Copyright 1996

Revised 05/00

PRISONERS OF TIRESIAS
by Christopher Leeson


Part 1

"We are the children of chaos and decay. At our society's root there is only corruption and decrepitude. Gone is purpose from our lives; all that is left is direction -- or, rather, misdirection -- and even that is imposed from above."

"Socialism for the 21st Century," Geoffrey Kroski, 2007,


Chapter 1

I could see the white-coated technicians working on the other side of the gold-tinted glass shielding, their expressions intense, their movements economical. I could sense their excitement, still palpable though they must have done this operation many times before. It -- the big It -- would happen soon.

Very soon.

My breath shaky, I glanced down at the grating -- the high-conductivity mesh that any second now would carry a modulated burst of electromagnetic energy throughout our bodies. That burst would re-calibrate the vibratory rate of our molecular building blocks and reintergrate us out of this world and into another. Though intellectually prepared, I nonetheless shuddered, ruing the chain of events which had gotten me involved in this ludicrous project. A mutter to one side caused me to glance toward my equally-nervous neighbors.

Most of them were locked in manacles and leg irons, as befitted convicts in transit -- mostly street-gang members convicted of serious crimes. These were the bad ones, the violent two-legged sharks, the vicious fatherless sons of urban America, the rabid predators of America's crime-blasted inner cities. They were the random marauders that would kill a fourteen-year-old for a pair of Nike shoes or a sharkskin jacket, the gang-warriors who fought bloody battles over drug territory. They were the hijackers and burglars and stickup men who killed without remorse, they were the murderous pimps who knifed their own girls or cut the faces of streetwalkers who worked for rival hustlers.
This is a still from a television documentary. It shows a group of convicts in the TiresiasTransfer Chamber just before being "sent over." This wasn't our group, of course. I wasn't in the mood to take pictures that day! Misery loves company, but I could have done without company of their kind. One didn't get sent to Tiresias. for minor crimes -- crimes like grand theft auto, or assault and battery, crimes that the police no longer made arrests for, unless they were perpetrated right under their noses. The prison on Tiresias was reserved for a much more depraved sort of human debris.

Even though most of these convicts were still in their teens and twenties most of them would have long records of unpunished crime. The authorities couldn't be bothered with violent crime -- federal resources couldn't be diverted from the social revolution imposed from above which was ruining the lives of most honest people. Street crime didn't much daunt the thinkers and planners; the well-to-do elites of university and bureaucracy who were rarely touched by it. It was all a matter of priorities.

Albeit reluctantly, when public chaos grew too extreme it threatened the status quo, and America's harsh taskmasters had to take measures. The young men in the transfer chamber had been scooped up in the latest dragnet. But once one had them, what was one expected to do with them? Life meant nothing to the fifteen-to-twenty- year-olds -- not even their own; put their sort into a traditional prison and watch them line themselves up into new gangs and start wasting other prisoners -- all to the end of lording over a few miserable acres of exercise ground. The old solution would have been to oil the revolting jail door, more use of the copped plea and the prison furlough when the feds thought no one was looking. But new times called for new measures.

To control prisoners never taught self-control in the "village" that had reared them, the facility on Tiresias. had been established. It was not that internment there was notably brutal -- but it surely was strange and shocking, something calculated to "scare straight" kids who hadn't yet sunk to the lowest level on the street -- especially young males with the exaggerated but brittle machismo of the gutter.

Was the policy succeeding? High-salaried criminologists with initials behind their names assured the Congress that their policies were overwhelmingly successful. A cynic -- and there were no cynics in the courtier press -- would have observed that the policy had been so successful that every year seemed to produce a bumper crop of new criminals even worse than the last.

I was still looking with consternation at the prisoners' youthful faces -- some savage, some just stupidly brutal, some dangerously cunning. They deserved their fate, I thought -- in fact, I couldn't think of a sweeter bunch of guys to turn into women.

Turn into women! Incredible. -- Twenty years ago the idea would have sounded like a demented fantasy; today it was not only scientific reality but judicial policy.

To think that the once-secret Philadelphia Experiment had come to this -- inter-dimensional transfer. The World War II files, locked up for sixty years, had been exhumed under the Gore administration. The technological advances in the course of six decades had allowed physicists to solve the baffling problems that had foiled government scientists in 1940's -- and had been so injurious to the U.S. servicemen they had experimented upon.

In the years since, the basic theory had been widely written-up, not only in scientific journals, but also in the popular press. It had always been difficult for me to grasp that different universes occupied the same space and time. Tiresias. was one of the "alternate dimensions," or "parallel worlds," of a type that fantasy literature had long speculated upon. But most of the science-fiction writers had gotten things wrong; going to a parallel world was not like going to another planet. In interplanetary travel the ground rules at least remained the same; inter-dimensional transference was another matter altogether. Each world had its own logic, and it accepted intruders only on its own unique terms. Some indefinable "world mind" seemed to operate in each universe -- and these did very, very strange things to visitors originating in a different "reality."

On Acteon, for example, human beings were transformed into antelope-like creatures suitable for feeding on grass and breeding in great numbers, but not much else. That made Acteon almost useless for any purpose of colonization or exploitation. With hooves instead of hands one couldn't even mine its mineral deposits. (Interestingly, some law-and-order types on the extreme Left suggested making it into another prison world for lifers without parole -- just turn them out to pasture for a bland existence of eating, sleeping, screwing, and butting heads).

On the other hand, people on Triton became a rather repulsive species of bipedal amphibian, suitable to the ecosystem of that watery world. On Nessus, Earthers remained human-looking, but gained a couple more bodily organs which helped them filter out environmental toxins that would have swiftly killed a normal person.

Likewise, native "people" taken from the parallel worlds to Earth changed into ordinary human beings -- ordinary for our world, that is. I saw on a television documentary how one of the intelligent antelopes born on Acteon had transformed into a pleasant-looking woman when abducted to Earth -- much to her shock.

Tiresias had its quirks, too, but those made even less sense than Acteon's. On Tiresias, Earth men became women, and vice versa. It was as simple as it was astonishing to contemplate. What purpose could this possibly serve in the Tiresian universe which couldn't be as equally well-served by leaving things as they were? Well, it was just one of those things that you had to accept as given; if one couldn't, he should stay home.

Some scientists and researchers volunteered to explore all the worlds, including Tiresias, but others were sent by fiat -- mostly soldiers who were needed to guard small, scattered research facilities, and, later, the construction men, guards, administration, and, finally, inmates of the U.S. Federal Penitentiary Tiresias.

I was accompanying the newest batch. Their anxiety showed in the way they looked at one another, or refused to look at anything except their own feet. For most of them courage had only amounted to false bravado anyway -- the attacks of the strong on the weak, of the many upon the few. The gang warrior was no real man because most of them had grown up without male supervision, and so modeled themselves upon the older pimps, pushers, and gunmen of their respective 'hoods. When you got right down to it, the young career criminal was just a messed-up child playing outlaw. Unfortunately, he played for keeps. Most older career criminals alive today had come from their scruffy ranks, of course, but there weren't a great many older criminals; the high death rate mandated early retirement.

There were practical reasons for using Tiresias as a prison for violent offenders. Besides the demoralizing aspects of a radical physical transformation, there was the accompanying loss of size, weight, and upper-body musculature, all of which made a prisoner a little less dangerous to his guards -- and which collectively tended to sap the criminal of his confidence. Also, studies had demonstrated that the Tiresian transformation brought with it a psychological change. Just as women changed to men tended to be more aggressive on Tiresias, males changed to women seemed to grow more passive. This fact was not very PC, but it represented the reality of sexual psychology and, fortunately, it made for more docile prisoners. There were no facilities for female malefactors on the parallel world; sending them there from Earth would have been counter-productive.

I wouldn't waste sympathy on the street criminal, but their punishment affected us, their guards, too: Correctional officers were needed to keep the rubbish in line, and consequently those us sent over to guard them were going to be transformed right along with them!

I regarded the other three custodians who were being "sent over" with me; two males, one female. The female, Rother, was big-boned and horse-faced; she seemed steely-nerved though, considering the incredible thing which was about to happen to her. I guessed that she was a volunteer; decades of feminist propagandizing had kept male-envy gnawing at the hearts of millions of women. On the other hand, despite political, social, and economic discrimination, upwards of 95% of American men still preferred to have women -- not be women.

So it was no wonder that my two male colleagues seemed much more dubious about our journey than did Ms. Rother. Very few men volunteered for a tour on Tiresias, and those sent over unwillingly were mostly the screw-ups working off charges; their Tiresian tour was looked upon as either discipline or atonement. Some few men did volunteer for Tiresias, naturally, but these were mostly gays, TV's, and TS's. But, when all was said and done, the Service did not have nearly enough willing men to staff Tiresias year after year, despite all sorts of recruitment inducements. Hence the arm-twisting.

I couldn't help but try to imagine what my brother officers would look like as women. I wagered that Brady, the smaller man, might translate into the average housewife type -- not much to look at, but I understood that it should at least cure his baldness. The other, Volsted, was a big Scandinavian-looking guy who must have lifted weights. Whatever he became, I was quite sure that he wouldn't be the sort I'd ever want to take to bed -- but of course that wouldn't be my option.

Just then the space around us hummed; I felt a low-voltage current coursing through my body, the fillings in my teeth hurt, and I suddenly felt hollow inside.

Holy shit, it's starting!

The power throbbed along the floor grid, vibrated through my skeleton and something tasted strange in my mouth. I cried out as every nerve in my body charged like a live wire, but the pain lasted only a few seconds before everything went white.

No wonder you had to pass a physical! Too bad you're as healthy as a horse.

My vision blurred, but I heard an intense ringing in my ears as I stood reeling, only dimly aware that the throbbing under my feet had already faded away. The room was coming back into view and only slowly did I realize that it wasn't the same room; it was a transfer chamber of about the same size as the first, but the walls were painted apple green instead of steely gray, and the fixtures were different -- or at least they were installed in different places.

Oh, my God! We're there!

#

There was an obscene mutter around me and as my senses cleared, I realized that I was standing behind a crowd of a dozen women, most of them cuffed and ankle-chained, and just one guy -- a big, ugly-looking palooka in clothes much too tight for him; it was a good thing that Rother had been warned to loosen her tie and buttons before entering the chamber.

I thought I smelled something different hiding under the prevailing odor of ozone -- it wasn't bad, just different. I realized soon enough that it must be the air of Tiresias; we had reached another planet, or at least a parallel world of Earth! But whatever we were, the reality of leaving old Earth behind came as one hell of a shock.

Shifting slightly, I noted the looseness of my clothes. It had happened! I'd lost stature. I wrestled with the urge to look at myself, to see what I had become, successfully fighting off the impulse, just as a disfigured person will oftentimes refuse to look into a mirror. I didn't want to touch myself either, and so let my arms hang slackly at my sides. Even in that position I felt a kind of over-stuffing in my duty jacket, despite its large size and loose fit.

Oh, Lord, was it true? Did I have breasts? Sure I did! Intellectually I knew that I did; I only hoped that they would do no more than fill an A-cup. They felt heavy anyway; I suddenly remembered Aunt Millie and hoped that I hadn't inherited my female figure from her side of the family.

I glanced at my colleagues again. Brady had become a small woman, just as he had been a smallish man -- a Plain Jane really, but one who looked like she had been a woman from the day of her birth -- and that was the amazing part. She was still bald, but based on what I'd read I would have bet dollars to donuts that her hair follicles had been restored and would grow out; that was the way things usually worked on Tiresias.

Volsted, as it happened, was still a big person, but not so tall or broad-shouldered. "Miss" Volsted looked like a strong working class girl, or one of that small class of female body-builders. -- And damn! Was that a pair of muskmelons tucked into her jacket? Her face wasn't bad, actually; if she had been a little more fine-boned, I might have --

Volsted was returning my look of amazement --

Christ, what do I look like to her?

I could have laughed, if it all hadn't been so horrifying. The gorge rising to my throat burned like acid, but the worst thing was I didn't dare yell, rant, and rave to let my emotions out. I had to appear steady and unflappable, if I didn't want my job-performance rating to get worse.

Just then the doors slid open with a hiss. A man in a bleached lab coat stepped inside our chamber, regarding us with interest and, probably, with mild amusement. "Ladies, gentleman, welcome to the United States Federal Penitentiary, Tiresias," he greeted us. "Some of you are correctional officers, some of you are -- inmates. Don't be nervous. The type of transformation we undergo usually doesn't have any bad side effects. We haven't lost anyone in a long while.

"Prisoners will be taken to holding cells," he went on, "to begin orientation. And you new staff members shall be conducted to the infirmary and checked out for transfer-related stress. You won't be assigned to any regular duties until you have attended introductory classes and have made the basic adjustments. From long experience, we don't expect any serious problems."

He raised a hand and several guards, both male and female, came in prodding, and in some cases helping, the transformed prisoners from the chamber. As far as the inmates went, I spotted a couple of fantastically ugly cows among them, but two or three svelte foxes as well. I particularly noted a Latina girl of about twenty with curly black hair. Prisoner pants were tailored tight these days, but on this one they looked intriguing. I grinned sardonically as I watched her sashay away -- a pretty little senorita for sure!

Then I shook myself. Don't worry about that bum, guy; worry about yourself. What did I look like? I felt a little dizzy just then and looked around for something to hold onto -- until the white-coated man steadied me with a cradling arm. He towered over me like he was seven feet tall. Only then did I realize that I must have lost some inches. then I noticed that he was behaving a little too solicitously to suit me, while almost ignoring Brady and Volsted. I grimaced with annoyance, not liking to be singled out as some kind of weak sister in need of special help.

"It's a little shocking at first, I know," the man reassured me, "but don't worry. You've made a fine transformation, Mr. -- " he read my name tag "-- Carter -- Miss Carter, I should say. It takes a little getting used to, but you'll be fine."

What in hell does he think is so fine?

#

Dr. Trent was a good-looking female of thirty-something, with light red-brown hair and striking eyes that, depending on the light, sometimes seemed yellow-brown and sometimes green. Anyway they were keen, intelligent. An even more outstanding particular about Dr. Trent was the fact that she was pregnant. Very, very pregnant.

That bowled me over, seeing as she must have been a man just a few months before -- at least seven months before, I guessed. Normally, people's tours were one year long; to have bloomed that much suggested that she'd gotten knocked up "just off the boat." I couldn't understand why anyone would let a condition like that go, especially since she was a doctor. She smiled, no doubt realizing that I was trying hard not to stare at, but otherwise didn't react while examining me.

Trent's condition shouldn't have thrown me so much; I'd read that pregnancy was possible on Tiresias and, in fact, it was one of those sensational aspects that had caught the imagination of the supermarket tabloids. But to be confronted with it this early. . . .

This is Doctor Trent in a picture taken shortly before the "big day."

Finally, Trent touched her gravid belly and said wryly: "Don't worry, Mr. Carter; it won't happen to you -- unless you happen to get careless."

"Were -- were you careless?" I asked with a stumble -- and, I now realize, with a voice that had been raised an octave.

"Only in my choice of wives," she replied with a shrug.

"Your wife?" Despite all I knew, I was pre-programmed to suppose she meant the conventional lesbian marriage, but it took me only seconds to grasp that she really did mean wife, as in "man and wife."

"It's a long story," Trent grimaced, as if she had led the conversation out into a field where she didn't want to pick the daisies. "Maybe we'll have a chance to talk later over a glass of prune juice."

"Prune juice?" I scowled. "Is that what people drink here?"

"No," she brightened, "it's just me; I've had a craving for prune juice lately. -- It's crazy what pregnancy does to a person, but it's wonderful."

Wonderful? I couldn't believe she'd said that; the subject had been on my short list of worst-case disasters from the minute I'd gotten my transfer orders to Tiresias. I was glad when the doctor abandoned the subject to turn her attention to the settings of her diagnostic scanner.

"Don't move," Trent told me as the device's lights went on and the scanning bar advanced on a track over the length of my body -- a strange woman's body currently draped in a simple examination pullover. I still hadn't had the stomach to gaze into a mirror and couldn't help but shudder when I'd had to take my clothes off. But even a brief, loathing glance had confirmed that I had sizable mammae -- and all the specific plumbing that went with the sex. As distraught as I was, I wondered how the physician expected to get a valid blood pressure reading or heart sounding.

While the examination progressed Dr. Trent didn't discourage me from talking.

"Is your -- wife -- happy about the baby?" I asked carefully.

She shook her head. "She doesn't give a damn. I'm divorced."

I almost asked "Then who did it?" but the question seemed a bit too personal.

Over all, though, the doctor maintained a frank manner, probably in an effort to reassure and encourage her patients. "What did you do to get here?" she asked me suddenly.

That subject brought back a lot of grief and indignation, so I just shrugged. "Maybe I volunteered."

Trent chuckled. "We don't get many male volunteers and, anyway, volunteers never look quite so hangdog. You must have screwed up pretty badly, young lady, to get posted to Tiresias."

"I'm not a young lady!" I flared.

"You're under thirty. And I'm willing to assume that you're a lady until you prove otherwise."

I glanced annoyedly into her handsome face, but the doctor's evident good nature disarmed me. "Okay," I said, cooling it, "I was on report for -- sexual harassment."

She whistled sympathetically. "Nasty; the feds consider that only one step short of murder."

"Tell me about it!"

"Did you have a female EEOC officer?"

"How did you guess?" I asked sarcastically.

"I've got an idea how things operate in the federal loony bin."

"It was a bum rap!' I protested. "Is asking the same woman for a date twice harassment?"

"Of course it is, if she decides to make it so. If the Founding Fathers wanted a free country, they'd never have come up with the Commerce Clause."

I decided I liked Dr. Trent; after all; it wasn't every university graduate who had heard of the Commerce Clause.

********

"Let us make no mistake; the vices which will inevitably disintegrate any group -- be it military, political or social -- do not change. Nations fall because of (1) Bad leadership; (2) Lack of team spirit; (3) A lack of virtue; (4) Lack of initiative and drive; and (5) Lack of self-discipline. Given time, fifty years to a century usually, any one of these can lay civilization itself in the dust. Modern America is afflicted with all five, like a terminal patient riddled with multiple disease.

"When Civilizations Implode," Norman Corveland, 2017


Chapter 2

So I sized up the doctor anew. Did she feel like I did? There were times when I churned with so much rage that I wanted to leap out of my skin -- but though I usually got through such moments by unburdening my grief to a sympathetic ear, I didn't dare say much to a stranger. Trent could be a provocateur who would report me -- and that could mean reprisals. I could end up doing an extended tour as a female officer, or worse, I could be fired and packed home as an unemployable.

Uncle Sam needed unemployables; spreading destitution made the powerful more secure; that was why the Third World had so long managed to slouch along as a crazy quilt of tyrannies.

Anyway, even if the doctor wasn't an informer how could I trust her? There had to be something wrong with a man who would come to Tiresias, get instantly pregnant, and then think it was wonderful.

At that moment Dr. Trent pivoted the scanner away. "Get up, Miss Carter, and get dressed. You're as fit as a Missouri mule."

I'd rather be called a mule than a "miss," but I supposed that noun gender was only one of the indignities that I would have to get used to. Resigned, I sat up and rubbed my thighs, but the slimness and smoothness I felt there took me aback.

"What happens next, Doctor?"

"Oh, you'll be taken to your quarters to rest. Relaxing is a good way to start your period of adjustment. You'll be meeting your roommate before long."

"Roommate?" The thought made me queasy. The very thought of being penned in with a weird Tiresias misfit. . . .

"She'll be more of a counselor, actually," Dr. Trent continued. "She'll help you to get oriented." The physician then gave me an ironic grin. "She'll even help you to get ready for your ingenue party."

"My what?"

"Your initiation. All the new Sallys and Charlies get an ingenue party. It's hardest on the Charlies."

She mistook my "I don't want to believe it" look for a misunderstanding of her terms, which was not the case at all. I had done enough preparatory reading to pick up on the slang.

"Charlie and Sally were characters in a couple of classic movies who suddenly got sex-changed against their will," Dr. Trent explained. "If you don't want to lose your mind on Tiresias, don't lose your sense of humor."

"What's this initiation like?"

"Sometimes it gets pretty heavy, like the Equator-crossing ceremonies back home. You'll have to wear a party dress, dance with all the men who want to dance with you, receive a welcoming gift calculated to embarrass you all to hell, and then you'll get to watch a porn movie or two."

"That sounds humiliating! Does the whole staff come to gawk?"

"No, it's mostly just the rats who want to give the new people a hard time."

"Shit! Do I have to go through with this?"

"I'd advise that you do, Miss Carter. We have a lot of bad asses on the staff, especially among our `men.' If you come off as a good sport your tour probably won't be a bad one. But if some of the bad ones get the idea that you're a jerk or just a scared little rabbit, the hazing could go on for months."

"Hazing? I thought the feds were going to protect me from that now that I'm a -- a -- " I couldn't say the word.

"You were a second class citizen at home, my dear, and you're a second class citizen here. That's the federal system."

There it was again -- the sense of anger beneath a surface geniality. I looked squarely into the doctor's eyes and somehow I suspected that I had just made a friend.

#

After my examination, I was escorted to the dormitory by a uniformed woman -- a "Charlie" in the local vernacular -- who didn't bother to give her name, and her morose attitude conveyed the idea that life here would was going to be pretty bad.

I was shuffling along in my now over-sized shoes -- which added to the awkwardness that would have been bad enough due to my unaccustomed new size and weight. Arriving at the room, my silent usher left me with nothing but a nod, and I noted that my assigned quarters were simple but comfortable enough -- including two queen-sized beds that reminded me that I would have a roommate. Fortunately, my new quarters had a window, which I hadn't had in my last barracks room back home, though it only overlooked a series of walls and the main exercise yard. There was a phone on one of the two dressers, and a TV/audio unit on the other. Obviously they could provide only local service; we were on a different planet after all.

I peered into one of the two the closets, large metal cabinets, really, and noted that it contained very little except linens and my luggage neatly arranged upon on its floor, delivered beforehand by some porter. The other closet had no luggage; my roommate, whoever she (he?} was, apparently hadn't moved in yet either. I certainly didn't want company in my current misery, and therefore wasn't at all eager to meet her (him?) -- all the more so because anyone in a place like this had to be a mental case, as Dr. Trent had to be, despite her genial manner.

Standing there contemplating a year spent in bedlam, I glimpsed my hand on the cabinet frame -- a woman's hand, naturally, and a stranger's hand. Maybe my original numbness was wearing off, because the sight of my new hand shook me up considerably; I bit my lip and steadied myself.

