Defining Feature

I rested on my stomach as I looked at my screen on the floor. I let my head hang over the bed like that sometimes, having gravity pull my attention to something that bored me. In this case, it was the BMLs. I didn’t know why I needed to fill this out. I’m tall, fit enough to play unmodded sports, and I don’t need an exemption for gender affirmation like my sister.

I was halfway through filling out my Body Modification License form. The first few questions were easy.


Name: Carver Lee Cyrus (Lee was passed down from my dad and his before that.)

Date of Birth: May 25th (I just turned sixteen last month—old enough to mod.)

Gender: Male (The prompt said I could change it later, but it fits for now.)

License Class: 3 (Like most people who have to wait in line to get their Mod License.)

The next line was followed by a space to write a longer answer.

Persistent Trait:


Those were the two words that had me stuck. Before anyone gets their license, they want all parties involved to know what it is that will remain unaltered. Some element that would stay the same despite the many forms one could take. Persistent Trait was the legal and scientific term, but most people just called it your Defining Feature. Everybody needed one. For safety.

A hundred years ago, when researchers found a way to mold and alter flesh and bone and sinew, medicine as humanity knew it changed forever. Injury, illness, and even aging were no longer problems for those who could afford to augment themselves.

What’s more, for the right price, anyone could be anyone. You didn’t have to undertake invasive surgeries, diets, or exercise regimens to look how you wanted. Celebrities had leading roles for longer than most people were alive. But I guess some people had a problem with that. A few decades after the medical revolution, some anarchist hackers brought the technology to the general public. Almost overnight, modification clinics popped up across the United States. The technology didn’t translate perfectly as a generic brand, but it worked.

But I guess it was too good to last. There came reports of depersonalization or disassociation. Seeing one’s own reflection after severe modding could cause emotional breakdown. Screaming and crying, victims would dig and scratch at their new faces in the hopes of finding something familiar underneath. Others didn’t react at all—so withdrawn into themselves that even returning to their original appearance wouldn’t bring them back to awareness. Researchers called it Identity Disintegration.

Another complication was that it got pretty easy to steal an identity. All you needed was a partial 3D scan of a person, and an algorithm would do the rest. Actors and performers lost some of their exclusivity. After all, why pay someone millions of dollars for a starring role when there were thousands out there willing to take the job for less? On the more sinister side, modding made it easier to get away with worse than that. Ten people with the exact same face and body committed murders over the span of two months. They all resembled an infamous man from almost two centuries ago. After the Manson Sequel Murders were solved, it became clear that there needed to be a change.

The Human Shape Certification Act (or HSC for short) was the name of the law passed–the Defining Feature Bill. By law, at least one original quality of a person’s body would remain unchanged to keep them anchored to their identity. This was enforced by a programmed block on your cellular structure that would never be allowed to change. I wasn’t sure if crime or cases of Identity Disintegration went down, but I did know records of modding were stored in databases in at least fourteen states. I also knew that I would have to complete the form soon.

I rolled away from the edge of the bed until I was lying on my back. I saw a shaft of late-afternoon light through the window. I caught the light, holding up my right hand, rotating it between the palm and the back. I counted the freckles—one dead center on my middle finger’s knuckle and two by my thumb—and wondered if those spots of melanin could work as the only constant for my entire body. I lost focus on the world around me, and the dots blurred out. My hand felt heavier as I thought, and I let it fall to my side.

I sat up against the wall and looked at my knees. Mom said that shea butter could help with their roughness, but I never once saw her put on anything more visible than a spritz of perfume. I was glad I didn’t have a mirror nearby. I could have used any camera built into most of the devices in my room, but the impulse to inspect my face didn’t run that deep.

Before I could inspect my body and list every candidate for a Persistent Trait, I heard a voice. Familiar, but one I was still getting used to.

“Carver,” Rochelle said, “Matt’s here.”

I turned toward the open door. Her silhouette was like a smaller version of Mom’s, thin and graceful. She was only fourteen, but they made exceptions for Mod Licenses if it would help with something like a full transition.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be downstairs in a second.”

“He’s got a present,” she said. “Are you two going to a party?”

“Kinda. Lupe got her license and already modded. She wanted to celebrate.”

Rochelle tilted her head.

“But didn’t she have a party when she got her license?”

“Yeah, but now she actually wants to take pictures.”

“I can understand that.”

I didn’t doubt it. She asked that we put away her old pictures, and our parents compromised by keeping them in an album hidden away.

Still, Rochelle looked a little confused, frowning at something she couldn’t quite put to words. She walked back to her own room, and I changed into better clothes. Nothing special, just good enough to enjoy a sit-down restaurant. Some pants and a button-up shirt. One of the easiest ways to tell if someone had their Mod License was by seeing how their clothes fit. Almost all of the modded bodies I’ve seen wore clothes like each bit of fabric was custom made for their custom bodies. I guess it’s easier to make everyone the same waist size instead of tailoring designer jeans.

