"We were doctors," Az began.
"Cosmetic surgeons, to be precise," Maddy said. "We've both performed the operation hundreds of times. And when we met, I had just been named to the Committee for Morphological Standards."
Tally's eyes widened. "The Pretty Committee?"
Maddy smiled at the nickname. "We were preparing for a Morphological Congress. That's when all the cities share data on the operation."
Tally nodded. Cities worked very hard to stay independent of one another, but the Pretty Committee was a global institution that made sure pretties were all more or less the same. It would ruin the whole point of the operation if the people from one city wound up prettier than everyone else.
Like most uglies, Tally had often indulged the fantasy that one day she might be on the Committee, and help decide what the next generation would look like. In school, of course, they always managed to make it sound really boring, all graphs and averages and measuring people's pupils when they looked at different faces.
"At the same time, I was doing some independent research on anesthesia," Az said. "Trying to make the operation safer."
"Safer?" Tally asked.
"A few people still die each year, as with any surgery," he said. "From being unconscious so long, more than anything else."
Tally bit her lip. She'd never heard that. "Oh."
"I found that there were complications from the anesthetic used in the operation. Tiny lesions in the brain.
Barely visible, even with the best machines."
Tally decided to risk sounding stupid. "What's a lesion?"
"Basically it's a bunch of cells that don't look right," Az said. "Like a wound, or a cancer, or just something that doesn't belong there."
"But you couldn't justsay that," David said. He rolled his eyes toward Tally. "Doctors."
Maddy ignored her son. "When Az showed me his results, I started investigating. The local committee had millions of scans in its database. Not the stuff they put in medical textbooks, but raw data from pretties all over the world. The lesions turned up everywhere."
Tally frowned. "You mean, people were sick?"
"They didn't seem to be. And the lesions weren't cancerous, because they didn't spread. Almost everyone had them, and they were always in exactly the same place." She pointed to a spot on the top of her head.
"A bit to the left, dear," Az said, dropping a white cube into his tea.
Maddy obliged him, then continued. "Most importantly, almost everyone all over the world had these lesions. If they were a health hazard, ninety-nine percent of the population would show some kind of symptoms."
"But they weren't natural?" Tally asked.
"No. Only post-ops - pretties, I mean - had them," Az said. "No uglies did. They were definitely a result of the operation."
Tally shifted in her chair. The thought of a weird little mystery in everyone's brain made her queasy. "Did you find out what caused them?"
Maddy sighed. "In one sense, we did. Az and I looked very closely at all the negatives - that is, the few pretties who didn't have the lesions - and tried to figure out why they were different. What made them immune to the lesions? We ruled out blood type, gender, physical size, intelligence factors, genetic markers - nothing seemed to account for the negatives. They weren't any different from everyone else."
"Until we discovered an odd coincidence," Az said.
"Their jobs," Maddy said.
"Every negative worked in the same sort of profession," Az said. "Firefighters, wardens, doctors, politicians, and anyone who worked for Special Circumstances. Everyone with those jobs didn't have the lesions; all the other pretties did."
"So you guys were okay?"
Az nodded. "We tested ourselves, and we were negative."
"Otherwise, we wouldn't be sitting here," Maddy said quietly.
"What do you mean?"
David spoke up. "The lesions aren't an accident, Tally. They're part of the operation, just like all the bone sculpting and skin scraping. It's part of the way being pretty changes you."
"But you said not everyone has them."
Maddy nodded. "In some pretties, they disappear, or are intentionally cured - in those whose professions require them to react quickly, like working in an emergency room, or putting out a fire. Those who deal with conflict and danger."
"People who face challenges," David said.
Tally let out a slow breath, remembering her trip to the Smoke. "What about rangers?"
Az nodded. "I believe I had a few rangers in my database. All negatives."
Tally remembered the look on the faces of the rangers who had saved her. They had an unfamiliar confidence and surety, like David's, completely different from the new pretties she and Peris had always made fun of.
Tally swallowed, tasting something more bitter than tea in the back of her throat. She tried to remember how Peris had acted when she'd crashed the Garbo Mansion party. She'd been so ashamed of her own face, it was hard to remember anything specific about Peris. He'd looked so different and, if anything, he seemed older, more mature.
But in some way, they hadn't connected...it was as if he'd become a different person. Was it only because since his operation they had lived in different worlds? Or had it been something more? She tried to imagine Peris coping out here in the Smoke, working with his hands and making his own clothes. The old, ugly Peris would have enjoyed the challenge. But what about pretty Peris?
Her head felt light, as if the house were in an elevator heading swiftly downward.
"What do the lesions do?" she asked.
"We don't know exactly," Az said.
"But we've got some pretty good ideas," David said.
"Just suspicions," Maddy said. Az looked uncomfortably down into his tea.
"You were suspicious enough to run away," Tally said.
"We had no choice," Maddy said. "Not long after our discovery, Special Circumstances paid a visit.
They took our data and told us not to look any further or we'd lose our licenses. It was either run away, or forget everything we'd found."
"And it wasn't something we could forget," Az said.
Tally turned to David. He sat beside his mother, grim-faced, his cup of tea untouched before him. His parents were still reluctant to say everything they suspected. But she could tell that David saw no need for caution. "What do you think?" she asked him.
"Well, you know all about how the Rusties lived, right?" he said. "War and crime and all that?"
"Of course. They were crazy. They almost destroyed the world."
"And that convinced people to pull the cities back from the wild, to leave nature alone," David recited.
"And now everybody is happy, because everyone looks the same: They're all pretty. No more Rusties, no more war. Right?"
"Yeah. In school, they say it's all really complicated, but that's basically the story."
He smiled grimly. "Maybe it's not so complicated. Maybe the reason war and all that other stuff went away is that there are no more controversies, no disagreements, no people demanding change. Just masses of smiling pretties, and a few people left to run things."
Tally remembered crossing the river to New Pretty Town, watching them have their endless fun. She and Peris used to boast they'd never wind up so idiotic, so shallow. But when she'd seen him..."Becoming pretty doesn't just change the way you look," she said.
"No," David said. "It changes the way you think."