A woman! I still couldn't believe it. Changing sex is not like changing clothes; not until one has lost his identity so completely as I had can he understand what it's like. Even so, it wouldn't do to go to pieces the first day and so I steeled myself to behave like nothing was wrong, I turned around -- only to come face to face with a wall mirror.

I quickly glanced away. I wished that I were invisible; I wanted to blend into the background and go unnoticed for the entire year of my tour.

How could I get through one day of this, much less an entire year? But I wouldn't let it beat me. Changing would be a kind of a defeat; I didn't want to become anything different than I was. While I couldn't do a thing about the physical change, my mind was my own, wasn't it? I tried to focus as I stood there, to emotionally dig in. What I had to do, I'd decided previously, was to set my persona in concrete, to prepare myself to resist anything that would threaten my immutable inner man. I'd promised myself that I would leave Tiresias thinking, acting, and feeling like the exact same person I'd been when I arrived.

Grimly resolved, I took a deep breath and slipped off my jacket, tossing it at the hook on the closet door, which I missed because my hand was shaking, then flopped down on the bed, dead tired.
-- DCE, Dimension-Crossing-Enervation, the books called it. It would pass, or so Dr. Trent had assured me, but it as sure as hell had left me as weak as a kitten just then.

I think I napped for a while, don't ask me how, but at last a rattling sound woke me up. A young woman was backing through the door loaded down with suitcases; when she saw me blinking at her she smiled over her shoulder. I smiled back mechanically, assuming this chick had to be my new roommate.

Not too shabby.

This is me a few months before my transfer to Tiresias. What a fox! She set her gear down and gave a hard exhale of relief. I estimated that the newcomer was in her mid-twenties.
Her amber hair was pinned up and she was wearing the standard duty uniform -- dark gray jacket, jet slacks, and underneath (I knew) a blue shirt with black piping with and simple cloth epaulets. Her insignia told me that we were of equal rank, U.S.C.S.O. First Class.

The girl sat down upon her mattress, to take my measure, I supposed. Her eyes, I noted, were widely-set, and rich blue. She had a pretty mouth whose smile brightened her whole face.

"Hi," she said. "You've got to be Officer Carter, right?"

I nodded sullenly.

"My name is Milholland -- Alice. That comes from Alex -- Alexander. Most people call me Allie." She stretched out her hand and waited for me to take it.

Struggling up to a sitting position, I grasped it briefly. "I'm Aaron," I said, making the effort to be cordial. "-- Christ, will I have to use a girl's name around here, too?"

"It's the custom," she grinned. "Don't worry. You won't have to think of one yourself; they'll lay one on you next Friday night, at your ingenue party."

"Somebody else names us?" I asked, not liking the idea.

She nodded. "That's the privilege of the Sally with the longest service on Tiresias, and that'll be Mort Jamshidian these days. He's not so bad; he won't call you anything raunchy -- unless he catches you making fun of his name. Maybe he'll think up some feminine version of Aaron, or maybe just pick one out of thin air, like Melanie, or Laura. -- I think you'd make a good Laura," she added with an appraising glance..

I fell back upon the mattress to stare dismally at the ceiling. "I don't need this. Take me out of here, Lord! Take me out of here and I'll become a missionary in New Guinea!"

Allie stepped up and stood over me. "Aaron, you can't let this stuff get to you. You'll make it; I was in worse shape than you eight months ago."

I covered my eyes with my hands. "I don't want to be a girl! I don't want to be a girl! I don't want to be a girl!"

Allie settled down beside me and rested her hand on my forearm. "I know it's hard, Aaron; that's why I'm here, to help you. I hope we can be friends, because I can really use a new one. I just lost my best bud, Jodie, a few days ago when she went back to Earth. I hope you aren't missing anybody back home too much. That's always tough."

"No," I answered sourly. "I don't have anybody; I don't have anything. I'm nothing! Nobody will miss me. So turn me into a girl. Abuse me! Humiliate me! I don't care!"

She only laughed and smiled sorrowfully in reaction, despite my determination to be miserable. Then I looked her way again and saw that her features had grown sympathetic.

"That's better," Allie said with a nod. "I think you're going to be all right. If it gets too rough, if you really need to get your head readjusted, we have a couple psychs on the medical staff who specialize in identity problems. Most new Charlies don't need them, actually; it's usually the new Sallys who get the worst reaction."

I got up on one elbow. "Why's that?"

"I don't know," she shrugged. "Maybe so many of them actually want to be men, and so when it actually happens it's a letdown. Us Charlies set our expectations kind of low. -- Or maybe girls just have more fun!"

"Then I know I'm not a girl," I exclaimed, "because I'm not having any fun!"

"That's what they all say," she nodded, grinning, her hand remaining in place upon my arm. I wondered just briefly whether Allie might actually be as weird as I had feared and that her gesture amounted to a sexual come-on, but the good-natured glitter in her eyes struck me as uncalculating. Normally I'd have welcomed a pass from any girl as attractive as Allie, but not here!

"Aaron, it's all a matter of attitude," the amber-haired officer coaxed with apparent sincerity. "Believe me; I've been through it."

Unconvinced, I rolled away and lay on my left side.

Allie stood up with a sigh. "You could always resign and go back right away, but you'll probably never get a decent job again. It's like a punishment to be sent here, I know, but it's also an experience that might be valuable later on."

"How?" I grumbled, my face still averted.

"Like, I think I'm going to be a lot smarter about getting into a woman's pants after being one myself for a year. I mean being a woman, not a pair of women's pants."

I almost cracked up; apparently this Allie didn't have a philosophical bone in her body. I looked her way again and fired back: "I'd think you'd have had enough of women's pants after a year of wearing them yourself!"

Allie laughed again. "That's good! I think I like you already."

I thought I could like her, too -- if only she didn't turn weird on me.

Allie sidled toward her luggage, scooped up a suitcase, flung it on her bed, and started unpacking. "Whenever any new people come, a lot of us get juggled around. My old roommate was Dori; I can't wait to introduce the two of you. She does tricks."

"She does what?!"

"It's not like that -- Oh, you'll see!" she said with a puckish grin.

I let the subject of tricky Dori rest, but still didn't feel like unpacking, so instead I just lay there and watched my new roommate fill the closet and the dresser drawers with her things. The sight of feminine apparel among the luggage of such a girl so fetching would have seemed very normal back on Earth, but in the context of Tiresias it disturbed me no little bit.

How much of a man was Allie? She had a light, free-wheeling stride, not like a mle at all; had she troubled to learn to sashay that way, or did it come natural here? I closed my eyes. "If it looks like at duck, talks like a duck, and walks like a duck, it still might not be a duck," I told myself.

I'm sure not a duck either!

After a while, Allie paused in her work and mopped her beaded brow with the back of her hand. "Like I said, Aaron," she said, "getting along is all a matter of attitude. You're going to be a woman for a year -- just accept it and don't let it get you down. After all, it's been the experience of half the human race since the Garden of Eden, so it can't be so hard -- and it isn't. Treating the whole business like a joke is a good way to handle it at first."

"I've never felt less like laughing."

She put her hands on her hips, like a runway model. "But you can have loads of fun with the idea, Aaron! Play act. Enjoy yourself! Be the sexiest thing on two legs!

"Is that what you are?" I asked with just a little more sarcasm than I had wanted to inject into this initial exchange.

"When I came here I was bummed out like you wouldn't believe," Allie declared undimmed, "but being a girl hasn't killed me and it's not going to kill you either. We have some assholes on staff, but there's a lot of good people here, too, and I bet you'll come away with friendships that'll last a lifetime."

"I'm all for friends," I murmured without much spirit, then a nagging question reoccured to me. "Allie," I asked, "is Dr. Trent all what she seems?"

The blonde shot me a wry glance. "Pregnant? Of course she is!"

"I don't mean tha!. It's just that she was kind of outspoken; she's not a shill for the warden, is she?"

"Oh, no. Dr. Trent's great! Nobody ever got into trouble by confiding in Dr. Trent."

I looked at her, really hoping I could take Allie herself at face value. I expected to have a hard time on Tiresias and getting through the next twelve, hard months could be made much easier if I had a real chum, and not just an impersonal counselor, or a company spy.

"Why is she pregnant?" I pressed. "What sort of man would do that to himself?"

Allie leaned back against one of the dressers, her moue grown suddenly serious. "Well, that's her personal business, Aaron. I just don't like to gossip about people I like; she'll explain everything once she takes to you. It's sort of -- " Allie checked herself and the set of her lips suggested to me that Trent's story wouldn't be all fun and games.

I changed the subject. "Allie, sometimes I get confused about how people use nouns and pronouns around here. Sometimes I'm not sure who's meant when I hear the words 'girls' and 'guys' and 'he' and 'she.'"

Allie grinned again. "Tiresias is a crazy place, all right! Well, we always look at things from the Tiresian perspective. You and I are girls, or women, hers and shes. The people with the cocks and balls are always the guys, or men, the hims and hes. Keep that in mind and everybody will understand you."

"For Pete's sake, I'm a 'she,'" I moaned, sinking into my pillow, closing my eyes, and trying to shut out the whole cruel world.

#

After Allie had unpacked, she left me alone to continue resting. From Allie's exuberance I had managed to draw at least a slim hope that a person could learn to handle this sex-change business. Anyway, whatever her experiences, she didn't seem to have been hurt too badly by them.

This is Allie Milholland. One could do worse for a roommate.

I slowly gathered enough willpower to roll out of bed and walked to the full-length mirror, this time confronting my reflection with grim determination.

Holy shit!

If I had had a sister, that would have been her looking back at me. All I recognized was my hair, very light brown blonded by the sun, then I noticed that I had a nose like my mother's -- like I always had, of course -- but the rest of my body was strictly from fantasy land!

I blenched away for a moment, sorting out a grab bag of feelings -- which ran the gamut from deadly shock to sheer panic. All at once I had a terrible thought.

People will think that I'm a woman!

Well, duh! Of course they will, you idiot! Get used to it!

I had recovered my equanimity enough to face up to the glass a second time. I had been sporting my hair longish, in the current male fashion, and now its length added to the reflection's general impression of femininity. I'd always had a rather full lower lip, but it now looked positively bee-stung and pouty -- in fact, it was just about the sexiest mouth I had ever seen on a girl! I just couldn't believe it. Some guy might even look at me twice. Thrice. Damn it, a babe like me would have to beat the studs off with a hammer!

All right, all right, chin up. You're a tougher bastard than that, Aaron Carter.

I steadied myself and subjected myself to a third look, unable to tell much about my build with my oversized shirt and pants on. I pulled up a sleeve and bared a slender arm, noting that the muscles that I had carefully built up through many a game of tennis were still there, but reduced to their feminine equivalents, statistically 30% weaker than an equivalent male. I touched my rib cage. Bony. I probed lower. My waist was small -- but my hips weren't. I had already caught a couple horrified glimpses of my breasts when changing clothes at the medical department; I didn't know their size at this point, but they looked like whoppers. Would I have to start wearing a bra? Jut then I remembered that Allie had stuffed several examples of that damnable garment into her dresser.

Speak of the devil! A key clicked in the lock and I jolted, as if surprised in a naughty act. My roommate had returned, carrying a brown paper bag with handles.

"Oh, good, you're up and around," said the young officer cheerily. "It's time we took you to Supply and get you some new clothes. Here's something you can wear to keep you from looking like an unmade bed until then." She pressed the bag into my hands; I saw that it contained a pair of unisex coveralls and sandals.

"Thanks," I said. "Better this than a bikini."

"Don't be so sour, Aaron. Pretty soon you'll be wanting a bikini of your own so you can strut your stuff."

"That'll be the day!"

That'll be the day that I die!

#

So, we went to Supply and got my basic measurements taken. Uncle Sam (or was that Aunt Samantha here on Tiresias?) paid for two uniforms, a pair of shoes, a pack of several underpants (which were only sort-of sexy), a couple bras (that answered one of my questions), a pair of off-duty slacks, and two print shirts for lounging. I was also issued a pack of three women's tank-top t-shirts, three pairs of socks, and a grooming kit containing a comb, some hair pins, soap, lotions, and hair-care products. I understood that everything else I thought I needed would be paid for out of my pocket for the rest of the quarter. In the interest of economy I decided to put off any additional purchases until I saw a distinct need, though I already knew I'd soon need another pair of leisure pants, a couple more shirts, and some sneakers for knocking around. I didn't notice any lingerie or skirts dislayed on the shelves -- which came as a relief.

"Do we get all our things here?" I asked Allie.

She shook her head. "No, just official issue and the settling-in stuff. There's a store for us staff, and even the prisoners can order from it --- of course, everything is expensive and the inmates earn next to nothing."

I donned my uniform in the changing room, only to be startled at the sight of the sharp-looking female officer who looked back at me from the mirror at the end of the process.

Afterwards, Allie and I made a brief stop at Administration to get my new badge (with a new photo ID, snapped and assembled in five minutes), a key-card, and insignias. Then Allie showed me to the cafeteria, though I still didn't have much appetite. I immediately observed that they were serving the same gut-bomb stuff that every staff cafeteria had been dishing out since time began -- only this junk smelled even more preserved than usual.

I crossed the dimensional barriers just to dine on Spam?!

"Over at the salad bar they have some fresh fruit and vegetables," suggested Allie. I nodded absently and we went with her to load up.

"We grow some stuff here," my roommate remarked casually. "Tending the gardens is one of the things that we have the prisoners do."

"I hope it's washed thoroughly," I remarked, imagining the scatological vengeance the prisoners were apt to take upon the guards' food.

"We also buy produce from the barbarians," Allie went on. "It's tricky doing that, though; only specially-trained people like Dr. Donnalyn are allowed any direct contact with natives. It's what they call the 'Prime Directive,' after that old Star Trek series, I guess. We're told that we have to do everything we can to avoid `contaminating their indigenous culture'. The Tiresians must know practically nothing about us and I've heard that some of them think that we're gods."

"What do you actually know about the native cultures here, Goddess?"

"You probably know more than I do, if you've done the usual prepatory reading," she shrugged. "I was kind of out of it when they told me I had to come here, and so I didn't do any of the orientation that I could avoid."

"Isn't there anything in the prison library?"

"Well, sure," she said, "but I never seem to find time to go there. Anyway, the people outside are human, just like us; we can even breed together."

"Breed? What poor Charlie had to get knocked up to find that out?"

"I don't know how the experiments were conducted," she responded wryly, "but it probably would make a good docu-drama."

Or an erotic movie! Actually, pregnancy was part of the plot of a Tiresias adventure movie that I saw a year earlier, staring ex-super-model Kathleen Randall as Capt. Lester Pierson.

Here's a publicity shot of Kathleen Randall as "Lester Pierson" in her movie "Tiresias: No Way Home.." The bodacious Kathy plays one of several World War IIairmen who accidently discover Tiresias by way of the Bermuda Triangle. In this scene"Lester" is looking a little blue because she's knocked up, her Tiresian lover is (supposedly) dead, and she's been captured by a libidinous local tyrant. Eating both strengthened me physically and improved my morale. Looking around the cafeteria I could, if only for a moment, imagine that the people I saw were just ordinary folks. There seemed to be more women than men, though -- which was reasonable, considering that this was a women's prison -- in at least one sense. Anyway, there were many more men in the Correctional Service than women back home; the discrepancy would likely have been worse except that, as Allie informed me, Sallys were more likely to volunteer for multiple tours.
My roommate kept up a cheery conversation the whole time. It turned out that we had practically been neighbors while growing up in the Midwest; she was from around Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and I was from Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

On Tiresias she worked in the Properties office. In fact, she practically ran it, her supervisor being a goof-off who had first come to the U.S. illegally, which for some reason guaranteed an Ivy League education at public expense and preferential hiring afterwards. Wonderful things accrued to one if he could be classifiied as "underpriviledged" or a "victim.". (How could an illegal alien be anything but an underpriviledged victim?) He spent most of his time drinking coffee with his Sally friends.

Fortunately, there wasn't much to do at Properties since the prisoners had been allowed to bring very little with them. Also, the expense of inter-dimensional transport precluded that many gifts and parcels would be sent from home -- that is assuming that anyone there even cared about any of the bums we had caged.

In her down time, Allie did a lot of odd jobs around the prison, such as relieving the medical staff by watching sick prisoners, or being drafted to prevent one or more Sallys from being left alone with an inmate. The latter precaution was necessary, since it was so easy for a prisoner to get a contingency-fee lawyer to start a sexual-harassment suit. (On the other hand, it seemed to be very hard for a Charlie guard to start one; prisoners were considered "victims," guards weren't.)

The better I got to know Allie, the better I liked her. If my roommate turned out to be a company rat underneath all the camaraderie, I was going to be very disappointed.

******

"Laws are like cobwebs which may catch small flies, but let wasps and hornets break through."

Jonathan Swift, 1734


Chapter 3

A dark-haired man in a guard uniform approached while my companion and I were chomping down our greens. "Hello, Allie," he said. "I don't think I know your friend."

The blonde nodded pleasantly to the newcomer, saying, "This is Aaron Carter. She's my new roommie. Aaron, this is Bob."

It was the first time I had been referred to as a "she" in public, and I didn't much care for the novelty.

The man extended his hand. "Hello, Aaron. I'd heard that a foxy new Charlie had just come across, but rumor didn't do you justice."

"Foxy? Me?" I echoed incredulously.

"Haven't you looked in a mirror yet?"

"Oh, I have. I nearly lost my cookies!"

"Well, take it from me, you're a -- "

"Nice piece?" I suggested with a tight smile over gritted teeth.

"Well, let's just say that I wouldn't miss your ingenue party for anything!"

"Lucky me. See you there, Bob."

He grinned cockily and left; I looked to Allie, asking, "What should I make of that?"

She shrugged. "Bob's sort of okay. He's not as bad as Jake or Hank, but -- "

"But what?"

"You know, Aaron, it's probably too early to bring it up, but I should anyway -- just to be on the safe side."

I frowned. She had suddenly become intense, serious, and a little sheepish. "What exactly are you driving at?"

She swallowed hard. "Aaron, almost every girl here -- well, I mean, a girl sort of likes to experiment a little before she goes home. That's to be expected, I suppose."

I regarded her suspiciously. "Where's this thread leading, Alexander?"

"I'm just saying that if you ever begin to get curious about trying out -- the equipment -- you should first buy some birth-control pills at the medical office."

I sank back in my chair and replied in a chilly tone: "Thanks for the advice!"

"I mean it! Things are different now. We're not just men in women's bodies; we really are women!"

"I don't feel like a woman," I informed her archly. "Hell, I don't even know what it means to be a woman."

"It's not something that rings in your head like a bell, Aaron; it's much more subtle. You're going to be feeling more good and bad emotions than you ever have before, and it's going to be harder for you to keep from showing them. That's not so bad, actually. You'll be surprised how good you feel after letting it all out. The men have it worse; they're always complaining to the psychs that their emotions feel locked up."

"Okay, so I'll have crying jags and laughing jags and love it, but what about -- "

"I'm just saying that you might be very vulnerable for a while. Don't let yourself get emotionally involved with any of the guys -- not until you can handle yourself -- and a year is hardly long enough to learn to do that."

"Handle myself? Do you mean I'm going to be tempted to paw those gorillas?"

"No, but you might start feeling an attraction for somebody, and he might not feel the same way about you. Real women are taught how to hold back, but us guys are used to following our feelings. If you like a person more than he likes you, you could be taken advantage of."

"Check, no love affairs." My tone was absolutely condescending.

"This is serious, Aaron!" Allie pressed. "A lot of the Sallys come here with some really bad ideas about men. Some of them think that when they do us in, they're getting back at Men with a capital M. They don't realize that they're only hurting their friends and co-workers. So watch yourself."

"How do they hurt us?"

Allie leaned over the table, her tone lowered: "There are people who'll take you up, then let you down -- hard -- just for spite. There's even the kind of sleaze who'll sabotage his condom and try to get you pregnant. That's why contraceptives are so important."

Jeez! Can't I go ten minutes anymore without the subject of pregnancy coming up?!

"What happens when you get knocked up?" I asked tersely.

"What do you think?! You either have a baby or you have an abortion! -- And don't think that there's any easy answer! I knew a Charlie who got in a fix, got scared, and terminated. Afterwards she was sorry that she didn't have the baby instead and fretting about it broke her. They sent her home on a medical order."

"I understand basic biology," I explained stiffly. "I was just asking about the official rules and responsibilities of everyone involved."

Allie bit her lip. "Listen --- it's just like back home where a woman can cut off your dick when you're asleep and then charge you with being abusive! The Sallys get away with pretty much whatever they want and it's always your fault. So, I'm warning you: don't trust the wrong person."

Her voice had begun to waver and she drew back a little. I realized then that Allie must have had some personal experience in the way of trusting the "wrong person." She suddenly seemed so forlorn that I lay my left hand on hers and pressed it encouragingly. She looked up and smiled; if we hadn't been best buds before, we were from that point on.

Allie and I discovered that we both liked checkers, so we signed out a set at the dormitory recreation desk and as my bombshell roommate studied the red-and-black board, I studied her.

I had to keep reminding myself that this personable young woman used to be a man -- and would be a man again in just a few months. She did seem a pretty usual girl though, in her movements, expressions, and even in her patterns of speech. Yet nothing she said suggested that she had started out effeminate before she reached Tiresias. If the planet had done this to Allie I wondered what sort of person I'd be by the time I'd finished my own tour. And if I did start thinking and behaving like a woman, what would the experience mean for the rest of my life?

"Have you ever had sex -- with a man?" I asked suddenly.

The blonde looked up, more uneasy than startled, I thought. "Yeah. That was a no-brainer," she admitted after a just moment's reluctance. "I guess I really learned what it feels like to be a woman the hard way."

"How so?"

"I'll tell you about it sometime."

"Okay, I didn't mean to pry. We just met, I know."

Allie forced a smile. "Hey, come on, Aaron! In a few days we'll be chatting together like old school chums! There's just so many better things to talk about than my boneheaded mistakes."

#
The rest of my week was filled with orientation classes and tours around the facility. The classes focused not only on staff procedures, but also on topics that were intended to help us fit in on Tiresias. Not long after I was assigned a desk, they took this picture of me for the employees' newspaper. I think the picture makes me look kind of blowzy and so I don't like it much.
The most insufferable subject to come up was feminine hygiene; the body which I now occupied seemed to require a lot more maintenance than I was used to. The worst of it all was menstruation -- which we were assured would come tapping on the chamber door in some three or four weeks' time.