“Took you long enough,” Matt said as I reached the bottom of the staircase. Rochelle had made an understatement when she described what Matt held as a present. There was a pair of balloons, a wrapped box, and a card in an envelope. All in bright pastel colors.

“Need help carrying all that?”

He smiled and handed me the balloons as we walked out the door. On the front porch, away from my parents’ gaze, Matt gave me a quick kiss.

“What do you think if I mod and pretend to be somebody presentable to your parents?”

I laughed, but I think he was more serious than he let on. They didn’t mind I was gay, but my parents said I should choose someone with “good prospects,” meaning someone whose family had money.

On the way to the bus, Matt and I got closer and closer until we finally sat next to each other on the G-Line. My parents’ prying eyes were far behind us, and being un-modded, we were beyond notice altogether. After signing the card Matt picked out, I interlocked my fingers with his.

“Speaking of mods,” I said, “how’s Josh doing?”

Matt lit up for a moment, and I noticed something falter, complicating feelings that would otherwise be happy.

“Two days after enlisting, he was given his Class 2 License.”

His older brother had a spinal defect he was born with, but since he was deemed to have an acceptable quality of life, his Mod License was declined. He endured years of physical therapy and only managed to walk short distances on his best days. With a Mod License above standard, he would not only recover from his congenital disorder, his body would reach the pinnacle of human potential. As long as he agreed to use that body in military service for no less than three years.

“He ships out next month.”

I squeezed his hand before releasing it and pulling him in for a side hug.

Matt kept his eyes off me, and his voice cracked when he spoke his next words.

“We can talk about it later,” he said. “We’ve got a party to go to.”

Matt and I pushed open the restaurant’s double doors, and we made our way to the booth with another set of balloons hovering. Janelle, who actually went with Lupe to the mod clinic, was already seated beside her. She stood up to give us each a hug. Just past her, I almost didn’t recognize Lupe.

“So,” Lupe said, “what do you think?”

She flashed an impossibly perfect smile—

And that’s the only way I could describe her.

Impossibly perfect.

The acne scars she dealt with since middle school were gone, replaced with the promise that this new skin would never blemish. Once shorter than me, she stood taller than my five-nine. She wore open-toed shoes with high heels that only accentuated the height difference. I realize that I’d never seen her feet before. She only ever wore sneakers or flats. Maybe the light in the restaurant wasn’t as dim as on other nights, but she seemed almost to glow.

I apparently looked as awestruck as I felt, as she said, “Right? I couldn’t look away from the mirror once I saw myself.”

Seemingly satisfied with my response, she wrapped her long thin arms around my shoulders and pulled me into a hug. It felt different, and not just because her body lacked the forty pounds from the last time we hugged. She felt comfortable with her own body, and that comfort extended to the way she experienced touch. She showed no hesitation with how others perceived her.

▴ ▴ ▴

After placing our orders, we returned our attention to Lupe.

“Did it hurt?” Matt asked as he narrowed his eyes, looking for a trace of imperfection.

“Didn’t feel a thing,” Lupe said. She brushed strong dark curls aside for Matt to see more of the unblemished skin on her bare shoulders.

Lupe was still the same person underneath. She still fidgeted with her rings, but now they wobbled on her thin, delicate fingers.

She looked different, impossibly different. But she looked happy too. She didn’t use her hand to block her teeth as she smiled, seeming totally at ease. Her new clothes, part of a wardrobe promised to her by her mother, fit perfectly, conforming to her new form in some places, while draping luxuriously in others. A far cry from what she wore before. What was the point of nice clothes before you had the body you would keep for the rest of your life?

▴ ▴ ▴

“Now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” Lupe said and brought out her phone. I joined Matt and Janelle in drumming on the table. Lupe turned her screen toward us. It was a picture of her that could’ve been taken the day before she got modded.

“Good-bye old me—the acne, the bad teeth, and the dry hair,” she said. “You’re not going to hold me back anymore.”

With a press on the screen, the loading circle started turning, and after a few moments, the pictures were gone. There were still official pictures of Lupe in her records, but she would only be reminded of those if she went out of her way to break the law or, even more unlikely, decided to ask for them.

Despite my effort to find it in the picture before it vanished, I couldn’t figure out what she decided to hold onto, so I broke down and asked, “What ended up being your Defining Feature?”

Lupe frowned at me.

“Isn’t it obvious?” She pointed at the middle of her face. “My nose is totally the same.”

