many people were painted and augmented these days, some of it decorative and some of it restorative and some of it for added functionality. But at least they usually maintained some connection to past appearances.

“I don’t think I’m ready. Maybe I’ll never be ready,” Carol said.

“Nonsense. We’ve given you all the tools you need. You were made for this, Carol. Time to show people what you can really do.”

But clearly this new face had never been intended for Carol, what with all these eyes were capable of seeing, these ears capable of hearing. It was the cool facade of an assassin. She wore this face only because of an accident. And even after all the surgeries, with the intricate attachments of severed nerves with synthetic nerves, blood vessels and their replacements, it never felt like hers—it was simply the appliance she must now wear and experience the world through.

“My wife has had enough for today.” Carol had practically forgotten Rick was in the room, so seldom her husband spoke when anyone with authority was around. “You people push her too hard. She can’t handle it—it makes her irrational.”

“Carol, you need to check in with Tech. We don’t want to miss any subtle damage. Go on—I have some paperwork to give to your husband.”

She was too tired to object, so she went out into the hall willingly. Even as she reached the other end of the corridor she could hear them arguing on the other side of the door behind her. Perhaps Rick didn’t realize she could hear that well, but Saunders certainly did.

“You shouldn’t have been there today. You distract her—she kept needing reassurance that you were witnessing what was happening to her. She’s trying to take care of you, emotionally. It’s not surprising, given what she’s been through.”

“She’s my wife. I get to decide. Don’t bother her with permissions. You ask me.”


POOR BROKEN DOLL had been the headline attached to the first stories about her accident, featuring photos of the twisted wreck at every possible angle. As if it was the vehicle that was the doll deserving everyone’s sympathy. But they couldn’t have shown her, not the way she was. People wouldn’t even have understood what they were looking at. Later she would see those photos again and again in features questioning the safety of the new gravity cars, or advocating a special license required to drive them.

There’d been no “before” picture of her, not at first, because no one knew who she was, not with her fingertips burned away, and she couldn’t tell them, without a complete throat, or lips or eyes or nose or any shred of an exterior face, and with more than a few nicks missing from the front part of her brain. Rick had eventually called them, and identified her from her clothes. Not that she cared—she’d been off in lala land. In the meantime she was a complete unknown, and everybody’s damaged child, missing sister, or lost love.

Carol had no memory of those crucial moments that took away her face and much of her head. She’d hitched a ride with that handsome young fellow while desperately running away from her marriage, running away from Rick, who kept saying that he really loved her, and that he was so sorry for what he’d done. He’d promised again that he wouldn’t hit her anymore. But she never told anyone any of this, because it would have spoiled things.

She’d hardly exchanged a dozen words with the driver before the crash, so she knew nothing about him. Still didn’t, except that he’d been some general’s offspring, and the incident had been some sort of military embarrassment. And that’s how she got her new face and its cutting-edge features.

Her oh so pretty face with its perfectly engineered smile had its own sub-brain, a hard little nodule buried in her new right cheek like a tumor. She could feel it if she pressed hard enough. Which she didn’t like to do, because flesh tore so easily.

Also because her new skin looked perfect, with nothing remotely like a blemish. She didn’t know if it could bruise or not—she had no intention of finding out.

Gazing at herself in the mirror—she could barely remember her old face, but she also couldn’t identify with this one. It was the kind of face you saw in magazines. Real women didn’t look like this.

She’d lost a great deal of weight during the ordeal. That was to be expected, she supposed, but it troubled her that the resulting near-anorexic body was a much better fit for her new, more-aerodynamic features.

But perhaps the most difficult aspect of her new self was controlling the near-constant flow of communications. At the far edges of her gaze a tangle of icons clamored for attention, and if she noticed certain icons in a particular way part or all of her field of vision filled with news feeds, environmental readings, targeting information, briefings on the people in her immediate surroundings, messages from Saunders, from strangers, from Rick. And the junk, the dangerous messages from outside, from the voyeurs and the haters and the freaks, the terrible things they had to say.