The classes were small -- just us new Charlies -- Brady, Volsted, and me -- sometimes with our roommates sitting in. Allie almost always found time to monitor my classes, and she probably did so only because we had hit it off so well. Had my roommate actually been the young woman that she appeared to be, her presence would have registered as a distinct embarrassment, considering the subject matter, but I knew that Allie had occupied the hot seat before me -- a fact that created an additional bond of shared experience.

#

I passed the greater part of my first day off surveying the grounds beyond the prison walls by means of a telescope mounted upon a high terrace. The facility occupied a river island overlooking an emerald countryside, which I thought resembled rural Kentucky with its succession of rolling hills and patchy forests as far as the eye could see. It occurred to me how hard it must have been to build the prison complex with all the material and construction equipment needing to be phase-shifted from Earth. Even with prefabrication and local gravel for concrete, construction must have amounted to a Herculean feat.

I wondered whether the transformed construction men whistled at one another while they worked? Possibly. They would only have risked a fist in the jaw from the offended co-worker. Back home, a construction man's wolf whistle at a passing woman would almost certainly result in his summary unemployment. (It wasn't really the dreaded "lookism;" was it "whistle-ism?") This was attempted mind-control, of course. A small number of big-shot lawyers turned politicians and bureaucrats believed in individual license, of course, because unbridled self-indulgence usually made people dependent -- and the more people who depended on them more voters to side with them against the people who actually built the nation's wealth and were expected to pay the tab for all the government-created drones.

When I finally came home Friday night I found Allie waiting for me. "I'm glad you're back," she piped excitedly. "I started to get worried."

"That I committed suicide?"

"That you'd be late for your ingenue party!"

Damn! I almost had forgotten that subject -- or at least had forced the ordeal out of my consciousness.

Allie bustled to my bed and picked up the frock which lay on the coverlets. "How do you like it?" the blonde asked, holding it up with a crooked grin.

"Fuck!" I said. "That's a dress? I thought it was a large handkerchief."

Well, maybe not so large after all. . . .

"I guarantee it fits!" Allie assured me. "I took your measurements when we first went to Supply. I didn't pick out the style, though."

I was glad to hear that; otherwise I would have had to murder my best friend! Was I really expected to wear that little white party dress with its bare-shoulders and low cut? The thing didn't look large enough to clothe a woman half my size.

"No way, Jose!"

"All the girls are going to be dressed up," Allie coaxed. "You can't go to an ingenue party in your uniform! It's just not done!"

"Then I won't go!"

"Be a good sport, Aaron! I'm going to go in my ingenue duds. Are you saying that I've got more nerve?"

"You can lap dance naked if you want! -- I'm just saying that not all the browbeating in the world is going to get me into that bimbo outfit!"

Just fifteen minutes later I was straining for breath against the anaconda hug of spandex while Allie stood behind my chair fixing my coiffeur.

"You've got wonderful hair, Aaron; you shouldn't keep on combing as if you were still a guy. I hope you'll let it grow out."

"I was planning to get a Marine buzz cut!"

"Don't be so cranky! All of us girls had parties and we lived through them. Are you a wimp?!"

"We're not girls!"

"Sure we are, at least until our year is up. Remember what I said about attitude?"

She started to sing: "I'm a girl and by me that's only great! I am proud that my silhouette is curvy -- that I walk with a sweet and girlish gait, with my hips kind of swively and swervy -- "

I glanced back over my shoulder. "Alexander, are you trying to be funny, or are you seriously sick?"

She pulled my hair just then. "Ow!" I yelled. "Do you actually know what you're doing?"

"Trust me. I have a knack for this. If I ever get thrown out of the correctional service, I can fall back on cosmetology. Come to think of it, wouldn't that be a great way to meet more women?"

"You'd starve," I told her bluntly. "I've read that the government job-training programs just want warm bodies, not results. They produce twice the number of new cosmologists than the market can employ in a year. Most people never get to work at the job they'd trained for"

Allie sighed. "I guess I heard that, too. Say, do you want me to do your makeup, while we're at it? And you could use some perfume, too!"

"I can't smell that bad. I took a shower," I groused.

"I'm just saying, if you've got it, flaunt it!".

Rather than plumb the apparently-bottomless mental illness of my roommate, I merely inquired, "Why did you come here, Alex? You don't seem like the sort of congenital screw-up of the kind they usually ship off to Tiresias"

I heard her swallow and I knew at once I had touched a nerve. "I guess I was one. I was AWOL a lot."

I couldn't resist asking, "Why?"

She hesitated for a few seconds, then decided to answer straight. "My sister had cancer. We didn't have any money and there was no one else to take care of her."

I hadn't expected anything like that -- at least nothing so horrible. "I'm sorry."

"She needed an expensive treatment," my friend went on, "but the family farm was estate-taxed to death when our parents were killed by housebreakers. We had to sell it off to pay the assessment; there wasn't much left."

I felt a knot in my stomach. "Did -- did they catch the -- killers?"

"Yeah," she sighed, "they were caught robbing another house, but you know how it goes -- they plead guilty on one count of burglary to get off on the murder charge. They were in jail for six months -- with work release after the first two months."

I didn't question that; I knew that was how things were done.

Allie continued, her tone more bitter than I had ever head it before. "When people like you or me do the least little thing wrong, we're always caught and they throw the book at us. But if some strangers walk into your home, rob it, turn it into a slaughterhouse, there's always a plea bargain."

I'd gotten in deep with my simple question; now my eyes were burning sympathy and I was trying to keep from shuddering. The government only cared about troublemakers; ordinary people like Alexander and his sister were routinely taxed into poverty and then left in the lurch when they got into trouble. Although National Health Care still supported thousands of wage-drawing bureaucrats, it had effectively gone bankrupt years earlier and now existed only in name.

I reached back and touched Allie's hand. "I'm so sorry," I said. "Did your sister -- "

"Yeah." she nodded, her voice beginning to break. "I stayed with her as much as I could those last months, but I couldn't get any family leave from the U.S.C.S. though I filled out about a thousand forms applying for it. I almost lost my job, but the union arbitrated to get the offense reduced. After my sister -- passed on -- and I was able to go back to work, they cut a deal that I had to accept a year on Tiresias. It didn't matter at that point. I didn't have anything left back home anyhow. . . ."

"Allie," I whispered, "if this is too hard to talk about. . . ." But she went on, now with forced jollity:

"You'd have liked my sister Gladys, Aaron. She looked a lot like I do now. Sometimes it makes it hard to look into the mirror. . . ." Suddenly Allie withdrew to her bed, her breathing ragged.

Now all my grumbling about clothes and some ridiculous initiation party seemed peevish and trivial. I left my chair with a lump in my throat and sat down beside a person whom I hadn't even known existed a week before, but who had since become my best and only friend in a strange new world. And whether her name was Alice or Alexander, it didn't seem wrong to wrap my arms around her, holding her close until her breathing lost its shakiness. Then I kissed her on the cheek and tasted the salt of her tears.

"Can you help me finish putting myself together?" I asked cajolingly. "I'll look a sight tonight without you."

She returned a woebegone smile and nodded.

#

The administration building had a pair of large connecting rooms sometimes used for social gatherings; all the better, it opened onto a wide balcony terrace. A night breeze wafting in from a pair of open doors reminded me of the sparing way in which I was dressed; despite myself I flashed back to that bad dream I'd occasionally had of coming to a party naked. My dress was so short that I thanked God for pantyhose; worse, it was so low-cut that I couldn't help looking down at myself every ten seconds, just to make sure that my jugs hadn't made a break for it.

We found a bar and a large table set with appetizers, sandwiches, nectar, and snacks. The Sallys were all in dapper suits, while the Charlies wore a variety of party dresses -- some as daring as mine.

This is me in my notorious "little white dress." 'Nuff said; one pin-up picture is worth a thousand words! "You'll be able to keep the outfit, Aaron," Allie had said. "It's a kind of welcoming gift from the management. If you pay half, they'll pick up the rest of the tab."

"Pay good money for something that wouldn't make a decent-sized scarf?!" I exclaimed. "Who picked it out anyway?"

"The recreation committee chairman, Mort Jamshidian."

Mort. I'd heard that name before -- he was the one who gave people their nicknames. I thought I could develop a real grudge against the randy old bastard!

Allie accompanied me into the party room wearing a tangerine-colored, slitted sheath, and balancing upon three-inch heels. She had mentioned earlier that only one girl on the present staff, Billie Walters, had learned to walk with ease on four-inch spikes. My two-inchers were already putting enough pressure on the ball of my foot to become a fun-killer and I dreaded dancing in them. When I asked Allie why the Tiresias females insisted on torturing themselves just like the women did back home, the amber-haired correctional officer suggested that it was just the challenge of the thing -- like climbing Mount Everest, or swimming the English Channel. "And, besides," she said, "high heels make our legs look great!"

Sometimes I didn't know whether Allie wasn't just hamming it up or if there was a genetic coding that compelled women to go around half-dressed and walking on their toes. Every day and in every way I wanted to be a man again!

A look-around told me that Brady and Volsted were already there, both wearing party frocks, but neither of them as outrageous as the dress that Mort had foisted upon me. I guessed that I had been singled out because of the way I look. Anyway, both of my erstwhile traveling companions looked rather doubtful of the proceedings, but seemed as determined as I to get through them without embarrassing themselves. I also saw the fourth member of our quartet, Officer Rother, natty in a double-breasted suit and a bow tie. I hadn't liked his face as a woman, and still less as a male. When Rother turned my way I could tell from his delayed double-take that he had only belatedly recognized me as third man at the transference center.

At that moment Allie drew me over to the side where a group of chattering Charlies were congregating and introduced me to four girls whom, I gathered, were part of her own gang. Each seemed to be atypically pretty -- which caused me to wonder whether most of the foxiest Charlies had clustered into some sort of clique. Come to think of it, the flashiest femlins in high school always seemed to flock together -- but I had always supposed that they'd gotten to know each other group-dating the school's thick-as-thieves sports heroes.

"This is Aaron," Allie addressed the women in way of an introduction.

"She won't be Aaron for long," chimed a bosomy black girl sporting eye shadow and ruby lipstick. The black-and-red dress she had on was a stunner. "Put it there, guy," she said, extending her hand. "I'm Andrea -- Sergeant Leonard, C-Block. I was Andrew before," she added. "I wonder what handle Mort'll come up with for you."

"She looks like a Jennifer to me," suggested the brunette who was named Dori Gurtz, Allie's former roommate.

"No, I'd say she's a Penny," offered Jordana McNallen, an ash-blonde with lively gray eyes. She turned out to be an accountant from Colorado, one who played the guitar and had a penchant for writing songs in the bluegrass folk tradition. Men seemed to have all the really interesting hobbies.

Allie stood back a little after the introductions and let me chat with my new acquaintances. Dori, I soon learned, was an administrative clerk and the father of two back in Ohio. And she really did do tricks -- sleight of hand being her special hobby. Before the night was over I'd found out that she'd -- he'd -- even performed sometimes in community theater back home. Dori couldn't help showing me some impromptu prestidigitation with napkins and wrapped caramels. As she performed, I couldn't help but visualize her not as a magician in top hat and frock coat, but as such a man's sexy assistant in high-cut shorts, fishnet hose, and stiletto-heeled pumps.

As with Allie, I found it very hard to remember that all of these young women used to be males. -- And I guess I actually did forget on some level as we chatted, because they started exchanging glances and smothering laughter. I wasn't used to receiving that sort of reaction from women whom I was trying to charm, but then I realized that that attitude was all wrong. I was using the body language and voice tones of a man on the make -- and under the circumstances there was no surer way to make myself look ridiculous.

I instantly tried to cool it, only to find myself at a complete loss as to how I should act, smile, or even gesticulate. Some definite mode of behavior was expected of me, I now fathomed, but no one had bothered to cue me in as to exactly what it was. I began to feel awkward, uncomfortable, and generally out of my element. I looked yearningly at the clock on the wall, only to discover that just fifteen minutes had passed since I had entered the room. How was I going to tough out this fiasco for three hours more?

*******

"Any perception of the world which is based on race, gender, and genetically-motivated behavior is not conducive to morality, ethics, or social peace."

Arnold Butler, Washington Times, 2222


Chapter 4

One of Mort's friends brought over a camera and we four new people had our pictures taken. It was hard for me to smile, uneasy with the prospect of a picture of me "in drag" getting back home and circulating among people I knew.

Just then the dance music started, ending the photo session; the crowd started clearing the dance floor and pairing up. Two couples demonstrated some dance steps for the benefit of us newcomers, emphasizing the art of leading and following -- and who should be doing what. Tiresias, it seems, rarely missed an opportunity to twist the knife. After their exhibition was done, people started dancing for the fun of it.

Us new "girls" were the first ones asked to the floor. There were both classic ballroom dances offered, as well as more current ones; as a woman I found the tango a very strange experience. Over all, I preferred the contemporary numbers, where the music was hot instead of cloyingly romantic and the sex roles were not in your face. I guess I did all right hoofing it, but be that as it may, my partners changed rapidly and I didn't have a chance to get acquainted with any of them -- not that I really wanted to.

I'd been dancing enough to make my feet sore when the music stopped and Mort stepped out to bestow our new Charlie and Sally names. Mortimer was a gray-haired senior administrator whose broad, smirky smile tended to deepen the creases of his face into crevasses. He brought each of us new people forward in turn and poured a dribble of tap water upon our heads to christen us -- liquor being too expensive on Tiresias to waste. Volsted became "Olga," Rother "Chester," and Brady "Dotty." Then it was my turn.

"The best for last," announced Mort with gusto. "This young lady has to have a name just as lovely as she is."

I cringed a little at the idea of getting any more "special treatment," Tiresian style and couldn't help but tug nervously at the hem of my dress, which was riding too high. I stopped when I realized that I was only calling attention to my nylon-sheathed legs -- the last thing in the world I wanted to do.

As I felt Mort's cold libation sinking through my hair to my scalp, I clenched my teeth, wondering what "Mort"-tifying moniker the duffer would saddle me with.

"I christen you Erin!" he proclaimed and the crowd seemed to like his choice, since it was greeted with applause and appreciative laughter.

Erin? That wasn't too bad, actually. It sounded so much like "Aaron" that I really couldn't tell the difference unless I listened very carefully.

"Now speeches," trumpeted Mort. "Tell the people something about yourselves."

Wanting to be good sports despite our misgivings, each of us spoke for about five minutes. The crowd was already getting a little loose and it wouldn't have held still for any longer oration. When my turn came, I mostly talked about where I had been posted, my hobbies, and other impersonal subjects.

"Why were you sent here?!" a Sally yelled.

"Maybe someone didn't like my face!" I answered with a forced grin.

"He'd sure like it now!"

"Presents! Presents!" bellowed Mort over the noise. The presents were swiftly conveyed from the closet and we ingenues were given gift-wrapped boxes as strange men and women crowded around us. I had been warned that our "gifts" would be a test of our intestinal fortitude and so I braced myself for the worst. Olga received a latex dildo; I patted her big shoulder commiseratively. "Mine must be even longer," I told her. "My box is bigger anyway."

Rother got a bundle of cigars, and Brady a home-pregnancy test that evoked her heavy sigh. I opened my parcel last of all -- to discover that somebody's fantasies must have been running wild since I'd made planet fall. It contained a skimpy, mint-green sleeping tunic, along with a matching hair ribbon. There was also a tiny bottle of perfume, "Passion in the Dark."

"Thanks, guys," I said with a tolerant smile, "but I'll have a gray beard a foot long before any of you degenerates get to see me wearing any of this crap!"

They laughed, and I laughed along with them.
Then the tone of the party relaxed somewhat and became more freeform. Ally explained that last scheduled event would be a vid and we were told that we new "girls" would be expected to watch the movie sitting on the lap of a gentleman of our choice. Chester Rother, for his part, would have his pick of any Charlie present. I anticipated my fate grimly and again glanced up at the clock; the hour it registered didn't give me much comfort.
There was more dancing then and I tried to be gracious whenever I was asked to the floor. I also kept a lookout for any male congenial enough to serve as a comfortable chair, but without much luck. Here's Allie in her ingenue party dress. It's got twice as much fabric as mine; maybe that's why it look so "hot" on her!

By far the most agreeable part of the evening was getting to know Allie's friends, but a lot of other Charlies introduced themselves, too, and offered their handshake. The staff seemed to like welcoming new people into their little world of exile and I was asked repeatedly about current affairs from home. Political news through official channels all came from the Beltway press and thus was heavily sanitized and heavily slanted in favor of the Administration.

It turned out that they had heard nothing about the latest jailing of dissidents or the South American drug-smuggling operation that was charged against the current White House staff. In fact, I had only heard of this stuff myself through the Internet.

Besides a hunger for news, I sensed a good deal of friendliness from the Charlies. It was hard to put aside my reserve, though, since their weird society was one that I hardly wanted to identify with.

Dr. Trent came along to pay her courtesies and I would have liked to have talked longer to the physician, but she found it hard to stand around and we were continually interrupted by third parties greeting the new Charlie as well as the popular young doctor. In fact, the whole staff was extremely polite to Dr. Trent, even to the point of reverence. Very few children were born to Earth people on Tiresias, I gathered, and the arrival of the medic's baby seemed to be awaited with excitement and good will.

"What are you drinking, Doctor?" I asked when I managed to briefly break away from the others. "Can I freshen it for you?"

"Gabrielle," she corrected me. "-- From Gabriel, of course. It's just mineral water. I'm not about to put anything down my throat that I wouldn't put into a baby bottle."

I nodded. She was certainly being conscientious about this pregnancy, that was for sure. I wondered if she intended to write a pedology like no man had ever been prepared to write before. There were plenty of questions I would have asked her, but they seemed so personal that I hesitated.

Andrea arrived just then to make another introduction, this time to one Billie Walters, a twenty-something in a blue sequined minidress and the face and figure of a Playboy model. Billie impressed me as nice, funny, and enthusiastic person, but I nonetheless regretted losing my opportunity to talk longer with Dr. Trent.

Then Mickie Olson, a girl I'd met earlier, came up again and engaged me in a chat about personal computers. I learned that "she" lived in Pennsylvania and had a wife there.

As it turned out, promotion came slowly in her company, which provided computer maintenance service for the U.S.C.S. The Tiresian slots were hard to fill and so Mike had decided that accepting the assignment would look good in his file. Mickie's main regret seemed to be that there was no hookup to the WWW on the planet. Once I understood that communications technology was her obsession, it came as no surprise to learn that "she" and her wife didn't have any kids.

When Mickie got to talking technically about her equipment -- computer equipment that is -- I tried hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. Obviously used to this reaction, she nimbly changed the subject, asking me if I was married. When I had to admit that I wasn't, the redhead expressed a mild condolence. I gathered that her own marriage was a good one -- which much have been a rarity in this day and age.

I didn't care to go into it just then, but I actually had proposed to a woman once. Bedelia had been a rising star in a food wholesaling firm, earning a good deal more than I was. Naturally her parents started looking daggers at me once my aspirations were guessed at. I could sleep with their daughter all I wanted, but they'd let her marry a "fortune-hunter" over their dead bodies. It was all inferred very politely, of course, over white wine and Brie.

In the end, the love of my life yielded to the imperative which states, "Woman must marry up." She left me and soon conjoined with a senior executive of her company -- a man twice her age and a driven workaholic, or so people said. It always seemed that women were only attracted to males so preoccupied they had no time for them, and no energy to spare. There are plenty of men like that, I imagine, but when the female population suddenly decides that it wants to bear only the children of poets, you can bet we'll soon be up to our kazoo in poets.

As Mickie and I were chatting, I became sensible of some harsh male laughter and a simultaneous agitation among the Charlies. I looked around, wondering about the excitement, and I saw a distraught Allie holding something in a shaking hand. Mickie noticed it, too, and we both started toward her.

But my roommie saw us coming and dodged out onto the terrace balcony. Just then Jordana intercepted Mickie and me, asking excitedly, "Did you hear yet what Jake and his gang did?"

Mickie frowned. "No, what now?"

"They got some pornographic pictures made of Andrea and some other girls."

I felt a clutch in the pit of my stomach. "Allie, too?"

"I don't know," she said, surprised by my mention of Allie, "but Andrea's going off the deep end!"

The one thing I always liked about Andrea's dress was that it always made her look even more like a hooker than I did in my dress. "Try to help her, you two," I said. "I have to see if Allie's all right."

I hurried out onto the dark terrace and I saw my roommate sitting huddled against the parapet, half-hidden behind a potted tree. I padded over to her, as if approaching a wild bird so as to not frighten it into wild flight.

"Are you upset about Andrea?" I asked softly.

"Andrea? I'm sorry for her, sure, but -- oh, God, Aaron!"

"Allie -- Alex -- did Jake have pictures of you, too?"

She bit her lip and her tortured stare told all.

"But they're just fakes, right?" I asked hopefully.

"If they weren't," she sobbed, "would you hate me?"

"Hate you? For what?"

"Maybe you wouldn't want to room with a pervert!"

I knelt beside her and took her hands in mine. "Allie, you're not making sense. I don't know what's going on!"

She wiped her nose on the back of her hand. "I hate dresses -- no place for a handkerchief."

I didn't have one either, but I plucked a paper napkin from the all-weather table next to us and handed it to her. She blew her nose, then, shaking with sobs, told me the ghastly story.

After being on Tiresias for a few months, Allie had gotten friendly with one of Jake's friends, Buck Channey. His gang had a bad reputation, but she and Buck seemed to get on pretty well. The trouble was that Buck kept nagging her about having sex, and since Allie had actually been getting curious about that subject, she let herself be persuaded. But the next day Allie learned that Buck had had a hidden camera working during their lovemaking and he had printed out some very explicit images. Now Allie realized how much she had been played for a fool. Buck told her that some of his friends were interested in her, too, and that if she'd treat them right, no one would ever have to see the pictures.

I don't know how many real women could have been blackmailed that way, but Allie had been a guy and the cruel trick had left her feeling guilty and humiliated. She went along with Buck's demand, but never guessed the lengths that Jake's gang was willing to go to. She found herself being passed back and forth between four different guys -- Buck, Jake, Hank, and Rock -- a bad bunch all around, power-trippers who liked to bully women, all of them on their second or third Tiresian tours. Back home they'd all been militant feminists, hated men, and had done dirt to a quite a few of the Charlies before Allie's turn came.

"The more I did, the more pictures they took," said the blonde miserably, "then I was really hooked. They would always talk down to me, like I was -- well, you can guess. I had to do all sorts of disgusting things that I never would have wanted to do with men, especially not with men I hated so much. They even made me take a little money from them now and then, just to rub it in. I guess they were pulling the same thing to some of the other girls, too. We could have stopped them if only we weren't too ashamed to talk.