I tried not to look too confused as I searched for the original Lupe in the piece of cartilage. The pores were microscopic; the skin was smooth and without freckles. I think I found the hint of crookedness near the bridge. I sat back and made a show of seeing what I know she wanted me to see. It was important to her, so I took her word for it, and really that was the whole point of the night.

▴ ▴ ▴

When I got home, my dad was getting something from the refrigerator.

“Did you finish the application, Carver?”

“Working on it,” I said, keeping my head down.

“Your mother and I were thinking that it might help if you saw a counselor to help you through the process.”

I tried to hide my panic, but he saw right through me.

“It’s perfectly normal. You’re not the first person to have second thoughts about modding.”

But I didn’t have second thoughts.

“I want to get the license, Dad,” I said. “It’s just I’m having trouble figuring out what I want as my Defining Feature.”

“Just give the appointment a shot and see what they have to say,” he said. “At least so your mother and I don’t have to worry about you acting like your uncle.”

My uncle. I’ve only heard about him in passing. He lives in the next town over, but I don’t remember ever seeing him. Apparently, he and Mom got into a fight over modding when I was little, and he was cut out of our lives. Every now and then a letter would slip past my parents, but the messages were almost all the same, some variation on the words, “I miss you.”

I looked my father in the eye. I didn’t want to miss my parents. I’d see the counselor.

▴ ▴ ▴

Mom dropped me off in front of the counselor’s office and drove to a quick appointment for her own modding touch-up.

The office lobby had high ceilings. On the walls were large portrait-style screens that showed people who’d undergone modification. The faces slowly melded between before and after. I think it was supposed to show how normal modding could be, but it instead reminded me of a haunted house, the pictures changing when you look away, replaced with inhuman faces.

I approached the front desk, and the receptionist gave me a quick glance before speaking.

“You’re here for modding consultation?”

I wondered exactly what he saw that made him so certain that I hadn’t been modded before. I looked healthy enough. After a moment’s hesitation, I responded and checked in to my appointment.

A few minutes later when the receptionist called my name, I was led down a hallway to an open door. A gorgeous woman sat at a spotless silver desk beside a large vertical monitor.

“Hello, Mr. Cyrus,” she said. “Your parents said you might be unsure about undergoing body modification. I’m here to help you figure that out.”

Before I could speak, she gestured for me to sit. She slid the monitor, which I realized was attached to a mechanical arm, and positioned its back to face me. At its center was a glossy black circle. A camera. On the spot, I mustered the best smile I could, and soon I was face to face with the counselor again.

She ran tapering fingers along the screen, augmenting the picture of my face. She occasionally slid the monitor aside to get a look at me before returning to the editing process. I caught glimpses of her work. Higher cheekbones. A straighter nose. The sclera of my eyes bleached of any blood vessels; the irises lightened to distinguish them from my pupils. She knew exactly where to look to create the idealized version of myself.

“We’ll do a full-body scan later, but this is a good idea of what you could look like.”

As she was erasing every freckle she could find, she asked, “Have you decided on your Defining Feature?”

She didn’t take her eyes off the screen, butchering me down to the cellular level.

“I’m still thinking on it,” I said.

She finished the edits and turned the screen so I could get a better look. There I was, the potential of who I could be. Hair that wouldn’t tangle in the morning, lined up perfectly. Eyes that didn’t look slightly off. I reached out to this impossible reflection, and seeing my own hand beside this perfect image felt dirty and wrong. After a moment, I realized what was so different. My hand was a lot darker than the face on the screen.

“Well, you need to decide soon,” she said, keying in some data. “You don’t want to be the only high school senior without mods. Don’t worry, if you like the changes, I sent them to you and your mother.”

I felt my phone jolt as it received the data.

“I look forward to finding out what you decide to keep.”

I muttered a thank you as I left.

▴ ▴ ▴

“Well, how was it?”

I walked with Mom to the car. Her new hair bounced with every step, but what I noticed more was the smell of antiseptic from the modding process.

“It went well,” I said. “The counselor has a good idea of where I can start modding.”

It was technically the truth, but I held back on how I started feeling. I opened the picture of the hypothetical me on my phone and held it between us. She took hold of the phone and gasped.

“My baby,” she said, almost choking back tears. “You’re finally going to look like us!” She squeezed me in a hug.


For the rest of the ride home, I thought about those words and how off they felt. She was happy I would resemble the rest of my family, but we were pretty well-off. If they really wanted to, they could modify themselves to look like me. Were they really putting forth all this energy just to make me look like them? When Mom took her attention off me and back to the road, I opened my phone. From what I remember from old letters, I started looking up my uncle’s address.

▴ ▴ ▴

It was a couple of connecting bus rides, but I made it to the house listed in the database. I approached the old building and knocked.