Saunders said she would learn to control it, that soon she would be able to access only the outside information she wanted to see. But she didn’t want any of it. She just wanted to be left alone.

The last time she’d peeked at the public outpouring flooding her inputs she’d discovered a photo someone had sent of a Jakarta street monkey, one of those performing simians who wore doll heads as masks, apparently for more sympathetic begging. The attached caption was blunt and accusatory: This is you, doll.


Carol woke in the middle of the night, rolled over and pressed herself against the wall for safety. Then she remembered they slept in separate beds now, and she was more than what she used to be. She’d told Rick that since the accident she had bad dreams which made her thrash around a lot. That she couldn’t be sure what her new face might do in close quarters, while the rest of her was asleep. She didn’t know if he believed her or not. She didn’t really care.

She got up and went into the bathroom, but she didn’t turn on the light. Old habits—he used to follow her in there and make her have an accident, and he would offer to help her, force her to shower in water that was scalding, but he’d always claim that the hot water was healing, and he was doing this for her own good.

Her new eyes glowed with ultraviolet light. In the mirror purplish shadows appeared to drift across her face like floating x-rays, heightening cheekbones, stretching facial planes, brightening the empty spaces, making her look uninterpretable, something other than human.

She flipped the light switch on. Her eyes gathered back the ultraviolet and she looked like what passed for normal again. She’d always liked to think she had an okay face before, minus the unnecessary scratches and bruises she attempted to obscure with makeup. Now people talked as if she’d been plain before the accident, or maybe even ugly. But she thought she understood the need to exaggerate the benefits of her new look. It made people feel better about the horror that had been so suddenly and unfairly visited upon her. But of course they didn’t really understand—they didn’t know the full story.

She crawled into bed with him. He opened his eyes, and then bolted upright, blinking. Then he tittered. It sounded strange coming from him, as if his mask of confidence had slipped. “You don’t look much like you anymore,” he said. “What, what are you doing here?”

“You’re still my husband,” she said. “I thought it was time we were reacquainted. The way I ran from you. This would never have happened to me if I hadn’t run from you.”

She kissed him. It was awkward. These new lips—made for something else—were too hard, too inflexible for kissing. But she managed to pretend.

“Careful,” he said, laughing again.

But she wasn’t careful. She pressed harder.

“Hey, not so hard!” He laughed uncomfortably. “But I can’t say I don’t like it. You’re so different looking; it’s like cheating on your own wife.” The flesh of his face felt so soft, so fragile against her synthetic flesh, her powerful mechanical jaw. She could be careful. Or she could continue to press too hard, maybe break a tooth or some facial bones. Or maybe, maybe she could bite.

Steve Rasnic Tem has won the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, World Fantasy, and British Fantasy Awards for his work. Steve's last novel Blood Kin won the Bram Stoker award. His previous novels are Deadfall Hotel, The Man On The Ceiling (with Melanie Tem), The Book of Days, Daughters (with Melanie Tem), and Excavation. His new novel, Ubo, out in February, is a dark SF meditation on violence, featuring such dangerous historical figures as Jack the Ripper, Stalin, and Heinrich Himmler. Steve has published over 400 short stories. They've been collected in Ombres sur la Route, City Fishing, The Far Side of the Lake, In Concert (collaborations with Melanie Tem), Ugly Behavior, Onion Songs, Celestial Inventories, Twember, Here With The Shadows, and this year's giant volume Out of the Dark: A Storybook of Horrors from Centipede Press. A handbook on writing co-authored with his late wife Melanie Tem--Yours to Tell: Dialogues on the Art & Practice of Writing, will appear soon from Apex Publications.

Her Oh So Pretty Face ©2016 by Steve Rasnic Tem. First Publication: Words January 2017, ed. Joshua Viola (Hex Publishers).

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