"After about a month," she went on, "they just let me go. I suppose they got tired of the game, there was such hate in their voices when they threw me out." She looked up at me appealingly. "But I never treated any woman like that, so what was the deal? What, Aaron?" Large tears were rolling down her face.

"I don't know," I answered, stroking my roommate's shampoo-scented hair and drawing her in close.

Allie finished her story then; she seemed to be off the hook, but was always afraid that the gang would start blackmailing her again sometime; they didn't, but tonight the other shoe had dropped. They had made up this set of pornographic "trading cards" with "Collectable Hookers" printed on the back and the names of the girls whom they had abused captioned in scarlet letters. The men had blacked-out faces, which made the pictures look as impersonal and vulgar as possible to imagine.

I simply couldn't believe what I had been told -- or I should say that I believed it, but couldn't understand how people could sink so low. An innocent person had been blackmailed and passed around like a domestic animal, and if that wasn't enough, they let her think the worst was over before finally humiliating her in front of all her friends and coworkers. And Allie was just one of several!

"They'll all get fired! Maybe even indicted for -- for whatever!" I tried to reassure her.

"No they won't," choked Allie. "Warden Gershom likes them. It'll be covered up, and maybe us girls will even be charged with being prostitutes or something. All the Sallys here have an old-girl network, but we'd get fired if we started discriminating like they do. We've just got to take it. Oh, Aaron, I wish I could die!"

My cheeks were wet, too. I didn't know what to do, except to hold Allie and whisper stupid things in her ear -- like that it wasn't so bad, that people would understand, and that no one would blame her for making one little mistake, that it would blow over.

Then Mickie found us. "Andrea went back to her room" she jabbered excitedly. "Those rats got Frankie and Jean mixed up in their dirty business, too." The redhead bent her head. "Frankie's a little wild, I know, but Jean's an angel -- "

"Don't blame Frankie," I cut her off angrily, "and don't blame any of the others, either!" I'd spoken harshly, but my anger wasn't really directed at Mickie. "Watch after Allie for me; I've got to do something."

So what are you going to do?

I'll decide that when I catch up with Jake!

#

I found the smug bastards who were responsible in the second party room where most of the men had congregated. Jake was a big guy with a narrow beard and large ears whom I knew was a senior sergeant in Cell Block D, where he was reputedly a tough customer.

I stomped up in front of the creep and stared venom up into his face, demanding, "They say you made those pornographic pictures, Jake. Do you deny it?"

"What if I did?" he leered with amusement. "What's a pussy like you doing to do about it?"

"Listen, shit head, I don't know the other girls very well, but I know Alexander Milholland and he'd never do anything to deserve the way you treated him! -- And I just bet it's the same for all the other guys, too!"

He grinned and shook his close-cropped head. "You women really stick together." At that point he reached out to touch my face and I slapped his hand away. "Your mascara's running, Sweet Cheeks. Been bawling?"

I clenched my fists, wanting to punch him out, but I thought that force wasn't the way to handle the situation when he had about eighty pounds on me. But if not force, what?

"You're beautiful when you're angry," Jake teased, giving a broad leer to his cronies who were gathering around us -- the guards Hank, Buck, and Rocky.

"Don't mind her, Jake," laughed Rocky. "It's PMS. You know what that does to a woman!"

I had a temper all right, and it was getting hotter by the second. If any man back home ever made a PMS joke in front of witnesses he was dead meat as far as his job was concerned. But there was no versa in the vice on Tiresias, no symmetry in the system, no fairness, no peaceable recourse. I was on my own -- and so was every other Earth female on the planet.

I jabbed my index finger into Jake's rock-hard chest. "You bottom-crawling scum-sucking piece of slime!" I growled. "You've got no sane grudge against anyone on this planet, but you still lay awake at night thinking of ways to make other peoples' lives a living hell!"

There was laughter behind me. "I think we've got an angry white male, here," Hank taunted, "only she doesn't seem so male anymore. -- Hey, Love Lips, you act like you still have balls there under that little white dress? Check it out, babe; you've been castrated."

I couldn't let that kind of oral diarrhea get to me; it was hard enough trying to talk tough dressed the way I was, standing on my tip-toes to look my enemy in the eye, with all the outward symbols of power and virility on his side. I ignored Hank for the pet dog that he was and concentrated my ire on the ring leader:

"You haven't got the guts to tell a person you hate him so you defame, you demonize and dehumanize! You use the system like a lynch mob -- and that's about all there is to that sickness you call feminism!"

That got a rise. "You can call me anything you want, Toots, but watch what you say about feminism!"

"Don't call me Toots, Fuck-Face!!" I gnashed back.

I was blistering his ego, and he reached for me; I stepped back but Rocky and Hank were Johnny on the spot, like a pair of backstops keeping me penned in. No one else in the room was saying "boo," so Jake figured he had the advantage and touched my cheeks impudently, and brought the back of his hand across my nose and lips.

"I like your skin, Baby, and that sexy mouth. Everything about you gives me a hard-on and I keep thinking about what those lips would feel like tugging on my sausage." He moved his hand lower to stoke my cleavage.

"If you keep touching me, I'm going to get really mad," I warned.

"And what does a little piece do when she gets really mad?" he asked with a dirty chuckle, beginning to fondle my breasts in earnest.

I lifted my hands, as if to remove his, but at the last instant I made them into fists and snarled: "This!"

I swung my balled fists down, hitting Hank and Rocky, who stood behind me, each precisely in the nuts. They crumpled like men made of Reynolds Wrap, and while Jake was still gaping, I took a half step back and kicked him in the crotch with all my strength.

He didn't curse, he didn't yell. He just went down, grasping himself and wheezing like an asthmatic.

"You dames wanted to have cajones," I trumpeted above their sprawling forms, "so now enjoy them."

Just then I spotted Buck out of the corner of my eye and swung around, just in case he was coming to blind side me; my face must have been positively witch-like. The pseudo-man returned my stare for just a couple seconds, then walked briskly away, not having lifted a finger to avenge his stricken cronies.
In the face of such cowardice I just threw up my hands and stormed disgustedly back to the balcony. I wanted to see how Allie was coming, but the terrace was empty when I got there, and so I stood wondering where Mickie had taken my despairing roommate.

Suddenly somebody stepped up behind me, blocking the light. I wheeled and found myself squared off against a man's broad-shouldered silhouette.

Did Jake have another friend with a taste for vengeance, one with more spine than the pathetic Buck Channey?

I gritted my teeth, ready for the worst.

This shot catches the Foul Four together. From left to right that's Jake, Rocky, Hank, and Buck. The ex-broads don't make bad-looking guys, actually. Maybe that explains how they've been able to get into the pants of so many women on Tiresias!

*****

"The fanatic finds it easy to package his personal inner demons and dark passion as a morality superior to the wisdom of ages; the reasoning man who tries to see both sides fairly inevitably appears devious and calculating in the eyes of the ignorant."

"The Psychology of Extremism," Dr. Benjamin Evers, 2019



Chapter 5

"Take it easy, Erin; I just want to talk."

When I didn't answer, the man stepped closer and in the moonlight I could see that he was about my age, tall, dark-haired. And I recognized him, too; he was one of my dance partners. In fact, he had been the only person to dance with me twice -- once before we opened the presents, and once after.

"Talk about what?" I asked brusquely. "I said what I wanted to say inside."

"I heard. I was wondering if you were all right."

"You mean all right in the head?"

"No; you made perfect sense."

He strode closer then, inducing me to step back in the interest of maintaining a comfortable --- and safe -- distance.

"Just what is it you want?" I asked, every nerve in my diminuative body on alert.

"I'd only like to say that I thought Jake and the others had it coming."

I snorted. "Okay, so now you've said it! So what are you hovering around for?"

"You might not believe this, but what those idiots did made me just as angry as it made you."

"Oh, so you're Sir Galahad? I didn't see you around when I had to bust their balls!"

He shrugged. "I haven't been a man long enough to realize it's my job to rescue damsels in distress now." He extended his hand. "My name's Rod. It used to be 'Rhoda Ganners.' In a couple months, I guess it'll be Rhoda again."

"Unless you've got a yearning to homestead in a prison colony." I replied sourly as I regarded the man. He was a good-looking male, I grudgingly had to admit, and so must have been an attractive woman. "Despite your muscles, something tells me you're not a guard. Maybe it's because you're able to use two-syllable words, unlike most of the Sallys. Are you in administration? The real scum rises to the top."

He showed more good humor than umbrage at that nasty crack. "No. I'm a journalist."

"A journalist? In a place like this?"

"Tsk, tsk. That wasn't nice. Now I'm tempted to ask `What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this."

"If you try it, I'd lose all respect for you," I warned.

He stepped around me carefully and rested his arm upon the parapet. "People are interested in all these parallel worlds," he said, "but most of all in Tiresias."

"Figures. People are hooked on anything that has to do with sex, especially the kinky kind. So what are you writing about -- the prisoners, the system -- ?"

"This sex-change business mostly, and how people cope. I thought that coming over here to interview first-hand sources would be the best approach. I'm glad that I did. Nobody could possibly understand this experience until he's lived it himself."

"Why is it always the women who come voluntarily?"

"Tell me why you think that is, Erin."

I was still on guard, but his attitude hadn't been obnoxious so I decided to give him a straight answer.

"I think its because a woman defines herself by the simple fact that she can make a baby -- she can do this, so she's that. A man's identity is only a set of ideas, hard to string together, even harder to keep straight. A man doesn't want to tamper with it, because if he lets it blow away, he's not a man anymore. He's not a woman. A man without manhood is nothing at all, except pathetic"

"I think I understand you."

"Is that all that brought you here, Miss Ganners? The story?"

He looked back into the big lighted room. "Not quite. I've always had trouble trusting men. Besides winning a Pulitzer Prize, I hoped I could finally catch on to where men are coming from. It should help a writer knowing where people of all kinds are coming from. Maybe what I'm finding out can improve my social life."

I laughed.

"What?" he asked.

"Allie and me were just talking about that."

"But that's not the reason you came here, obviously."

"We came here because we had to. If we get to understand women along the way, it's all gravy."

"Are you beginning to understand anything?"

"What's there to understand?"

I was glib enough, but he wasn't buying my ingenuousness. "I think you've got better insights than that, Erin. I wish you'd open up; what my book needs is the point of view of someone other than myself. I can do pretty well with the woman-as-man perspective, especially after interviewing so many Sallys, but I need to get into the head of an intelligent man looking at a woman's life for the first time. -- You, for example."

"You want me to help you with your book?"

"You might as well; you're going to be in it regardless, after what you did tonight."

"Don't I get a choice?"

"I can report what anyone does in a public place. But why do you ask? Have you a problem with giving me a hand?"

"Why me? Why not one of the guys that have been here longer?"

"It's because you're new that you're a good source. I'd like to follow your experiences the whole rest of the time I'm here. I want to see you react from day to day, to learn, and to change."

"I don't plan to change."

He shrugged. "And maybe there's another reason, too."

"What?"

"You're so damned pretty. --- Maybe I shouldn't have said that. I don't want to scare you off."

"What gives you the idea that I scare easy?"

"Nothing. What do you say?"

I gave him a searching glance. "Thanks for warning me that I turn you on," I said. "I suppose that while we work on your book, we'll be seeing a lot of each other -- lots of private interviews, lots of time to win my trust, to get my guard down. Maybe what you really want is a story about a Charlie who gets fucked and then dumped. Or would it be the one about how a man reacts to choosing between abortion or motherhood? That would be good copy -- a grown man going through hell, trying to decide whether he should hold on to a shred of his own identity, or save the life of his child! Charlies are just a dirty joke, right?"

Maybe I was getting a little shrill, but how could I be entirely civil to any Sally after what happened to Allie and the others?

"So, you're one of those women who think that men are only after one thing?" His lively eyes were challenging me with irony.

"Don't make me sound like some stereotyped female! I'm being logical."

"Don't you think that those stereotyped females can sometimes be logical, too?"

"No, not as long as they let dykes sitting in university chairs do their thinking for them. The world they're always whining about doesn't exist anymore -- and I read history, and I don't think it ever did."

"Look, Erin, I just want to understand your experiences. I certainly don't want to seduce you. In fact, I'd advise you against trying sex for a long time yet. It's a brew too strong for kids."

"I'm twenty-seven. Don't I look it?"

"You look about twenty-two," he smiled. "But from what I've heard, you were born just a few days ago; you've got a lot of growing up to do, young lady. And, to your credit, you've done a lot of that tonight."

I looked at him hard, not quite sure what to think.

He extended his hand. "Friends and collaborators?"

I hesitated. I knew how low a Sally could sink -- but I also didn't want to condemn half the human race just because of Jake and his buddies. After a moment's reflection, I took the proffered hand. "I don't trust you," I warned him, "but until you double-cross me, or I hear that you've hurt somebody innocent, I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt. But I'm going to be watching you every second."

"I'm going to be watching you, too, Erin -- and I bet I'll have a lot more fun than you will."

I tossed my head. "That's lookism! It's a federal rap."

"Not on Tiresias."

#
Here's a daytime photo of Rod Ganners. He's standing at the guard rail of the balcony where we met. A charming bastard, I thought, but bad things had happened to Allie and Andrea because they trusted liars and I wasn't about to walk the same walk.

"Can I take your picture?" he asked with a suddenness that made me blink. "-- For my book."

I eyed him suspiciously. "Maybe for your wall, too?"

"What of it? You're decent."

"Just barely."

"Please, I'd really like to."

I wondered if I should go along. I'd already been photographed in my party getup and, considering the standards, no one could blackmail me just for wearing my ingenue dress. What I had to avoid was getting myself compromised in more serious ways.

"All right, shoot!" I decided.

"Thank you, Erin. Could you stand over by the parapet? I'd like the light on the river for a backdrop." I did as asked. "Rest your arm on top of it. ...That's pretty good, except don't look so angry; when people read about you, I want them to be sympathetic."

"You're running a big risk," I cautioned. "I'm a ball-buster, don't you know?"

He looked up from his view-finder. "I don't think that you really want to bust anybody's balls. I think that you're the kind who just get worked up when she sees innocent people being pushed around."

"You could be wrong."

"Then I'll wear a box in your company until I'm sure I'm not."

I laughed. Damn, but this guy was disarming.

"I like that grin," he nodded. "Keep it steady, one-two-three!"

He snapped the picture and then, the ice broken, he directed me in several more poses. Before realizing it, I was practically doing cheesecake for him!

"Just a little more leg! Drop a strap over your shoulder! Great! Lean forward -- gorgeous!"

Belatedly, I told me I had to be careful around this character; he could "handle" me much too easily.

Just then I noticed that the light from the balcony doorway had been blocked. In fact, the exit was crowded with women -- Allie, her friends, and some others. Seeing that I was talking to someone, they held off and waited. Rod, reading their intention to speak to me, backed away saying, "I'll look you up later. -- You can count on that."

His withdrawal was the sign that a crowd of Charlies had been waiting for. I hadn't been alone more than five seconds before they closed in on me en masse.

"You were incredible!" chimed Dori.

"Did you see Buck run?" laughed Mickie. "Those scum-suckers are cowards! What have we been afraid of all this time?"

Allie stepped up front and put her arms around my neck. "Thanks," she said, "you're the best friend a guy ever had." When she finally let go, Mickie hugged me, then passed me to Jordana.

"Hey, come on, people, don't get mushy on me!"

"You've given us a new motto, Erin," suggested a grinning Billie: "If thy guy offends thee, kick him in the nuts!"

"They might kick back," I warned.

"Not if we kick first and hard enough!" someone suggested.

Suddenly everyone was squeezing me or shaking my hand.

"Thanks, Erin," Jordana said solemnly. "Tonight you taught a few of those bums that they're not so tough after all, but I'm afraid that by tomorrow everything will be back the way it was."

I shook my head. "Look, we've got to stop being so passive about this rotten stuff. If we play the ostrich, it's only a matter of time before the lions bite us in the ass."

"We know that," said a woman. "But what can we do?"

"Organize! That's what the women back home did fifty years ago -- raise hell until the people running things have to give us what we want just for some peace and quiet."

"Women had it easy last century," Jordana said. "The feminazis just had to hijack the good will that men already had. Chivalry ruled back then. We've got real enemies these days."

"Maybe, but we still must have some kind of leverage," I insisted. "Some of these Sallys act as horny as wart hogs; why don't we try cutting off their sex until they shape up?" A little Lysistrate never hurt anyone.

"Cut off their dicks?! Gross!" exclaimed a girl who I later learned was named Davida. I suspected she had had too much to drink.

"No," I explained patiently, "we just won't sleep with them. That old stunt's been paying women good dividends for a million years."

"I can't help you there," apologized Davida, "I've never slept with a man."

"Then start sleeping with somebody -- and then push him out of bed the second he steps out of line!" suggested someone in the back of the bunch.

They all laughed. I lifted my hands to quiet them, saying, "We've got to do some serious thinking about our situation, girls -- uh, people."

"No justice, no piece!" suggested a wag.

I had more or less offered my recommendation as a joke, but the way the Charlies were taking to it suggested that there was a lot more sexual activity on Tiresias than I had thought likely.

"Well said! If we can just hold on to our sense of humor," I told them, "we've got the battle half-won already. But the bottom line is that we're decent people and we deserve respect. --- Unfortunately, I'm not sure how to go about getting it; we can't beat up all those guys because they're bigger than us. We can't sue them because the courts are on their side. We need a few ideas. Get together, talk things over, try to pin down what might work here and now. Once that's done, we'll be able to draw up a plan of action!"

The Charlies seemed to like my idea because I got some more kisses and hugs. "Cut it out, guys; you're acting like a lot of women!" It was then that I realized that my emotional distance from these officers had evaporated during the crisis of the night and the camaraderie of the moment. These people had become my tribe, my comrades. It was suddenly the most important thing in the world not to let them down.

#

Back inside, the excitement had already died away. Mort, passing along the word that the movie was about to begin, stepped up to me and said, "If you haven't picked out anyone for the evening yet, Erin, don't sweat it. I'm not so old that I can't hold a little thing like you on my knee."

I had decided that the codger was harmless, and so I just smiled and shook my finger at him. But tradition was tradition, and so I weighed my options; Bob hadn't offended me since I'd arrived, but I didn't like him so much that I wanted to sit on him. I had danced with a good many Sallys, but they had all come off as anonymous pressed suits, those who weren't actually obnoxious. So far only one man had treated me with the least little respect.

I looked up Rod and took hold of his sleeve. "Come on, guy, you're the lesser of fifty evils."

"I'm flattered," he said with a broad grin.

"Just don't try anything clever when the lights go out -- you don't have your box on yet!"

Dotty and Olga had found their seats, too. Olga's was a small man and the Scandinavian looked heavy enough to break his thigh bones. There might have been a story there, but I never inquired. Chester, logically enough, chose pretty Billie Walters to join him for the showing.

Us new "girls" were granted seats of honor up front. Once we'd settled down on a comfortable settee, his hands finger-walked up to my waist.

'"Hey, what are you -- some kind of octopus?" I chided, pushing his mitts away. Then, steeling myself not to be more combative than necessary, I leaned back against his sturdy shoulder and made myself cozy, noticing for the first time that he was fragrant with spicy cologne.

The movie began with a dance number under title credits which read, The Love-Slave of the Warlord. Because the actresses were wearing skimpy Hollywood-style barbarian slave girl outfits, I expected that the movie would be erotic. The title didn't jive with the opening scenes, though, which were set in modern America. I quickly grasped what was going on. It was a movie about an archaeologist on his way to Tiresias.

Long before the scene changed to Tiresias, I picked out which character was going to be the "love-slave" of the "warlord." He was a swaggering chauvinist who apparently spent the greater part of every day doing things that would have gotten him instantly kicked out of any real-world university. He was a coarse stereotype of a man -- nothing but brag and bad manners -- Hollywood up to its old stereotyping habits again - porn.
Just as I expected, the hero went to Tiresias, turned into a knockout girl (played by a popular porn actress, Tina Rae), and then, on "her" first night out with her party of scientists disguised as native travelers, catches the eye of a barbarian chief. The sly rogue steals to her tent that night, binds her hand and foot, gags her, cuts off her pajamas with a hunting knife, then takes her away to his village. All the rest was unimaginative
The movie fascinated me because there were so many things wrong with it. The "warlord" seemed more like the lazy and voluptuous chief of a second-rate village, but he was hung like a gorilla. The big pie-faced actor who had played the archeologist as a male could never have morphed into a fine-boned beauty like Tina Rae. Here's another movie still, this one featuring Tina Rae in "Love Slave of the Warlord." I'd have to give this stinker a big "thumbs-down."
-- And while the story might have been interesting if done well, all plot development stopped twenty minutes into it. It took only about thirty seconds for the warlord to spank the rebellion out of his new slave girl, reducing her to a model of boring passivity for the rest of the movie with hardly a line of dialogue to reveal her thoughts or emotions -- probably because the character possessed neither. After an initial banging by the warlord, the "slave" had to engage in a threesome with the warlord's "blood brothers." The dauntless duo ordered her to begin their "pleasuring" by blowing them both at the same time. Merchant traders next show up at the village right afterwards, and the hospitable warlord loaned them his love-slave. The archaeologist-turned-sex-bomb had to dance nude to the beating of the drums (at least Tina Rae was a competent erotic dancer) and then she was gang-banged by the traders, which experience, for all I could tell, she didn't seem to mind.

After such a busy day, the archaeologist still has enough energy to initiate a lesbian scene with one of the warlord's kept women at bedtime. Through it all, the heroine never manages to form a relationship with any of the other characters.

Why had the committee picked this particular vid for us ingenues to see? I supposed that the joke was to remind us about the dangers of this planet, but if so it didn't give me an anxiety attack. The story had been just too unreal, the characters too unlifelike. Anyway, it was anthropologists and their teams who had to out exploring Tiresias, not prison guards.

At the end of the film the girl gets rescued and taken home, where she becomes a guy again. But his strange experience has wiped out his self-confidence and he becomes a wimp who can't get it up anymore. With the dull, inappropriate ending, the script writer proved himself every bit as inept in character psychology as he was in plot development. Pretty weak stuff.

While the vid progressed, Rod's hands were like a pair of swallows coming back to Capistrano. The third time his birds roosted at their favorite perch I ceased to shoo them away. Part of the reason was that Rod was as much a "kid" as I was --- and I remembered being sixteen on my first date. Also, one of the Charlies had been assiduously serving drinks to us movie-watchers all along, and I'd over-estimated how much my current body weight could absorb and had gotten drunk enough to become sleepy and tolerant as I nestled down cozily against Rod. I barely noticed at that point that one of his hands had slipped down to my thigh.