When the door opened, something about my uncle stood out to me.

He was dark. My parents were Black and identified as such, but Mom definitely was lighter skinned than him. Funnily enough, this man standing before me looked more like me than either of my parents.

Sure, he was older, and we didn’t have the same face, but I was able to see something in him. Not any one thing, but a collection of things that felt uniquely familiar. I don’t know how long I stared at him before he cleared his throat.

“You’ve come a long way,” he said as he looked me up and down.

He looked past me, maybe looking at the clouds darkening with rain or maybe hoping to see my mother with me.

After a moment’s hesitation, he said, “Why don’t you come inside?”

He led me down a narrow hall toward a kitchen with an old wooden table. There were three other chairs, but only one looked like it had been used in the last year. He gestured for me to sit, and he pulled out the chair beside me. With a groan and a collection of pops, he sat. He regarded me, looking for something on my face I could only guess at. In a firm voice, he spoke.

“Why did you come to see me now?”

“Mom and Dad—they said you refused to get modded.”

“And they wanted you to see what could happen to you if you didn’t change up your body?”

I shook my head slowly.

“They don’t know I’m here.”

His wrinkled brow, the pattern of creases I’d see on my own forehead sometimes, smoothed, and he actually looked at me.

“I wanted to know,” I said looking down at the steaming mug, “why you chose not to get a Mod License.”

He opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but he instead stood up. “There’s something I want to show you.”

He left the kitchen, and I heard his footsteps as he ascended the creaking staircase. I could get a better look at the caddie on the shelf. Medicine for arthritis, one for cholesterol, another for blood pressure, and several others.

“You think that’s bad, you should see the ones I keep in the bathroom.”

I whipped around, found out, and Uncle just laughed.

“No shame in getting older, not that your parents would agree with that.”

He took off his cap. Some of the graying hair thinned on the top of his head.

“Not bad for au natural if I do say so myself.”

He laughed again.

“Now listen,” he said, “it was my experience and my choice not to get modded. Your mom—she didn’t want to carry on the legacy of your grandmother.” He pointed to a dark mole on my cheek, then one on his own face just barely peeking out from underneath curly gray stubble.

“Bet you didn’t know that runs in the family.”

I touched the raised piece of skin on my face, just barely grasping the history. I brought my hand back down when he handed me what I thought was a tablet. After failing to tap the screen, I saw what I held—a picture in a thick frame. I saw a woman just as dark as my uncle and sure enough, the woman in the picture had a visible mole on her cheek.

“I can’t believe Grandma looked like this.”

“Grandma?” Uncle said in faux outrage, “Boy, you can’t even tell when you’re looking at your own mom?”

He looked like he was about to laugh. I went back to the photo and tried to find something in it that tied the face to the person I knew as my mother. Her nose here was wider, her irises darker, and she had kinky black hair like I imagined mine would be if they ever let me grow it out. Still, I couldn’t find her Defining Feature.

“You give up yet?”

My uncle tapped on the photo just over the mouth.

“She kept her lips,” he said. “Full lips are always in style.”

I traced the smile in the picture, and I wasn’t sure if I actually recognized it or told myself that I should.

“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” he continued. “The Defining Feature nonsense? It’s bullshit. There has only been one Defining Feature for you, me, and everyone going back for centuries, and we’re wearing it.”

He pulled down the collar of his shirt, revealing the skin on his chest.

“Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

I came here for answers, and what my uncle told me only added to my confusion. Why would my parents, the counselor, and everyone else fight so hard to erase something like that?

“Look,” he said, “this is a big decision. I can’t tell you what’s right for you, just as much as I can’t say what’s right for my niece.”

Before I left, Uncle grabbed my shoulder.

“Here,” he pressed a paper into my palm. “Something to remember you by.”

When I looked down, I saw it was a picture of me. Just before Uncle caught me looking at his pills on the counter.

I had pictures on my phone, online, and in 3D, but this. It wouldn’t be filtered, edited, or changed. It was a permanent, perfect moment.

“Thank you,” was all I could muster, and before I knew it, I was engulfed in a hug. He didn’t just look like me. He smelled familiar too.

“And say hi to Rochelle for me, would you?”

I nodded.

“I don’t know what your parents said about me, but I miss my niece too,” he said. “You think you could come back again some time?”

Without thinking, I blurted out, “Of course!”

He smiled his crooked, imperfect smile, and the image stayed with me the rest of the ride home.

When I got back to my room, I re-opened the license application. In the box listing persistent trait, I entered three words:

all of me.

Ryan Matthew Jones is a recent graduate of San Francisco State University’s Creative Writing Program. His writing explores speculative fiction and its place in the Black and LGBTQ communities. He hopes to make the genre more approachable for people who have felt excluded like himself.