Boys will be boys.

After the vid ended, people started leaving the party. Allie had not even stayed for the vid and I wanted to get back quick to our room and check on her. I picked up my gifts, said goodnight to such new friends as were still hanging around and then, a little unsteady on my sore feet, made my good-byes to Rod. When he offered to escort me to my quarters I didn't see any harm; I could use someone to lean on just then.

*******

"It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of its benefits than is done by its abandoned prostitution to falsehood."

Thomas Jefferson, 1801


Chapter 6

Things moved rapidly on Sunday with some of us from the party getting together and organizing ourselves as charter members of something we called the "Tiresian Women's Rights Association." Before I knew it, I was elected chairperson.

"Why me? I just got here!" I complained.

"Because you've got the balls for it, Erin," explained Andrea.

"I only wish I did!"

"Listen, Erin," said Mickie, "the rest of us can gripe all we want to, but the Sallys just shrug it off. But the way you stood up at the party has given you special credibility. You faced off with four goons and when the smoked cleared you were the only one left standing."

"There's got to be more to leadership than kicking an asshole like Jake in the nuts!"

"Like what?" asked Dori. "-- Anyway, this is just for now. Once we get rolling, all the officers will be up for election by the full membership -- and I bet everybody will want to join."

Being stuck as chairperson, I decided the first order of business had to be appointing a temporary committee of officers. I asked Jordana to be treasurer, which would be a snap for her since we didn't have any money. I also invited Billie to be secretary.

"Do I have to take the minutes?" she asked.

"Sure."

"I can't do that."

"Why not?" I asked. Instead of answering she only sat there roiling in anguish for a minute, then got up and left.

I looked bemusedly to the others. "What did I say?"

"Billie can't read or write and she's sensitive about it," explained Jordana, looking down as if embarrassed for her friend.

"You mean -- ?"

Andrea nodded. "Our fucking public education system with its double-fucking teachers' union! I can hardly read myself thanks to them! Do you think I'd still be herding cows down in the exercise yard if I was good for anything else?"

The subject cast a pall over what had been an upbeat get-together. The system had been damaging innocent young lives for over thirty years, but whenever a candidate promised to be an "education president," it only meant that he was in the pocket of the central office of the American Education Association. The United States, which for a time had been placing behind civil-war- torn Indonesia in student performance, lately had fallen behind Congo where famine and tribal genocide prevailed. There had been a twenty-year brain drain toward America to make up for the scientists and technicians that our own schools were not training. I'd heard that this flow was only now slackening because U.S. companies were becoming unable to compete with the high wages paid in healthier economies with more open societies, such as Thailand's, or the Philippines'. America's students were taught mostly about sex and victim-group grievances.

Getting back to the business at hand, I asked Allie to take the job that Billie had turned down.

"Okay," she laughed, "if you don't try to make me sit on your lap."

"Please, I don't swing that way," I demurred.

"What about a vice-president?" Mickie asked.

I almost offered Billie's name for that, but instead of lapsing into tasteless whimsy I persuaded the others to leave the job open until the official election.

#

The "hooker trading card" incident never developed into the terrible ordeal that its victims had expected. Maybe that followed from the fact that Jake and his gang had ended up with egg on their face and the rest of the Sallys seemed more embarrassed than amused by the trick.

That was all to the good, but the offense had been a serious one and it couldn't be allowed to lie forgotten. Because Jake's clique hadn't been called to account by the warden or even by the Guards supervisor, we submitted a written complaint to Gershom's office, demanding disciplinary action against the four men. When he stalled -- as we expected he would -- we did the paperwork and appealed directly to the Director of Prisons on Earth, and to the Washington office of the EEOC, alleging sexual harassment. Finally, we filed a formal grievance with the officers union.

We were not very optimistic about being heard sympathetically in any of these official snake pits, the agencies all being part of the system, and therefore part of the problem. Although the law protected all people equally in theory, there was no mechanism to force equitable compliance. As long as illegal foreign money and contributions from the drug syndicates could buy presidential and Congressional elections, the overwhelming number of offices and judgeships were held by university-trained social radicals. And radicalism, whatever its publicly-professed goals, was always the bullying of the many by the few.

Fortunately, we knew how the system worked and so while doing all we could through channels, we also understood that any real progress would have to be made through group action on the ground. The first big step was the holding of a general meeting of Tiresian women.

Toward the end of the week we met with most of the staff on the lawn outside the dormitory and the turnout was huge -- which was to be expected since staff females decisively outnumbered the men. The assembly (alas) confirmed me and all of the temporary officers I'd appointed for one-year terms, and Mickie was elected vice-president (which served her right for opening her mouth). Then we settled down to discuss business and grievances.

For whatever reason, the group initially had trouble getting at the meat of our predicament and the first complaints seemed distressingly trivial. For example, somebody thought the nickname "Charlie" was demeaning and we should demonstrate to ban it.

"Listen, people," I said after a lot of pointless discussion, "these aren't important issues. Public education tells us that we should concern ourselves with semantics and let serious problems take care of themselves, but such silliness isn't for people like us -- its for -- pardon the insult -- intellectuals."

There came a lot of laughter and booing of the term "intellectuals," but even so my plea wasn't entirely understood because the discussion next careered into the subject of ingenue parties. Some people thought that initiations should be prohibited, while some thought they were a lot of fun. Finally a woman named Georgette threw the question directly onto my plate:

"Erin, you just had your own party, and it was one of the worst that I've ever seen. What did you think about the subject?"

I leaned back on the bench, surrounded by my associated officers. "Oh, that's a hard question!" I finally sighed. "I didn't want to go, that's for sure. But the fact is, all I was really willing to do was to crawl into a hole and hide for the next year. I hadn't met anyone except Allie up till then and didn't want to. I felt like a freak -- and, well, I guess that's what I thought the rest of you were, too. When I look back at it now, I can see that wasn't a good attitude.

"I think that having an ingenue party is like being a fledgling pushed out of the nest," I pressed on. "You've got to fly or you've got to die -- that's just the way it is. My party wasn't a total disaster by any means; I met a lot of you people there -- and I even met a decent Sally. I think the experience did a lot for my self-confidence and it also helped me to fit in a lot faster than I would have otherwise.

"-- And," I added with a sour grin, "after wearing that goddamned dress, I know that nothing else could ever scare me!"

There was some laughter and we were finally able to get on to the more important matters -- like fair job assignments, promotions -- and equal protection under the law.

#

The next day I was introduced to my duties as a personnel clerk. It was the sort of work I was used to, having bid out of my entry-level jailer's job more than a year before. The dismal state of reading, writing, and arithmetic among the usual job recruits had made me a good candidate for office work and, anyway, guarding prisoners had always made me feel like a lion tamer -- all by my lonesome and surrounded by bloodthirsty predators. I can't emphasize how much I disliked the shadowy cell block corridors with their slamming doors, the echo of surly voices and wary footsteps, the feral hatred in the prisoners' eyes. My job was not where the real me was at; I had become a correctional officer only because I didn't place in the U.S. Labor Office quota lists for the better jobs.

Rod was after me every day to give him an interview. I had mixed feelings about seeing the Sally again, still not trusting him very deeply. I was getting used to the Charlies, but the Sallys still made me uneasy. Rod looked like a man, and outwardly acted like a man, but deep down I knew that he wasn't a man. Worst of all, he was a journalist.
To me journalism suggested cynical propaganda for the status quo and -- worst of all -- it made him one of the chattering class, which included not only reporters, but also academics, think-tanks, blue-ribbon committees, and special-interest pleaders. One could not underestimate the damage that such people had caused America. Without journalists especially to sugarcoat the poison pill, to attack people in the opposition while ignoring treason, rape, and drug-running among their favorites, the Establishment never would have become the Establishment.

But despite all these misgivings, I made an appointment to interview with Rod on my next day off.

Rod snapped this shot of me at our first interview. I deliberately dressed sloppy, hoping to dim my luster -- but if you ask me I looked good enough to eat! We met up on the parapet, where he was waiting for me with a pitcher of lemonade, and I passed the next couple hours answering a series of probing questions. In particular I had to fill him in on my first days upon Tiresias and the impressions drawn from them. He was especially interested in our "rights association" and encouraged me to talk about it at great length. I did so, until my voice grew hoarse and the pink-marble bench I was sitting on started to hurt.

"We've got a lot of stuff down on CD," he said at last, clicking off the recorder and refilling my paper cup with lemonade. "Maybe we should knock it off for now. -- Just the interview I mean; I'd like to take you to lunch."

"You mean chow down on the cafeteria's barf?"

"For today. Maybe we can do something special later on. I'm not a bad cook."

"I'm not either."

"We'll have to trade recipes," he suggested. Suddenly he fired me an amused glance.

"What?" I said.

"You do look like a boy slouching in that chair that way," Rod explained.

"I am a boy -- a man, I mean!"

He changed the subject tactfully: "You said you were home-schooled. Didn't you ever get lonely lacking kids your own age?"

"I thought the interview was over."

"It's just a friendly question; I'd like to know more about you."

"No," I reminisced, settling back into my slouch. "I wasn't lonely; my folks pushed me into all sorts of community and church activities. Did I ever tell you that I was a Boy Scout? -- I went the distance to Eagle Scout! Anyway, I did go to a public high school. -- What a waste that was!"

"You're a Boy Scout! I should have known!"

"Would you recognize a Boy Scout if you met one? There can't have been many in journalism school."

He ignored my jibe, asking, "You've never been married?"

I shook my head and slurped more lemonade.

"Why not? You're such a beautiful woman that you must have been a handsome man."

"Looks don't cut it with women; it's never enough. You know what I mean."

"Suppose you tell me."

I shrugged. "Women select rich killer-males. What first class woman is going to marry a one-pay-check-from-homeless-downwardly-mobile prison officer?"

"You don't sound like you have much self-esteem."

"After all I've told you, can you blame me?"

"No, probably not."

I looked up into his eyes, and was glad to find no mockery there. "At least you're open-minded," I said.

"I'm a journalist."

I laughed. "Remember that movie where the villain says, 'I'm a lawyer; you can trust me.'?"

"I guess you think that everyone in the press corps is a paid propagandist."

"That about sums it up," I told him.

#

A couple days after our first big association meeting, the "ship" hit the "sand" as Allie sometimes said with her accustomed coyness. A Sally, Jesse, had beaten his Charlie lover, Christy, to a pulp.

I guess the two of them were a disaster waiting to happen. They'd been into some weird stuff -- including a wacky French-maid bondage fetish. But, as we understood, Christy had been getting more and more unhappy about the nature of their arrangement and finally decided to call it quits after attending our first big meeting. Unfortunately, power-tripping Jesse liked things just the way they were and before their argument was over, Christy had been sent to the medical division with severe bruises and multiple cuts and abrasions.

I was with Rod when word came about the domestic-abuse case. I realized at once that I had to get on the stick and call an emergency meeting of the association; Rod asked me to let him monitor and I told him that it would be all right. Down deep I think I saw the crisis as a test case to see where Rod's loyalties and conscience really lay.

As the women gathered on the lawn ground, I could see that the news about Christy had come as a terrible shock; our association was little more than a week old and already we felt ourselves at the moment of truth. -- And none of us were particularly proud that Christy might have gotten hurt because she had acted on our rhetoric where we had been merely talking.

It wasn't easy to get the discussion rolling. People were too upset even to be angry, and Rod's presence only added to peoples' unease. While bringing the meeting to order I wondered whether I had done the right thing by letting him attend.

"Friends, I guess we all know about Christy," I began slowly. "The committee officers and I are going to go see her at the infirmary as soon as we finish here."

"Maybe we're finished already," suggested a Charlie whom I had only lately met -- Donna.

"No, we can't look at it that way!" I said firmly. "Maybe we thought that this was going to be a breeze, or a feel-good club. It's not. There may be more of us who'll get hurt -- we have to accept that because we're fighting a kind of war. But I will tell you that if it comes down to beating after beating after beating, we can't win because in an open fight they've got everything -- the muscles, the system, the rules that they wrote themselves. All we've got is justice, and it's been a long time since American justice has represented anything more than a statue wearing a blindfold."

"So what do we have?" asked a woman.

"We have a lot of disadvantages," I said. "If we can win at all, it's because our opponents -- most of them anyway -- are decent people. Decent people will let other decent people win; sometimes they even let people who don't deserve to win win, too, if you appeal to their emotions to flimflam their heads. Sometimes I think that that's how our society got so fucked up in the first place.

"But anyway, even if we lose we can expect just more of what we've already gotten used to; if we win, it should make things better for us, and especially for our kids. But when we get what we know we need today, then we've got to kill the insurgency dead --- stone cold dead. We all know what its like to live under a permanent revolution, like the one that started in the 1960's; nothing gets done; progress can't be made, the infrastructure rots. Men and women should be on the same side -- against people who are playing them against one another for ideological ends."

"Maybe we shouldn't be talking with a Sally listening," suggested another Charlie.

"What difference does it make?" I asked resignedly. "You can bet Gershom's got an electronic ear aimed at us, or a hidden mike under one of these bleachers. If you're worried about Rod, I'll tell you right now that he's my friend and I'm ready to vouch for him. If he's willing, maybe he can help us by writing about what's going on here."

Rod stood up. "Can I say something on my own behalf, Madame Chairman?"

Suppressing a grin at his form of address despite the seriousness of the moment, I replied with likewise: "The chair recognizes Rod Ganners,"

"I'm not here to spy on you folks, or to put anybody on the spot; it's just that I think that something important is happening and I want to understand it. -- As for Christy, the very idea of what happened to her makes me sick.

No one spoke up, but it was the kind of silence that encouraged Rod to say his piece.

"Listen," he went on, "you may think that the way you're treated is demeaning, but you don't realize how degrading it is for someone like me. Am I supposed to be grateful to a system that holds people back in the unspoken belief that I don't have what it takes to compete with groups I don't belong to? I'm good at what I do -- and I'd still be the best there is under any system that recognized freedom. I'm certainly not grateful for hiring quotas because they're an insult; I could beat any man or woman trying to do my job and I'm not scared to try -- so why are a lot of regulatory bureaucrats in Washington so worried about me?

"The answer is they're worried about themselves! They're scared to lose power. They sold the people some feel-good snake oil a couple generations back, talking the language of care and compassion freedom while turning Americans into dependent, ill-educated peons."

I was surprised by the vehemence of his vision -- talk about deep waters! At that point he drew a deep breath and concluded with: "I guess all I have left to say is that Erin doesn't have to worry about my wanting to help."

"Rod," I spoke up soberly, "the best way you can help us is just by doing your job the old fashioned way -- telling the truth. Truth lets everything else take care of itself."

He only nodded my way, apparently talked-out. The Charlies, too, were quiet for a moment, but then Dori stood up: "We sure can use all the help we can get -- but how do we keep more people from being beaten up like Christy?"

That put me back into the hot seat. "We have two choices," I observed, "We can be nice, tame little girls here, and then be nice tame, emasculated men back home. . . ."

"Those aren't much for choices," put in Davida suddenly.

"Davida, that was only the first choice!" I explained patiently. "The second choice is that we refuse to let Christy sacrifice in vain. She's our first fallen soldier and what's happened to her should mean something."

"So what does it mean?" asked Mickie.

"I want to get some pictures of Christy, bruised and cut as she is now, and make up some posters. We've got to put the mirror up to the ugly face of limousine-socialism. We have to show the Sallys exactly what they're defending and what they've become because they've been defending it. Here's Mickie Olson with one of her "patients" in the background. Mickie was a sweet guy and an all-around chum. Also, she was about the only person I knew on Tiresias able to earn her living outside of government service!

"In fact, I'd like to have Christy photographed in that maid cap of hers; it would speak volumes on what the status quo is all about. Unfortunately, I don't know how to get the cap; it's probably still in Jesse's quarters."

"I've got one you can use," volunteered Billie.

"You have a maid's cap?" I asked incredulously.

"Shucks," Billie said abashedly, "I've got the whole outfit!"

"William. . . " I sighed.

*****

"Shame on you! you who call evil good and good evil,

Who turn darkness into light and light into darkness,

Who make bitter sweet and sweet bitter.

Shame on you! you who are wise in your own eyes

And prudent in your own esteem."

Isaiah, 5:20


Chapter 7

Immediately after the meeting, I followed Billie back to her room to get the maid's cap that she'd offered to loan.

It was true; in Billie Walters' closet there hung the complete outfit of a French maid, right down to the feather duster. Had Billie lived a strange lifestyle back home? I decided to ask her.

"The Sallys had an all-guy party a few months ago," Billie explained cheerfully, "and they needed someone to play the maid and serve up drinks. It seemed like it'd be fun, something to remember, you know, so I offered to help them out and they all chipped in for this uniform. When I go home I'll have to pass it on to one of the other girls here, but I've got some wild pictures of me wearing it. Do you want to see them?"

Does the Pope look forward to Easter?

"Billie," I began uncomfortably, "I'm sorry that I embarrassed you the other day."

She got very serious-looking all of a sudden and gave a deep sigh. "That's all right, Erin. You didn't know; I suppose I'm stupid. I never learned much in school. All I can remember the teachers talking about is sex, something they talked about it all the time.." She shrugged. "Well, to be fair to them, I guess I also learned that teachers aren't paid nearly enough."

I tweaked her arm. "You're not stupid! I'd be in the same boat, except that I was home-schooled. Not many parents could have done what my folks did, but Dad had gone to a private school and Mother attended a parochial one. They gave up a lot of quality time to give me a chance in life."

"You're lucky," Billie said wistfully. "How are your folks doing now?"

I shifted uncomfortably. "They're dead. A boating accident." Then I changed the subject: "Say! I could teach you to read and write, if you'd want me to."

The young blonde stared open-mouthed. "Honest? If you could do that -- I mean, I've felt like half a person all my life. But -- but it's too much to ask from a friend."

"What are friends for? I like to keep busy and what else is there to do at night? Go out and get laid?"

"Maybe," Billie suggested teasingly. "You seem to be getting awfully chummy with that Rod Ganners guy. Everybody's talking."

For crying out loud! I felt like I was living in a fish bowl. "We're just good friends," I assured her.

Billie smiled wisely. "I know that -- but if you ever want to borrow my maid outfit -- "

"Stuff it, Billie!"

#

Rod, Jordana, Allie, and I met Christy at her infirmary bed. She was a terrible sight to see -- eyes blackened, lips broken, bruises all over her face and, where there were no bandages, dark cuts were scabbing over.

The patient seemed to withdraw into herself the instant we came in, which wasn't unexpected since she didn't know any of us very well. Beating victims, I'd read, often felt humiliated and blame themselves somehow. -- But we did our best to reassure the convalescent and we soon had her talking.

"Maybe it was my fault," Christy suddenly said.

"Your fault? How can that be?" asked Jordana, who was just a little better acquainted with the officer than the rest of us.

"I was doing some bad things; what else can you expect when you do that except something bad?"

"Why did you do those things, Christian?" I asked softy. I had used her real name without thinking. For some reason, whenever one Charlie tried to express a serious or intimate thought to another, it always seemed more sincere to use her male name.

She shrugged to reposition her bruised shoulders, registering discomfort at the corners of her swollen lips. "I didn't feel very good about myself, I suppose, and I had trouble making friends. Then Jesse came along and, well, one thing just led to another."

"Well, we want to help you now, Christy, so you won't have to depend on people like Jesse for company," Jordana promised.

Was Jordana right? Or did we just want to use Christy's tragedy for our own ends?

"But we need your help, too," continued the Association treasurer, "so that nobody else will ever have to go through what you just did."

"How can I help?" the battered girl asked dubiously.

"We're going to start a "Violence Against Women" action against Jesse," explained the ash blonde. After that, when you're up and around, we want to get to know you a lot better. I suppose that it's always the shy people who are overlooked; we're all sorry for not paying more attention to you."

While Jordana comforted Christy, I was thinking hard about what we could do. There was no Men's Protection commission, of course, no People's Protection commission even, and despite the broad language used in writing the VAWA, there wasn't even any Lower-Class Women's Commission. Women had been assaulted in the corridors and offices of the White House, and back in the '90's government reached a nadir which it never recovered from when a sitting president was himself the perpetrator -- a man with a lewd history of cocaine use and violent rape as an office holder back in his home state.

"How can anyone help me?" the young guard asked glumly.

"If you only want somebody to mistreat you," replied Allie evenly, "there's nothing we can do. -- But we want to start a support group for people who have special problems that even the psychs just don't understand."

She shook her sore head. "I don't want a support group; I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me. I just want to fit in." I thought that saying that had taken a lot of courage.

We talked for a little while longer and the battered girl finally consented to let us take some pictures. Rod had said nothing all this while, but I think he was affected by the victim's plight as much or more than the rest of us. Maybe he was feeling guilty just because he was a Sally and it was a Sally who had hurt the girl.

The victim-group spokesmen aimed at instilling this kind of guilt in society, but I didn't care for it. Good people should never feel responsible for what scoundrels have done, not even if they're the genetically-linked descendants of scoundrels -- unless, of course, they had been one of the idiots who had voted the said scoundrel into office. Guilt for what others have done just leaves the door open for new rascals to take advantage of it and them. Whole societies can be twisted out of shape by a cunning pressure group practiced at playing the blame game.

Rod took the photos and Jordana promised to visit Christy again the next day. As we were leaving, Dr. Trent intercepted me in the corridor.

"Erin," she said, slightly agitated, "I'm sorry that we haven't had a real chance to talk since you arrived. Are you doing anything for dinner tonight?"

"No, Doctor. What did you have in mind?"

"Gabrielle. My place. Eightish?"

"I'll be there. Thanks -- Gabrielle."

#

Being a senior staff physician had its advantages. Gabrielle had a private two-room apartment and a private kitchen whose warm air was sweet with cooking aroma. Our main course was Tiresian "duck" (it looked more like a loon, actually) bartered from barbarian bird-catchers. I could appreciate a skilled chef because I was an amateur gourmet cook myself. We talked pleasantly, about cuisine mostly, until my hostess maneuvered us out to the sofa, when our conversation grew more serious.

"Was there any particular reason that you asked me over tonight, Gabrielle?"

She nodded gravely and touched her gravid belly, as if my question had unwittingly involved her unborn child. "I've regretted not attending your meetings," the physician began, "but there's so much on my mind these days. Even so, I've been very impressed by what you're doing," she went on, "-- organizing the women, I mean."

"I don't deserve the credit," I shrugged, "It was more their idea than mine."

"You've taken a load of guilt off my shoulders, Erin. No one knows more than I do as ranking -- Charlie -- that I should have been doing more to help our people."

I smiled sympathetically. "Don't feel bad, Doctor. For all its jawboning, our group hasn't really accomplished anything yet."

"I think you've done quite a bit for morale. Men -- Earth men -- have lost the art of standing up and bitching. Back home it's all around us and we can't see how low we've really sunk -- but once you get to Tiresias, the blinders come off and the truth slams you in the face."

"Christy got slammed in the face, I know."

"We're all at risk -- so be careful," Dr. Trent warned. "The ascendant power doesn't like anyone rocking the boat. Remember that policeman in California who tried to start a white male officers' advocacy group?"

I remembered he was labeled a racist and a sexist and fired. Free association was always discouraged; even Senegalese illegals had their own advocacy groups, but the California officer, despite a sterling record, had been suspended, harassed, and finally driven from the force.

I slumped back into the sofa; the future for a rebel under tyranny was never bright. The 1960's hell-raisers never suffered societal reprisals because their revolution was, at its heart, a sham. They had really been a tool of people who already had power to take even more power, much like the Red Guards who served the Party Chairman in China at the same time. What kind of revolution is ordered by the prehistoric fossils doddering at the top?

"A man has to do what a man has to do," I finally said.

"Yes, we do, don't we," my hostess nodded. "What's next?"

I sighed. "We're following the official channels as far as we can -- and we'll be putting up those posters. If the Sallys are going to defend their position, we have to show them exactly what kind of sleaze they're defending."

"It's a good start," Gabrielle affirmed. "We have to change things, but we can't stop with just Tiresias. We have to set matters right back home, too, or there's going to be a bloody revolution -- and we all know what revolutionaries are."

She suddenly grimaced self-deprecatingly. "Big talk from a do-nothing, I know. It's easy to spin one's wheels, easy to be bought off. I didn't live badly before; a cardiovascular surgeon of either sex can get along, even as a second class citizen. Maybe I don't deserve any better -- I don't know." Gabrielle then touched her stomach thoughtfully. "But what I've had isn't good enough for my son. My son can't be second class to anyone!"

The eternal parental vow, but I knew that her boy would be exactly that, unless some important changes were made, and quickly.

"It's going to be a boy, then?" I asked, skirting a subject too big for me.

"It's going to be a girl here on Tiresias, but he'll be my son back on Earth."

I could tell by the gleam in her eyes that that was exactly the way she wanted it. "I'm very happy for you."

"Thanks. The baby should arrive in a couple weeks. "I'll be a father a couple weeks from now; it's incredible if you think about it."

"You don't think of yourself as a mother?"

She gave a rueful smile. "Biologically, I'm the baby's father. I couldn't bring viable semen for artificial insemination across from Earth, so I found a willing egg-donor and had as many of her eggs as I could fertilized in vitriol with my sperm. She was a concert pianist with a 160 IQ and a family of good physical and mental health.

"The sex of the eggs changed when I brought them over, of course, but their viability remained. I had to have three eggs implanted before one took. That wasn't bad odds, all in all; I guess it was fated."

"What would you have done if all the implants had failed?"

Trent frowned. "Then I would have found a Sally willing to do the job for me. I wouldn't have liked the randomness of it, naturally, but any port in a storm."

I nodded but her determination amazed me. Why such a seemingly normal and intelligent person like Dr. Trent would go to such lengths to bear a child herself. Despite the delicacy of the subject, I put the question to her.

"That's what they all want to know," the doctor smiled wanly. "The truth is, I had a bad experience in marriage -- one of the worst a man could have. I swore that I'd never again trust a woman with a child of mine."

This is a snapshot donated by Dr. Trent. It shows Gabriel and his wife before the unplanned pregnancy that embittered their marriage "Those are strong words. It must have been a terrible experience."

"It was," she sighed, then explained how she had been a staff surgeon servicing cases referred over from the Mayo Clinic. "

When I got married I wanted children very badly," she went on, "and when we were courting my wife had assured me that she wanted the same. But I guess she only wanted a surgeon's income because after we were married she kept putting off starting a family for the sake of her career. She was an English professor -- quite a mediocre one, if you ask me, but she had connections with several Women's groups and could work the University quota system for all it was worth."

Gabrielle, lowered her gaze. "I'm sorry. That's my bitterness talking."

"No problem. I'm still mad as hell about what my fiancee pulled on me."

"Well, anyway, you can imagine that my wife's attitude was driving me up the wall. By the time she'd gotten pregnant, because of contraceptive or condom failure, things weren't at all good between us. I thought that the child could be a new beginning for us, but she was very ambivalent about bringing it to term. I did everything I could to encourage her, but toward the end she decided that it just wouldn't fit in with her career plans.

"To get me off her back, she got a restraining order and put me out of our house. She had no problem there; it's easier to get a court order against a husband than it is to get a fishing license."

Right you are, Doc -- carp, not husbands, are a protected species.

"But even on her own she kept vacillating, giving me hope, then taking it away, until the baby was almost due. Then she opted for one of those partial-birth abortions. -- You how that goes -- it's infanticide in everything but name."

Trent rested back in the sofa, her face uncharacteristically gaunt. "I loved my son, even unborn; I would have been glad to rear him alone, if that's how it had to be, but I couldn't do anything because the whole system is against the child and the father."

Her mouth turned down with seething inner anger and I thought it best just to listen quietly while she went on. "I knew where my son was going to die; I knew when he was going to die. I knew who was going to kill him -- but I couldn't stop it. The man is supposed to protect and preserve his family, isn't he? Well, I failed miserably and after you've washed out that badly you stop being a real man. Tiresias is as good a place as any for me."

No, Dr. Trent's story was not fun and games at all.

When agony like Gabrielle's comes out -- especially out of a person whom his listener doesn't know well -- his company can only sit in stunned silence; that's the way it was with me. I didn't know what to say, I didn't even know what to do with my hands and feet. When to blink or swallow became a major decision. Even so, when Dr. Trent at last fell silent I reached over and laid my hand upon her forearm.

She looked up gratefully and said, "Sorry to get so emotional, Erin, but you did ask. That's all there is to it. -- I have to do this; at least this way there's nobody in the universe who'll be able to say that I don't have any rights to my own child as a parent!"

With the air cleared, the rest of the evening was light and convivial. By the time I left the apartment I had become pretty solid with Dr. Trent, and what she had said had given me a great deal to think about.

#

By now life on Tiresias had started to fall into some kind of routine. I met with Rod almost every day and filled him in on everything that was happening, but he would never let it go until I had also told him exactly what I felt about it also. In a way, the journalist had turned into my confessor; I could talk to Allie and some of the others, but the greatest relief of all was to talk to Rod. Maybe it was because Rod could be considered one of "the enemy camp" and I felt a special need to express myself to him, to justify myself regarding the life I was living, and how I was living it.

"I'm going to have to remember that my book is about everybody on Tiresias, not just you," Rod remarked one day. "I want to write about you so much -- I mean, the material that I'm getting from you is so good that it's making the whole work top-heavy. Erin-heavy."

"You can't let that happen; I'm nobody special," I remarked over a glass of lemonade.

"It's tough being objective when I'm so involved."

"Why be objective? Do you think John Reed was ever objective?"

"Poltical fanaticism is nothing compared to what's eating on me."

I wondered what exactly he meant by that, but didn't press the issue.

Usually, after the formal interview, we'd pass some time in friendly banter. At such a time Rod once asked me: "Do you girls teach one another how to walk that way?"

"What way?"

"That sexy way."

"Do you mean I still walk like a sexy guy?" I asked, glad to hear it.

"No, I mean you walk like a sexy girl."

"I do not!"

"You do so!"

"I do not!"

We seemed to end a lot of conversations that way and I usually got in the last "I do not!" Ever since I'd become a woman that had been happening during spats with Sallys. Maybe pig-headedness is a sex-linked trait.

While we're on that subject, I have to say that even though I didn't actually think of myself as a real woman, Rod talked like he believed that I should be full of all kinds of new insights into male-female relationships. But I don't think I learned anything new. If anything, life on Tiresias reaffirmed what I'd known intuitively for years. It was Rod that made things different; he was willing to listen to my armchair analyses.

"Why do men fear commitment so much?" Rod once asked.

I replied without batting an eye. "A man values his relationships and he doesn't want to threaten the intimacy of the alliance by completely changing the nature of the partnership."

He seemed genuinely astonished. "You're joking!"

I grinned. "For crying out loud, Rod, "it's as plain as that Grecian nose in the middle of your face!"

"Explain."

"Commitment, the way women define it, is a swell racket only if you're a woman. When she commits, she only gains by it; she's taken care of financially, and marriage sets her free to work full-time, work part-time, or not work outside the home at all. She can putter at cottage-industry hobbies or low-paying jobs that carry personal rewards -- such as doing volunteer work. If she's particularly stupid and self-righteous, marriage even allows her the luxury of feeling morally superior to the man who's daily grind at a job he usually hates is giving her all these options.

"Her poor husband's part in the commitment game gains him nothing but more of the same dull grind, except that he's burdened by supporting two people where he only supported himself before. Even if his wife had stayed at a worthwhile job at first, she might give it up when kids come. It couldn't be the other way around, not a woman in a thousand would stand for that. The man's burden gets heavier, the hours of work get longer and he has to opt for that overtime that he hates like poison. He has no time for romance and can only be a part-time parent. -- And because keeping that miserable job is so important he has to kiss up to people he despises to get the extra income of a promotion that he deep down doesn't really want. Finally he reaps the real payoff for having "committed" to a woman -- his family hates him for neglecting them."

"But hasn't the economic success of women changed things?" Rod asked.

"Where have you been?!" I asked with a shake of my head. "Does a millionaire woman ever feel secure enough to marry a penniless, but amiable guy who'd has all the time in the world to be there for her? -- Not on your life!

"If she has money, she'll insist on chasing after men who have even more. A growing boy soon figures out that looks and personality don't cut it in the mating game; he's not a woman and he can't operate like she does. If he wants the woman of his choice he has to be an economic success -- and he has to be more successful each year or he'll risk losing her.

"A man is always being judged by his investments, or by the power he wields in the work place; he never gets any credit just for being a good person, or being there for his family. Nothing counts except bread-winning.

"Sociologists who pretend men and women are the same are nuts; they're different and complementary. Men want sex and beauty; women want material security. Women don't want to be looked at like sugar-candy, but that doesn't stop them from sizing up every man as a sugar-daddy. The two views are just the male and female version of the same thing, but the one is accepted as normal and the other is treated as some kind of degeneracy."

What I liked most about Rod was the way he didn't get contentious when I graced him with a pearl of my wisdom. Increasingly, I became frank and open whenever he asked me a question.

"Why do you suppose that women always want their husbands to change while men always want their wives to stay just the same?" he asked at some early point in our association.

I was game. "Because men marry for love and women for money."

"There you go again!" Rod moaned.

"Open your eyes, beautiful! If you like somebody because of the person she is you don't want her to change. But women never marry a man. They marry a wallet which only happens to have a man attached. Only after a woman has her hands on the loot, does she remember to take a hard look at the man whose community property she's sunk her claws into. She's probably never even thought about his looks before, or his personality, or whether she could tolerate his human habits. A husband might as well be something that a woman pulls out of a grab bag for all the study she's put into him beforehand.

"Her thinking is, 'What do you do with this booby prize?' Well, you try to find a use for it -- usually something that was never intended by the manufacturer. The day that a man can't serve the function that his wife has created for him without his consultation, he goes out with the trash while his house and money stays with her."

Another good Rod-type question was: "Why are men such jerks about sex?"

I threw up my hands; the man could be so dense! "You'd be a jerk, too," I let it be known, "if it was left to you to do all the work that goes into initiating and building a relationship from the ground up! If you're a woman you only have to sit back and rate your suitor's performance; if a man makes one misstep, or tries to angle a little pleasure exchange for all the bankrolling and ego-stroking that's being expected of him, he's suddenly considered a jerk."

"Am I a jerk?" Rod asked all of a sudden.

"You've got your good points," I assured him.

******

"Hypersensitivity and political correctness are signs of a society in which too many people have nothing serious to do. Playing Gestapo with the words and deeds of simple social interrelationships makes a bland and sour society, full of rancor but devoid of spirit."

M.B. Watson, Los Angeles Times, 2006


Chapter 8

But understanding the deplorable state of male-female relations was a far cry from being able to do anything about them. I didn't even try, there was so much else going on.

The association members made up some great posters for our shame-campaign against the Sallys. The most effective one that we concocted was a picture of the doe-eye girl smiling shyly at the camera at her ingenue party juxtaposed against a close-up of the battered woman.

"This is the Progress you stand for!" the sign said. It was crucial at this stage that we tar the status quo with the stigma of both physical and psychological brutality. This wasn't a new strategy, and we surely hadn't invented it, but history had proven it an effective means of propaganda.

If the truth be told, I could be detached, even cynical about launching what was essentially a campaign of half-truths. That was one way you moved society; that was the way that a long campaign of lies beginning in the 60's had convinced average Americans that their country was a monstrosity that could only be reformed by putting into power people who hated both it and them. What we Tiresians were confronting was an entrenched set of assumptions born of an anti-Western, anti-religious social revolution.

By means of media propaganda, politicized public education, and block-vote manipulation, a faddish political and social doctrine had been enshrined into everyday life. Constitutional law, which should have protected society against centralized rule, had been rendered impotent through spurious and fatuous interpretation. America's authoritarian masters usually operated subtlely, only occasionally demonstrating who was boss by means of police-terror -- such as the notorious attacks against Christian communities and gun owners beginning in the 'Nineties. The PC masters reserved the right to call anyone they didn't like a "cultist" or a "fascist" and when that happened the tanks and incendiary bombs were never far behind.

The radicals had won the high ground of moral superiority by treating complex social issues as stark White Hat-Black Hat affairs. It has nothing to do with truth, but in the war of persuasion it is a good route to go. In effect, we had to offer the repellent Jesse as the defining face of the whole establishment. Hopefully the unique conditions of Tiresias would render the keepers of the faith so disoriented that we could arm-twist them into some change for the better.

Knowing what we were about, we of the association steeled our stomachs. After all, no revolution can get off the ground if it lets itself be embarrassed by its own tactics, and it was them, not us, who had for so long operated on the principle of the end justifying the means. Still, aware of the dangers in stirring up heated passions, I tried to impress moderation upon some of the more excitable association women, such as Andrea. No matter what we said for public consumption, we had to keep ourselves grounded in reality.

To my mind, taking an extreme stance prior to sitting down to negotiate is a necessary evil, though one runs the risk of starting to believe one's own rhetoric, as happened in the various civil rights movements of the last century. An immoderate starting position can easily decay into an uncompromising doctrine, especially if it doesn't meet with a revolution's best friend -- namely heavy and effective opposition -- so that real compromise is forced upon revolutionary leaders, who in turned are kept from acquiring overweening pride. American society had opted to understand instead of fight its radicals, so it was rolled by a small elite of chest-beaters who never had the support to win in a real fight.

Bad things happen when any movement's leaders get too full of themselves. If such gain power, the revolution takes on the trappings of permanence, though it already has become an empty shell to be co-opted by infiltrators from the System. That's how the party of the Ku Klux Klan overnight became the party of civil rights without changing its discriminatory outlook or coercive tactics.
We Tiresians were a long way from being co-opted, though, so I didn't immediately fear becoming a limousine revolutionary overseeing a government program with a cellular phone in my taxpayer-provided car. (And may I be dead before that day comes!)

Besides my work with the association, I occupied myself teaching Billie to read and write. I enjoyed these sessions owing to the Virginian's convivial charm. The girl was no airhead either, I found out, though she tended to be reticent about broadcasting those things which she could do well. I found it hard to imagine the mild and agreeable Billie as a prison guard but, in fact, she worked closely with Andrea in Cell Block C.

Besides a knack for entertaining, Billie had a surprising aptitude for language; she had picked up a good command of Spanish and even some passable Chinese just by growing up on the edge of poor immigrant neighborhoods. It was especially hard to think of Billie as a prison guard after seeing her famous "maid pictures." Here's one of them. Who ever said that "good help is hard to find"?
Gregarious to a fault, Billie had mingled with foreign-born neighbors and had often helped them to get along. The boy's interpreting skills had been especially helpful when his immigrant friends had to deal with the brusque personnel of government agencies -- reptilian men and women suspicious of all who came before them and who spoke only a thick dialect of bureaucratese -- and that only between the hours of nine and five-thirty.

Billie's noteworthy antics on Tiresias had surely been the actions of a person with a low sense of self-worth trying to get her fair share of attention in spite of many handicaps. She instinctively employed every asset she could muster, especially her easy charm and good looks.

The golden-maned girl was learning to read and write at a pace that I would not have predicted at the outset. It was a terrible indictment of our educational system (and the over-paid posers who benefited from it) that it had so utterly failed to educate one as bright and eager to learn as William Walters.

About that time, and much to my dismay, Jordana composed a humorous fight-song that made me look like some kind of hero. This was no cross I wanted to bear; maybe Stonewall Jackson could go all the way to the grave and never let his friends down, but I was just simple Aaron Carter -- and sooner or later I was going to fall on my face. A hero falls heavily, and hurts more people when he does.

Even so, Jordana was a good chum and I never doubted that her intentions were among the best.

Her song went:

Come all you proud women and open your ears
Of Jake and his bullies you quickly shall hear.
They went to a party, but came not to dine,
They came to bash Charlie and keep her in line!
All rowdy, all shouting, and giving the yell,
Like so many demons just burst out of hell,
The gang was all drunken on power and wine,
They came to bash Charlie and keep her in line!
They came to bash Charlie, they came not to pay,
But bold Erin Carter stepped into their way;
Their faces turned purple, their blue tongues stuck out;
They discovered in time just what Charlie's about.
All rowdy, all shouting and giving the yell,
Like so many demons just burst out of hell,
The gang was all drunken on power and wine,
They came to bash Charlie and keep her in line!
They came to bash Charlie, but dared not to stay,
Buck Channey learned Erin was heading his way,
He saw her eyes flashing and took such a fright;
He ducked in the toilet to get out of sight!
Oh, Carter's a fighter and everyone's friend,
Yet woe to the Sally who tries to offend;
She takes what they dish out and serves them back more,
But for good folks there's never a bolt on her door!

#

Whenever any Tiresian officers went back to Earth at the end of their tours, new personnel were sent over for the first time. -- That had always been the case, but now there was a difference: the rights association was providing an unofficial welcoming committee for new Charlies. I went along with the first delegation myself, to find out whether the new committee would turn out to be as good an idea in practice as it sounded in theory.

Remembering my own strange state of mind that first day, I knew it would not do to put any additional strain upon newcomers. I knew, too, that we shouldn't come off as seeming excessively political, nor make the association sound like a coercive outfit that expected everyone to join.

So, we delegates agreed to keep the meetings short, friendly, and to avoid specifics except to answer questions which might occur spontaneously to a new arrival. After all, there was much that should rightly be left to a person's roommate/counselor. Allie had done a pretty good job with me.

My spiel to each new Charlie went like this: "Turning into a woman isn't easy to adjust to, but we've all been through it and it's really not an all-negative experience. We've found that the main problem on Tiresias is that sometimes the system doesn't treat us very well and we're doing all we can to peacefully change that. There are times that you're going to feel alone, but you don't have to; company and advice are only a phone call away. -- And we're starting some hobby groups and sports clubs for people who like that sort of thing. On the other hand, if you want privacy, you can have privacy."

That was about it. We ended each session by passing along some phone numbers.

One of the new Charlies was not a correctional officer at all, but an anthropologist named Lyle Rudensky. The prison required a team of trained ethnological scientists for dealing with the aborigines, but few officers had direct contact with such people. Dr. Steven Donnalyn had for the last couple years headed the detail, normally aided by two or three assistants. But one by one these associates had been reassigned back to Earth, there to assist the human studies department of Duke University, which was preparing a major expedition to Tiresias. To replace Donnalyn's staffer in the interim, the correctional office had recruited a promising graduate student, Lyle, who was then working on his doctorate in the Shantee language, the tongue spoken by natives living in the vicinity of the penitentiary.

Normally, Lyle would have been oriented by a Charlie from her own special detail, but Dr. Donnalyn, now running the office alone, was a self-involved prig who couldn't bother himself with "little people." So Billie Walters had been asked to become Lyle's roommate/counselor.

I thought it amusing that a staid young academic had to be paired up with a fun-loving eccentric who, through no fault of her own, was so ill-educated; yet, as it developed, the two of them got along fine. In fact, because Lyle was lacking in social graces the outgoing Billie was exactly what she needed to acclimate herself into our peculiar little community. And given Billie's interest in learning new languages, the match was an inspired one. No chance that anyone on high had planned it though, unless we include God. Anything good that comes from a bureaucracy has to be accidental.

About twenty-five years old, Lyle was tall for a girl and thin with pale, translucent skin. I suspected that she would respond to a makeover very well, but her self-conscious movements and her too-large, precariously-balanced glasses gave the impression of ungainliness. According to Hollywood, any nerdy girl in unbecoming clothes and a frumpish hairstyle will always turn into a raving beauty with the doffing of her glasses and the unbinding of her do. I didn't necessarily believe it, but did think that Lyle had potential. When the next ingenue party came along I would be watching to see what Lyle Rudensky. looked like after Billie had worked a little cosmetological magic upon her.

#

I began my first menstrual period the same night I met Lyle. Allie, coming home and finding me in a funk and reading the instructions on the back of a box of tampons took charge and did her best to talk me through my ordeal. She even made an effort not to enjoy my suffering too much.

Fortunately I was myself again when the expected party took place. I arrived wearing my white dress again -- having taken the government up on its half-price offer. A month ago it would have been hard to believe I could see putting a hard-earned nickel into it, but I was no stay-at-home and a person needed something to wear for those special occasions. What's more, as chairman -- chairperson -- of the Rights Association, I had to maintain a confident public profile. -- And you've got to be damned confident if you're going to wear that little number.

Andrea showed up, despite the hard time that the last party had put her through. She had guts, and from the way she was looking at some of the Sallys, I thought it best if none of them found himself alone with her in the dark. Jake and his boys were on hand, too, but this time seemed a little subdued -- which was all to the good.

Andrea always looked damned impressive in uniform. She was one angry lady all the time I knew her and I sometimes wonder whether she ever put her revolutionary zeal to good use after she went back home Jesse, I noted, didn't show up at all, though Christy attended the party accompanied by Jordana, who had taken her under her wing since her release from the infirmary. She still wore some bandages and scabs and off-color bruises still showed. It took courage to go public looking like that, but Christy's appearance was calculated to send out a message -- that physical coercion was not going to break the spirit of the Tiresian women, not even the meekest of us.

I danced with Rod often that night, most of the Sallys having become guardedly polite but standoffish toward me. Maybe I really had earned the reputation of being a ball-buster! That was regrettable, but the party was meant for the new people, not us old-timers and so I tried to introduce the ingenues to as many genial people as I could.

Mort had christened Lyle Rudensky as "Lila" and Billie had introduced her to several of her Sally friends, one which she eventually asked to join her for the vid showing. In her short, misty-blue party dress, I was amazed to see how much the tall, slim Lila looked like a Parisian fashion model. She even had the small breasts common to the denizens of haute culture.

When I had first come to Tiresias, I had envied the Charlies with flat chests, but by now I actually felt sorry for girls who had been "shorted" by Nature. My own thoughts surprised me and I thought that I must have been getting vain, since I knew of no practical use for my more womanly figure.

The movie that wound down the night was porn just like the last one, but it had nothing to do with Tiresias; "Bad Babes" it was called. One of the ingenue Sallys asked me to adorn his lap during the showing. I hadn't expected this, and I didn't really want to be torn away from the deep conversation that I was having with Rod, but I couldn't hurt an innocent man's feeling nor break the community tradition by refusing.

Anyway, the guy must have thought I was pretty.

#

The next day brought news of community-wide importance. Dr. Trent had gone into labor.

All the gossip for the rest of the day was about Dr. Trent; then in the late afternoon the word came that Gabrielle had given birth to a strong, healthy baby daughter and that the mother was alert and doing well. A cheer went up all over the office.

I reflected on the event; it was an astonishing thing, really. Less than a year ago Dr. Trent had been a man who was hoping to be a father. Tonight he -- she -- had given a new human life into the world -- and from out of her own being. There was an awesomeness to it that gave me pause.

Amazing to tell, Gabrielle was already back in her apartment by noon of the next day. Rod, Dori, and I went over to pay our respects and to see the baby. Even if it were only for the benefit of his book and not for the fact that he and the doctor were already friends, this was one call that Rod could hardly have failed to make.

Gabrielle's small apartment was full of baby things now -- most of them still not removed from their storage boxes. The greater part of her tour was already over, but a year's extension had been approved and I understood that the doctor would have six months unpaid maternity leave and then function in a part-time and advisory capacity at reduced pay until the end of her second tour. It seemed that the surgeon had sufficient private resources to make this arrangement palatable.

"A baby does best if he has a mother's attention for as long as possible," Gabrielle explained. "It was good of Warden Gershom to approve my extension, especially since I'm not going to be able to give my job anything like my full attention anymore." That the warden had done right by Dr. Trent was something in his favor, I granted, but otherwise the Sally's acts, both of omission and commission, had usually been hard on the Charlies' morale.

"Who's going to baby sit?" asked Dori.

Gabrielle blinked bemusedly. "It's strange," she replied, "I bought nearly every baby thing I could find in the catalog before I left Earth, but neither then nor anytime afterwards did I give a single thought to who I'd find to take some of the burden off me. Maybe it never occurred to me that a baby who's really wanted might be a burden."

"Don't worry, Doc; I've got two kids," offered Dori. "I think I can take care of your little girl when you need a breather without breaking her."

"If only you could!" the new mother replied gratefully.

I was elated to hear that Dr. Trent would remain part of our little community during the whole of my exile upon Tiresias. I liked her and realized that in the weeks and months to follow my other Charlie friends would be leaving one by one.

But it was not easy to think of Dr. Trent as merely a Charlie now; it was as if she had undergone some arcane rite of passage and had emerged ennobled in some way -- that she had become a real woman amid the flock of us sorry make-believes.

"What are you going to name her, Gabrielle?" I asked.

"Eva. That's her mother's name. I'm going to call him Evan when he's a boy."

It was disconcerting to be reminded that Dr. Trent was, biologically speaking, the father of the infant. I also found it disconcerting that she instinctively thought of the tiny girl as her son, not her daughter.

Boy or girl, she's lucky to have a parent like Dr. Trent.

Rod stepped closer. "May I hold her, Gabrielle?" Consenting without words, the woman carefully passed her blanket-wrapped bundle to the journalist's arms. Rod held Eva like, I noted, a woman would.

"I'm glad I was on Tiresias at the right time to see this," he remarked, rocking the infant. Then he looked across to me. "Erin? Would you like to hold her?" We both glanced to the mother for permission and Trent nodded.

I took the child with the same care I would have afforded a loaded and cocked .45. I couldn't manage to cradle her exactly like Rod had, but without starting Eva crying, I successfully clutched her. Gazing down into that miniature face many stark impressions whirled dizzily through my mind -- like the birds on the turning mobile that Gabrielle had already erected above the baby's crib.

The newborn was surely no beauty, except for those striking eyes that were so much like her "father's." Otherwise Eva looked wrinkly, flushed, and pinched -- just as, I suppose, all day-old babies do. The tyke yawned as I held her, an action that reminded me of a monkey in a zoo.

But to feel the weight of her (and she was heavier than I expected), to experience the reality of her, was something to give one moment. Getting pregnant was not for me, but knowing and respecting Dr. Trent the way I did my thoughts on the subject were no longer simple. This child, in a strange way, represented the incredible new world of possibilities of which I was now part -- whether I liked it or not.

I looked to Dr. Trent, who had never taken her eyes off her child. How different her life would be from here on because of this birth, I realized.

-- And the incredible possibilities! If this child lived and had children of her own, and then they had children, too -- ad infinitum -- the issue of Dr. Trent would, in the course of generations, number in the many thousands. Each of them would be a person who never would have lived without a strange and courageous act on the part of a man named Trent. They would take the place of people who would have been born otherwise and by their numbers the world itself would be transformed, made-over into something that it could not have been had Gabriel Trent never lived.

I glanced across at the physician in a new light. Dr. Trent was making himself forever part of the future by the simple act of parenting, and would continue to do so perhaps to the very end of the human race. This was true of every fortunate parent, naturally, but how much more starkly the cosmic significance of it registered upon one's mind when he was allowed to think in terms of archetypes. I remembered all those Madonna-and-Child stamps the post office puts out in the Christmas season and grasped for the first time what a powerful and universal symbol they represented.

I soon passed the child back to Gabrielle and she regarded her baby's face as if seeing it for the first time -- though I doubted she had ever taken her eyes off it for more than a few minutes since leaving the infirmary.

"This planet made a miracle," Dr. Trent whispered as tears -- of humility and awe, I think -- rolled down her cheeks and she pressed the cooing infant to her breast. "I love this world," she murmured, but I couldn't tell whether she was speaking to us visitors, or to some entity much greater than any of us will ever be.

*****

"The ruling class of America, that mix of political, medial, academic, and financial people who occupy the 7000 significant positions of power, holds a number of false beliefs. Unless these beliefs are corrected, or the ruling class is refreshed by a revolt from below, the United States is finished."

The Ruling Class, Karen Pinkerton, 2014

Chapter 9

I was taking dinner with Mickie and Jordana when Billie and Lila came into the cafeteria a week later. Billie, being Billie, had on a low-cut white blouse, a mini-skirt, and high heels. Lila had clearly chosen her own clothes, since she was wearing a wine-colored pants suit which she had had the foresight to bring from home.

The young scholar was squinting right and left as she crossed the dining room, the fashion-conscious Billie having advised her to keep the unflattering eye wear out of sight even though her new spectacles were not yet ready. In fact, I understood that Lila was expected to return to Earth for laser surgery to cure her hyperopia; she had a phobia against contact lenses and wearing glasses on Tiresias would make her a curiosity to the tribesmen she intended to study.

Here's Lila Rudensky without her glasses. While her choice of clothes wasn't at all bad, Lila somehow always managed to look awkward. Well, not quite always. Not in the insert above, at least.
As I waved Billie and her roommate over, I noticed that Lyle had misjudged her size as a woman and her overly-long pants legs were slipping under her heels. Before I could warn her she stumbled against a man standing in the lunch line.

It was taken at her ingenue party and shows her in the make-up a wig that Billie came up with. I worry about any woman as cute as hervisiting barbarian Tiresias If I were a Tiresian warrior male I'd throw her over my shoulder the first chance I got and carry her off to my teepee.

Lila, as I've mentioned, was far from the most coordinated person on the planet. When the pair had gotten their dinner and joined us, Lila bumped her chair against the leg of our table, which scrambled what was left of our meal. A moment later, being introduced to Mickie and extending a handshake, she knocked over a paper cup of soft drink with her too-long sleeve.

The disruption notwithstanding, we wished to welcome Lila into our odd little community as warmly as possible. She was, as we'd suspected, rather isolated in her own department with no one but the self-absorbed Dr. Donnalyn for company. The disorientation and strangeness of life on Tiresias could be a deadly thing at times; loneliness had lured Christy into a bad mistake and none of us wanted the same thing to happen to any other Charlie.

The young linguist seemed ill at ease as, indeed, she always had during our earlier meetings. Very probably us working stiffs were not Lyle Rudensky's accustomed company. Lyle had bought into the social system without apparently noticing how much it disadvantaged him. As with most egalitarians, class distinction was the be all and end all.

Fortunately, like most intellectuals Lila craved an audience and we found that playing to that trait was the best way to help her to relax. Whenever we got the slim brunette talking about any of her favorite subjects she became lively and animated. -- And, in fact, what she had to tell us was seldom uninteresting.

"I've wondered why we don't have a company of marines here," remarked Mickie. "We're just a little island of civilization in a sea of warlike barbarians."

"Attack is always a possibility," the linguist was saying, "but a remote one. Your guards are drilled in using military weaponry, should the need arise. That makes each of you worth twenty to a hundred barbarian warriors. Anyway, troops could be sent across from Earth at short notice."

What kind of planning was that? I wondered. I couldn't imagine a company of marines jumping into womanhood on the run and getting into the breech. In fact, they'd probably strain their backs trying to lift their basic equipment, much less move at more than a stumble in over-sized boots. Any scheme so idiotic could only come out of government.

"I remember the training I got when I first arrived," put in Billie uncertainly. "It's like a fire drill; they make you do it once and by the time there's a fire you can't remember the way out anymore. Anyway, my trainer said that I was good with an M76!"

So, the vivacious blonde had another talent that I hadn't suspected -- weapons proficiency. I felt a bit envious; the clerical staff hadn't received any such training.

"I've never been trained," I said.

Billie shrugged. "Budget cuts."

"The prison is built in a backward, low-population area," Lila assured us. "Primitive people are usually friendly to strangers, provided they're shown strength but not aggressiveness. Mountain men used to travel among the Indians all their lives -- and Jim Bridger lived to be seventy-seven.

"What the Indian traders did in the American West, we're trying to do here -- a non-judgmental appreciation of aboriginal cultures: learn the local languages, treat the people with respect, and provide a market for their trade goods. In fact, trading helps to defray some of our expenses; museums still pay well for Tiresian artifacts."

I silently chuckled at the very idea of old Jim Bridger filling in some band of craggy frontiersmen about his "non-judgmental appreciation of the Shoshones' aboriginal culture."

"But there are cities on this world, too," I reminded her.

"Oh, yes. They're on the level of the Bronze Age of Earth and are actually quite impressive. I'd give anything to visit one of them; it would be like stepping into ancient Antioch or Mycenae. We're making aerial surveys of the closest of these city states from Base Gephardt."

"I wonder what the natives think when they see a helicopter," grinned Jordana.

I had read about Base Gephardt -- another major "punch" site for two-way traffic between Earth and Tiresias. Unlike the penitentiary, Base Gephardt was strictly scientific in its purpose. There also were nonspecific reports of other, smaller "crossing points" around the planet. Some good work was being done by foreign institutions, too.

"Gephardt? That's a new word," murmured Billie. "What does it mean?"

"It's the Tiresian god of greed and destruction," I quipped.

Lila, somewhat short in the humor department, gave me an annoyed glance and cleared up the matter factually: "Speaker of the House Gephardt led the fight to get funding for the exploration base; he put a tax on RV's to support it. Duke University honored his patronage by naming it after him."

Ugly names and crass political patronage aside, Tiresias was a fascinating place for many reasons.

The planet's fauna was exceedingly rich, and a large portion of its animal species appeared to be the same as, or merely minor departures from, Pliocene mammals of prehistoric Earth. It was as if the biology of the two worlds had run in close parallel until recent geological history, after which the worlds for some reason went their own different ways. In fact, the shapes of the continents were so close that it took a minute examination to see basic discrepancies.

The reasons why some beasts became extinct on Earth while they survived on Tiresias were not at all apparent, except that Tiresias seemed not to have had any Pleistocene glaciation. Perhaps the Ice Age had forced evolutionary changes in wildlife that only had proven to be a detriment to them after warm weather had returned.

But the survival of ancient mammals on a neighboring world excited the world's zoological gardens, which were bidding competitively for specimens. Zoo teams had come across, too, but care had to be taken when transferring animal life back and forth between planes of reality. Who could say that dangerous microbes might not be transferred with them which would devastate Earth animal populations, or even people?

So far, though, no new diseases had been spread via transdimensional exchange, which was very strange. Some studies seemed to indicate that virulent new cultures often translated into commonplace ones during the transfer process. Even so, extreme care continued to be taken lest a Tiresian plague sweep unchecked across the Earth, or vice versa. Like so many other bureaucracies, the United States Center for Disease Control had its thumb in the Tiresian pie, but actually, if they knew their stuff, which was questionable, the USCDC's contribution could potentially be the most useful.

The entire subject of xeno-exploration was extremely exciting. If only I could be one of those few who "boldly go where no man has gone before, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations." How I envied what shy, clumsy Lila Rudensky was about to do. But where was my opportunity? I had been born in a country too wracked with social and economical ills for all but a few to realize their career ambitions.

Despite our talk about inter-dimensional diseases, Lila seemed more interested in another kind of contamination -- repeatedly calling to mind the lengths to which official policy went to avoid passing on Earth-specific knowledge, and particularly American traditions, to the natives of Tiresias. Clearly she was parroting the accepted cant, never having been trained to thinking deeply in any independent fashion.

I could guess the attitude of her instructors. Everything about a new culture was wonderful and exciting, while everything about Western Civilization was decadent and corrupting. I recalled a line from "The Mikado": -- "the idiot to praises with enthusiastic tone, every century but this, and every country but his own."

But it was just as well that government policy was what it was. Even if their intention was to protect aboriginal innocence from Voltaire and Charles Dickens, in doing so, they were also protecting the Tiresians from their own civilization-killing ethos. That would change, though, as soon as somebody in power found a way to profit by Tiresias' "deconstruction."

Next thing I knew Lila was describing a captive woman chaining and tattooing ritual.

"It really sounds like they treat women rough on this planet!" Billie observed when Lila described how the proudest act of Tiresian manhood was to kidnap an enemy's woman, tame her with the whip, and then, marked as property, chained, and collared, they were trained to cook, clean, make love, and dance.

"It's a paternalistic culture," Lila replied matter-of-factly, even though it would send any of her teachers into paroxysms if any of the same barbarian customs were practiced in the United States in the Old South, or even the more abhorred 1950's. But all was peachy as far as the morally-exalted were concerned. I didn't blame Lila, though; she was an intellectual and so didn't know better.

"Woman-stealing makes sense among primitive people," the young anthropologist was saying. "It keeps the gene pool stirred.
-- But you're right, Billie, you shouldn't go outside these walls under any circumstances. You'd probably be considered by the locals what they call 'na sheri tigi' -- 'prime slave meat.'"

"I'm not the one who's going out there," Billie reminded her pointedly. "You are."

The scholar fell silent. Billie wasn't always brilliant, but sometimes her insights were right on the money. Work on Tiresias might be a wise career move -- but only if a man was willing to risk ending his days as a barbarian dancing girl.

No matter how Tiresias-themed movies start out, they all seem to end up the same way. I found this still in a movie-news zine, but I can't remember the title. It doesn't matter; they're all alike. Anyway, even people with only a government-school education should be able to appreciate a picture like this..
#

On Friday night my roommate popped in carrying Rod's camera and a brown paper bag -- but what struck me at once was the mischief in her blue eyes.

"What's the camera for?" I asked, looking up from my library book.

"I want to take some pictures of myself!" Allie chirped. "Will you help me out?"

"Sure." I sat up, pitched the book aside and reached for the camera.

"Not yet! Let me put on something sexy."

"What kind of pictures are they going to be?" I asked suspiciously.

"Lingerie, bikini shots. My tour is up in less than three months and I want to have something to remember this planet by."

"Allie, I thought you'd be the last person who'd ever want to be photographed again."

"Oh, Erin, those trading cards were dirty-minded and sick! This is going to be fun.'

"Different strokes for different folks."

"You know," she went on, "I was thinking that maybe I'll become my own favorite pin-up girl! 'Who's that hot chick on your desk, Alex?' she said, mimicking a man's voice. 'She's a real turn-on! Where can I find a babe that hot?!'"

"All right, I'll photograph you, if that's what you really want, but isn't the backdrop here pretty grungy?"

"That doesn't matter! A good paint program'll plug in any sort of background you click on -- a beach, a boudoir, a Wild West saloon -- anything. Say, do you think I could make a convincing saloon girl?" She held up a modern version of a sassy Victorian bustier.

"Is that what you have in the bag? Costumes?"

"Yeah! I don't have a lot of lingerie of my own, so I borrowed what I could from the other girls. Billie has a pile of stuff; guys give her a lot."

"That's our darling Billie. Did she loan you the French maid costume, too?"

"Oh, jeez! I forgot to ask!"

"You're getting weird, Allie."

"Oh, well, I've got plenty of other things. Maybe later."

For the next couple hours I was able to live out a personal fantasy of mine -- being the man behind the camera of a girlie magazine. Unfortunately, the girl in front of the camera wasn't a real girl, and the man behind the camera wasn't really a man.

But Allie did after all look like a girl of a very superior issue. I snapped her in baby dolls and then in garter belts, bustiers, and camis, in teddies and briefers, in bras, panties, and bikinis. She started getting carried away and before long she had me photographing her with her bra almost off, then completely off, her panties gradually rolled down to the last modicum of modesty, then shed entirely. My roommie sure looked cute nude in pigtails and hugging that borrowed teddy bear.

If the shots turned out well enough she might even make some money by selling them to a magazine. Sometimes serials like Ruby or Gentlemen's Agreement ran photo features of gorgeous Charlies along with their regular fare of all-girl models. In fact, I had seen one pictorial entitled "The Girls of Tiresias" that had come out almost a year before my planet fall, and so none of my current friends had appeared in it. I wondered, though, whether Allie might show up in some future issue; a man has to earn his bread somehow, considering the dismal state of the economy.

Allie then fell back on the bed, tired out. "I guess that's enough for me," she panted. "I wonder what my grandchildren will think when I show them those pictures someday."

"I just hope you wait until they're over eighteen!"

Her rippling laugh hardly sounded grandfatherly. "Say, Erin, why don't you let me take your picture, too, now that we've got all this stuff here?"

"Me? I don't think so."

"Come on, A.C, be a sport. You'll probably want to do it before you leave anyway. When will you have a better chance?"

"No way!"

About fifteen minutes later I was wearing a purple bikini, holding a beach ball, and imagining being on an Acapulco beach. Allie had always had a knack for talking me into doing the silliest things!

Once I'd overcome my initial reluctance, I actually had a lot of fun with the picture shoot. With Allie's help I went through many changes of hairstyle, makeup and outfits. Allie's enthusiasm proved infectious and my Svengali roommate even coaxed me into a blue bustier to become an Old West Saloon Girl. All I can say is that if women insist on wearing the clothes they do for fun and frolic, they don't have the right to sue anybody for sexual harassment.

Eventually, just as worn out as Allie, I collapsed into bed. My roommie sat downn beside me wearing only panties and a flower-printed cami, looking so delectable that I couldn't help thinking, "If only I were a man and she wasn't."

"You're incredible!" Allie panted through an ear-to-ear grin.

"You are," she whipsered, laying her hand on my bare thigh and stroking it. I glanced up into her face and her smile faded like a sunlit field when a dark cloud passes over.

"Erin, I -- " she began haltingly, "I've been wanting to ask you something, but -- but no matter what it is, you have to promise me that it won't stop us from being friends."

"You sound serious," I remarked, losing my own smile. "Well, sure, I promise. I'd never want any silly little thing to come between us."

"That's good," Allie nodded, but did so in a way as to suggest that she was not wholly reassured. "I -- " she began and then halted.

She looked so serious that I found myself hoping that the question, whatever it was, would not be asked. I sensed that it was probably dynamite. Despite my misgivings, I reached out and took her hand. "What is it, Alexander?"

Calling her "Alexander" was poor calculation, since it encouraged her to swim out into hazardous waters. "I don't know how to say this, Erin," she struggled, "but -- but sometimes I get the strongest feelings -- about, well -- like asking you to -- "

I took a deep breath. I didn't want to ask, but I had to: "What, Allie?"

"-- To let me make love to you."

I sucked in a long breath.


Now she had said it; her face, though forcing a smile, was braced as if expecting pain. I don't think my own expression had changed, but I felt my discomfort keenly and my mind raced to respond.

Oh, Alexander, why did you have to ask me that?

No wonder Allie felt like coming on to me that day! Here I a Wild West getup. The backdrop, by the way, is a digital insert that my roommie added later to dress up the scene. Or maybe "dress up" is the wrong term to use. Wanna go upstairs, Cowboy?

I knew what my reply had to be, but how could I express it and still give no hurt? Allie, my best friend, had asked me something very personal, very difficult, and had rendered herself very vulnerable.

I stared at her, suddenly distracted by the fluorescent light on her amber hair. A feeling of crisis squirmed within me; it was like my best friend had just dropped the bomb that she was gay and wanted to be my lover.

But this wasn't homosexuality, not really. What was happening to Allie, I realized, was succumbing to her male persona and was seeing me, and not herself, as an attractive woman -- a woman whom she could love. What a strange thought!

"Erin?" she asked in a ragged whisper.

I was taking a long time answering, but it was because I didn't know how to frame that answer. One wrong word and our friendship would be scorched, scarred forever. We might still smile and have comradely moments afterwards, but it would never be the same. Allie was opening her heart to me, baring her soul; if I couldn't reply in a similar spirit something very precious to both of us would be lost forever.

At last I gazed directly into her eyes, as if piloting a ship through a minefield and said, "Allie, I won't be able to take very much away with me from Tiresias -- some souvenirs, some clothing, some sexy pictures, but that's about it. Except for one other thing -- something that's more important than any of that stuff. It's something so important that I don't want to leave it behind, no matter what."

"W-What do you mean, Erin?"

"Our friendship, Allie. I came here expecting a bad time and some hard knocks, but I found a best friend instead. I want to see you again when we're both back home; I want to see a lot of you. I want to be best buddies for a lifetime."

"That's what I want, too."

I squeezed her hand. "I know. But we've got to be careful or it just won't happen."

"You're mad at me!"

I winced, as if an exploding torpedo had just torn the bottom out of that ship of mine.

"No, Allie," I insisted, "I love you. I love you in almost every way that a -- human being -- can possibly love another, but we don't dare love each other -- that way."

"Why not? I love you, too!"

"Because we're living an illusion! It won't last. What we do today will be gone tomorrow, no matter how hard we try to hold on to it. But if we're not careful, it's an illusion that'll ruin things for the rest of our lives."

She didn't reply, so I hurried on.

"Allie, I could very easily make love to you; I could have a wonderful time being a lesbian, I'm sure. In fact, that's probably what I am."

"Don't make it sound that way, Erin."

"I only mean that there's no one I'd rather go to bed with than you. I know I could be gay as a girl, but -- but I could never be a gay guy. Could you?"

"No! Of course not! But it's not about being gay."

I stroked the back of her hand. "Back home we're going to be two guys again. -- That's great, but if we have sex together now, how could we ever look one another in the eye later on? All we'd feel is embarrassment. It would drive us apart. Don't you see?"

Allie bent her head and I studied her expression anxiously, afraid that I had hurt her despite my best efforts.

"Damn it, Aaron!" she said.

She had used my male name; what that meant I wasn't sure. I waited with baited breath for the other shoe to fall.

"Damn it, Aaron -- you're right!" she exclaimed.

#

She dropped back to the spare pillow and her azure irises rolled up toward the ceiling in self-censure.

"What was I thinking?!"

I sat up and looked down into her grimacing face. "You were only expressing what I've thought about doing a hundred times, Allie. You just had more nerve than I did."

"But less brains!"

I felt a surge of relief; even though I had sexually rejected her, I really dared to believe that I had saved our friendship!

I stroked her pale gold hair. "I've had sex before, Allie, but I've never had a friend like you. I'd never want to do anything to spoil what we have; I only wish that we could be the opposite sex when this is all over."

"Me, too."

"Of course," I added, "I'd want to be the man."

She perked up in surprise. "Hey, why should it be you? I want to be the man! You make a better woman than me."

I looked at her incredulously; what she was saying was so patently ridiculous that I snatched up my pillow and hit her with it. "What do you mean I make a better woman?! You've got woman written all over you!"

She took her own pillow and replied in kind. "I do not!"

"You do so!" And I hit her again.

"You're the hottest chick on the whole planet!" she laughed, smacking me in the face. "I bet you're great in bed!"

"I am not!" I yelled and the pillow fight went wild. Once we had pummeled one another for all we were worth, we fell down together, laughing hysterically, our arms wrapped around one another -- in care, in trust, and comradeship.

*****

"Corruption is like a ball of snow; once it's set rolling it's bound to increase."

From Arkansas to Washington, Gloria La Farge, 2011


Chapter 10

There really could be an upside to being a woman, (which didn't include menstruation, of course); on the other hand, some of the Sallys were finding out there could be a downside to being a man. Men needed more sex than women -- or, rather, women could sublimate their erotic drive so much easier than men; maybe it was that which had been behind my and Allie's photo session and pillow fight.

It didn't help the Sallys that so many of us Tiresian females were holding off from sex, or while not shunning it entirely were cutting back to punish piggish boyfriends -- as I had recommended the night of my ingenue party. The tension of the situation mounted but, interestingly, some of the most gonadal types like Jake and his randy pals, seemed to remain their usual steady, obnoxious selves as if nothing was happening. Go figure.

After a couple quiet weeks passed, the news came down that Jesse was being recalled to Earth to be charged with a criminal assault against a co-worker; he would be confined to quarters until then.

He should have been tried under the draconian Violence Against Women Act, which, like tax law, assumed the accused's guilt and required him to prove his innocence. The much more mild assault charges were therefore just a token gesture -- but tokenism usually went in the vanguard of real concessions, and it could have meant that our movement as a whole was making progress.
#

On Thursday night Dori and Andrea invited me to go watch a taped Falcons vs. Jets football game in the monitor room. The event came as a courtesy from the prison recreation committee and was intended for the entertainment of the staff and, after them, the prisoners. I really preferred baseball, though, and the pigskin action soon had my mind wandering.

Dori Gurtz always had a card up her sleeve since she was a damned-good amateur magician. She was also a warm, even-tempered guy always ready to leand a helping hand. We depended on her to teach us how to baby-sit for Gabrielle, since she was the only one in our immediate circle who had children back home Why would a man make a career out of the physical danger and punishment of professional football? The money? The cheerleaders? The popularity? I suddenly realized that I wasn't looking at strong men exercising a power, but desperate males trying to escape the consequences of powerlessness.

It seemed to me that to win the esteem of his parents, his community, the more attractive girls, and even of his peers, almost every boy wanted to become a pro athlete if he could. The majority of us who couldn't begin to cut it lived vicariously through the sports hero's life; everything that a young boy could do outside the realm of major league sports was considered second best.

If he performed well in school, he was just a nerd; if he excelled at the arts, he was a sissy. The lad who made the field goal was automatically a champion, while the boys who couldn't perform for the crowd were ignored.

Did such denigrated youths find power in the mere fact that they were male? Hardly. Theirs was a whole different "ball game" from their sisters'. To win esteem, a woman simply had to be what she was born, her challenge to the world being, "Take me as I am."

In contrast, a man was considered incomplete in his own being; he had to make something out of himself -- no matter what the cost to the health of his body and spirit.

Except for his money, I never envied the professional athlete. Where was the cheerleader who would tell Rocky Rhodes, a has-been at thirty-five with the knees of a geriatric: "I don't care that you'll never walk again without a cane, Rocky; any woman you marry would love to work to support you. You've got such a cute face that it curls my toes and I love your personality."

Fat chance.

The whole history of the male in society was one of his trying to get around the inescapable fact of his powerlessness. This powerlessness was deep-rooted, coming from his primordial role of defender of the group. An Achilles or Hector might be admired, but their very role of first-rank defender implied expendability. People around them could make their plans fairly certain that A and H wouldn't be around for long.

It was the male who died young in war, or came back crippled or blind. It was the male who wore the false limbs and back-braces acquired in the course of dangerous civilian work that women could disdain without approbation; it was the male who had to endure the lonely sea voyages, the treks into the mountains to trade furs with cruel savages.

There were plenty of bad men, such as the prisoners of Tiresias -- twisted products of a twisted culture, but the brute male of modern sociological fantasy, the gorilla in human mask burning and raping his way across history, had to yield to the sad reality -- that of a very vulnerable being whose capacity for self-denial and self-sacrifice bordered on the heroic. Or was it only a dysfunction -- a craving for outside approval at any price?

#

On Friday, as I did almost every day, I got together with Rod to have a few sets of love -- tennis, I mean -- while talking about his book. Neither of us owned a real tennis outfit and so we wore just T-shirts and workout shorts; it made no sense to buy expensive clothes for Tiresias that wouldn't fit us back home.

Because the employees had no special tennis court for themselves, we had to use the prisoners' during those hours when it was closed to them. Surrounded by a high wire-mesh and with plenty of tough Sally guards patrolling the vicinity, we felt safe enough, though the court abutted the recreation grounds and the prisoners were able to press up close to the wire and gawk at us. We soon learned to ignore them as we played.

Rod and I had earlier discussed the Jesse business, with Rod agreeing that the Service's decision was just a sop to the Charlies -- one which would frustrate more than satisfy.
What was more galling, we couldn't forget that Jake and the others hadn't received any discipline at all so far. -- But because rehashing so disagreeable a subject was lousing up our game, we concentrated upon the sport for the next half hour.

Once, when Rod was chasing after the ball, my attention wandered to the prisoners. Some of the inmates were pretty good-looking chicks -- especially the one wearing extra-tight, cotton-spandex shorts and a tank-top. A fetching Hispanic, her simple-but-sexy outfit emphasized her physical femaleness -- as it was intended to.

Transforming a prisoner's self-image was part of the psychological conditioning; the more our killers and thieves thought of themselves as women, the less dangerous they tended to be. Much more could have been done in this regard, I suppose, but the policy couldn't be carried too far; this was federal prison, after all, not some transvestite humiliation fantasy. This is Luis Robles, the "top con" of Tiresias prison, standing where she can watch the tennis matches. She was a bad guy with a really great body.

But I thought that I recognized the girl. That fact nagged at me until I remembered that she was the same hot tamale whose lovely butt I had seen exiting the transference chamber when I crossed over from Earth. Her Latin lips and dark liquid eyes could send shivers down a man's spine. -- I knew because despite my transformation, I wasn't totally immune to a woman's beauty. But, I reminded myself, it was foolish to think of her in that way. The femlin wouldn't have been behind the wire at all if she didn't possess the mind of a violent criminal.

#

When Rod and I called it a day as far as tennis was concerned, he continued unusually quiet and coaxed me to a spot out of sight of both guards and prisoners. This aroused my suspicions, because he'd seemed uncharacteristically preoccupied over the last few days. I'd already questioned him about it, but he'd only told me it was personal business and then, with obvious effort, he'd always act cheered up. But now that vexed look had come back in force.

"Did you want to tell me something?" I asked. Then, thinking I was being too solemn, I tried to make light of it: "It can't be another presidential scandal; you could broadcast those on Radio Free America and no one would care."

He set his face in a tight smile and shook his head. "I don't know if I should tell you what I've been researching, but you're going to be here long after I'm gone and I don't want you stumbling into trouble you could avoid. I'll be risking enough of that when I go back home and write up my "How I Spent My Summer Vacation" story for my paper.

I already knew that Rod intended to write a feature article about Tiresias prior to compiling his book, but up to now he'd never suggested it was going to be anything more than a light fluff piece for a Sunday edition.

"What kind of trouble?"

"Corruption."

"What a relief! I'd thought it might be something serious." My levity, however well-intended, was not playing well and my companion's face remained grave. "Why the gloom, Rod? Nobody cares about corruption anymore. Nothing is corrupt if you have the Washington Post and New York Times on your side."

"Maybe not."

He grew so silent that I feared he was going to chicken out of telling me after all. "Hey, come on, guy; don't be so mysterious!"

He shrugged. "I guess you already know that I talk to everybody about everything."

"Yeah -- and I'm as jealous as hell!"

He looked at me and I cursed myself. What made me say a thing so stupid? "Trash that last statement!" I said hurriedly. "I was only kidding!"

"I know," sighed Rod, letting me off the hook much too easily, I thought, consider the pleasure he took in teasing. That told me that something big was troubling him, and so I waited quietly and attentively.

"You mentioned a while back that Jake and his boys are shrugging off your association's sexual boycott as if they didn't give a damn."

"Yeah. I've figured that they were beating the meat, or maybe each other."

"It's not that simple."

This sounded interesting and so I looked him straight in the eye. "So what are they doing?"

"Prostitution; it started about the time you came three months ago."

"Hey -- ! What are you trying to say?"

He took my arm. "I guess I didn't put that very well.."

"Well, say it better, then!" I said, suppressing a laugh.

"I'm serious, Erin."

I put on an attentive face. "Okay, I'm listening."

"I've got good reason to think that one of the prisoners who came across at the same time you did has put it into operation. He -- she -- picks out the vulnerable, good-looking prisoners and beats them into compliance, or bribes them into performing for any Sally who wants to get his rocks off."

"You're talking about the guards? The administrators?"

He nodded. "Both."

This was gross! But it begged another question: "What can they bribes people with? Biscuits purloined from mess?"

"Drugs. Mostly blizzard."

I frowned; "blizzard" was an almost-untraceable synthetic drug popular with addicts back home. "That's rotten stuff," I said with a shiver.

"Yeah. The guards and administrators supply it in exchange for sex, and the cons use it to recruit more hookers. Bad- drug-reaction cases are turned over to collaborating physicians. . . ."

"Not Dr. Trent?"

He shook his head. "No. In fact, Trent got suspicious first -- about the way that some prisoners were coming in already assigned to other medics, even though as head of the department she should be deciding such things. Gabrielle put me on to the story more than a month ago. She's been as worried as all hell."

"She never let on to me."

"I asked her to keep it under her hat until she went back to Earth. It's for her own good; who can be trusted here? Even Warden Gershom has to be a suspect -- in fact, he's so fond of Jake and Company that it's hard to believe that he isn't involved up to his eyeballs. Some higher-ups have to be corrupt; the junk couldn't be phase-shifted from Earth otherwise -- if that's actually the way they're bringing it in."

"Is there another way?"

"Yes," he said with a grim nod. "We're set up here to be much more self-sufficient than most penitentiaries -- because we're so isolated. We've got a good chemical synthesis lab and that means that if some harmless-seeming chemical components are ordered in, it would only take a couple corrupt techs working nights to synthesize blizzard locally."

"The bastards!" I exclaimed. "Say, do you suppose that Gershom came across with maternity leave for Dr. Trent because he wanted to put his own department head in her place?"

Rod bit his lower lip. "I've thought about that. If the warden's involved you can bet he'd hand-pick some crony to cover things up on the medical end. In fact, it's a better way than simply getting rid of Trent by refusing her a second tour. If she up and left, the U.S.C.S. would pick a new department head from outside -- one who might turn out to be just as incorruptible. As is, Gershom is allowed to pick a temporary acting head."

I waited raptly for him to continue.

"Well," he said at last, "I don't know a whole lot more. I'm still probing, but I don't want to get my informants into trouble by tipping off the culprits that there's an investigation going on. A lot of accidents can happen to inconvenient people way out here -- and every bureaucracy knows how to survive by cover-up."

"I also know that drug gangs can be damned mean," I muttered, suddenly concerned for my friends guarding the blocks. If one of them should find out something -- and then someone should find out that they'd found out. . . .

"It could be bad. But there's just one more thing: I do have an idea which inmate started the balling rolling. You've seen her," he concluded.

"Who?"

"That Latin girl, the one watching us play tennis today."

"The banana republic bombshell?"

"Yes, her. I've talked to my prisoner contacts, but all I know is that her name is Luis Robles and she's Columbian. The gossip says that she's an illegal whose mother sneaked into the country already pregnant to give her baby citizenship. I also gather that Luis turned pimp at the age of sixteen -- and before that he'd gotten into a lot more bad shit than anyone his age should have had time to do."

Here's a security-camera printout of Luis Robles (front row, middle), the Colombian street kid with the big ambitions. It was taken shortly before his exile to Tiresias. "I could get the details on him from the prisoner files," I offered.

"No!" Rod said with sudden, surprising sharpness. "That's the last thing I want you to do."

"Why? What kind of reporter doesn't want to know more?"

"I'm a reporter second and your friend first! Don't touch any sensitive files; the personnel records of every prisoner, guard, administrator, tech, and medic involved in this scam could have been red-flagged by now -- and your password would point them your way."

I wasn't going to be daunted so easily. "I think Mickie could find away around security systems; she's a whiz. We might find something to get the goods on the gang. In fact, any red-flagging might work against them. Any file that's gotten special treatment has to be considered as belonging to a suspect!"

"No! Absolutely not! Don't get Mickie or anyone else involved! I'm only telling you as much as I am to keep you out of trouble -- and to keep any of the other girls out of a bad fix, too, if they happen to learn something dangerous on their own and come to you for advice. I can't help taking some risk myself, but I don't want to be responsible for endangering anyone else."

I looked at him, admiring the way he was coming off like a courageous, commanding loner -- really adventure-movie stuff. "I think you're becoming a man, Rod," I observed with a wry smile.

He smiled right back. "Thanks. And may I say I've been fascinated watching you turn into a woman one inch at a time. I kind of like the sort of woman you're becoming."

I pushed him away. "Hey -- don't start talking dirty! I'm the same old lovable Joe Zilch I ever was!"

#

After talking to Rod the sky seemed to grow dark; it was like a cloud had been hung over the prison sky. Sure, I'd known that most of my superiors were S.O.B.'s, but it was much worse to find out that among them were actual criminals who could be counted on do almost anything to protect themselves against discovery. I wished I could talk about the problem with confidants, but I didn't dare involve anyone else, not even Allie.

Life on Tiresias had never been something to recommend, but this news had made it worse. And to think that just one greedy, black-haired tart had started the whole mess! -- No, I was wrong. Luis Robles was a nobody who was simply pulling the right levers in a system already poisoned. In fact, I could almost admire the way she'd managed to do so much from the very bottom of the heap.

Even so, my indignation centered on Luis even more than on Gershom and Jake. Maybe I'd seen too many Tireasias movies, but I couldn't help fantasizing about a special punishment for the prisoner who was pimping the other prisoners. It usually involved the hot little senorita being thrown over the shoulder of a Tiresian barbarian, who carried off into the wild to become the obedient slave girl 'Luisa."

As for Jake, I didn't have any particular fantasies about him -- except the one which ends with a dance finale at the end of a rope.

Fantasies aside, I didn't like the idea of Rod facing trouble alone, but drug gangs always played for keeps and only ignorance could protect an innocent bystander. If I were some plucky heroine in an adventure novel I suppose I'd snoop and pry, no matter how emphatically my guy had warned me, until I got caught by the bad guys and Rod would have to rescue me. And then there'd be a lot of shooting and -- oh, hell!

Who needs shooting, kid? Keep your mouth shut and do your job. That's how people survive in the real world.

#

After having warned me, Rod didn't volunteer any more information and he resisted my attempts to revisit the subject. His lock-jaw attitude was frustrating, but merely talking things out seemed to have relieved his anxiety. Within a couple days he was acting more like his old self.

"Allie invited me to Andrea's bikini party," Rod commented a bare week after our serious talk.

I nodded, knowing that it was the custom for a person to get a going-away party at the end of his or her tour. The most popular variety was the "bikini party," a last chance for the Charlie to "strut her stuff" and to get some mind-blowing photos of herself and her best buddies.

"I didn't know that you and Allie were such good friends," I remarked with a hint of stiffness. "Are you escorting her?"

"No. She said you were unsure about going and thought you'd be more likely to go if I escorted you."

"I wasn't unsure. -- I told her flat out that I wasn't going!"

"Why not?"

"Because she said I couldn't go if I didn't wear a bikini. Well, I don't own a bikini -- I don't have any real swimsuit of any kind! They cost too much here."

"You can borrow one."

"Where I come from you don't borrow intimate things," I fibbed. The real reason was that wearing swimsuits and lingerie in front of Allie in the privacy of my own room was one thing, but wearing a bikini outdoors for all to see was another. For Christ's sake -- under all this deceptive flesh I was still a man and I had to live with myself when this was all over.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Erin. Maybe you'll change your mind."

"Don't count on it!"

#

I was surprised and a little disappointed when Rod failed to make a date for Friday night after our Thursday get-together. Resigned to pass a quiet Friday night alone, I was reading "Riders of the Purple Sage" when the phone rang and Allie practically broad-jumped across the room to answer it.

"Yes," she replied excitedly into the receiver, "Send him up."

"You're expecting a guest?" I asked. "Are you taking a date to Andrea's party?" I knew Allie wasn't the dating type, probably because of the way that Buck had double-crossed her.

"Not exactly," she hedged.

My friend clearly wanted to play it coy, so I decided to wait her out; the mysterious Sally would arrive any second and then I could see who he was. To my surprise, Rod showed. "Look who's here!" Allie piped.

I saw them exchange knowing glances and wondered if there was something going on between the two of them. Come to think of it, Allie and Rod had been getting very chummy of late, like when she had gone to him to borrow a camera even though some of the other girls had cameras, too. Maybe Rod had offered to escort her to the party after I had refused him. -- All right, that's fair. But why hadn't Allie mentioned it? Was she feeling guilty and thought she should conceal it? But why would she feel guilty? She wouldn't -- unless she had something to feel guilty about!

"Are you here to see Allie or me?" I asked and immediately felt stupid asking two friends such a question.

"To see Allie?" Rod echoed incredulously. "No, I came because I've got a gift for you."

"For me?" I blinked, profoundly relieved.

He held out a little carton about the size of a candy box. When I took it I instantly realized that it was much too light for candy.

"It's not my birthday. It's not any holiday at all; what's the occasion?"

"It's Andrea's last night on Tiresias."

"What's that got to do with me?" As I fumbled the box open I had my answer -- it contained a leopard-spot bikini with a wrap -- one of those high-cut items with a sparing halter and practically nothing for bottoms -- a thong!

"What's this for?" I asked sourly.

"It's your outfit for the party," Rod said. "You said you didn't have a bikini of your own, so I bought you one."

I scowled. "You were in this together! What is it about seeing me naked that turns you two on so?"

"Nobody at the party is going to be naked," grinned Allie. "Anyway, wearing a bikini isn't the same as being naked. If it really bothers you, you've got a cover-up!"

"You picked it out, didn't you?" I accused my roommate.

"She didn't have to," Rod broke in. "I know my way around bikinis. I used to look pretty good in one myself, if I do say so."

I threw the suit at his smirking face. "Fine, you wear it!"

"Erin, be fair," pleaded Allie. "You never told Rod you were against wearing a bikini on principle; you just said you couldn't afford one and wouldn't stoop to borrowing. So he got one for you and it cost him a lot. You're being unreasonable."

"You could have told him the facts!" I snapped.

"I don't tell personal things about my friends!" she explained ingenuously. "Come on, be a sport; you don't want to hurt Andrea's feelings. When I told her that you were getting a bikini, she took it for granted that you'd come to the party!"

"Every time somebody tells me I have to be a sport, I end up having to do something dumber and more humiliating than the last time."

"What's the big deal, Erin? We're all going to be in bikinis."

"Except me," put in Rod.

#

Most of the girls were already at the pool when we arrived. Allie ran ahead of Rod and me, laughing, "Okay, everybody, 'Two, three, four. Tell the people what she wore!'"

They all began to sing:
"It was an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, wild leopard spot bikini,
"That she wore for the first time today!
"An itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny wild leopard spot bikini!
"So in the locker she wanted to stay!"

I wrapped my cover-up around myself and spun on my heels, declaring, "I'm out of here!" But Rod took hold of my shoulders and I could have more easily dragged a mountain. The other girls, all wearing two-piece swim wear, surrounded me.

"It was just a joke, Erin," coaxed Jordana. The others offered their own blandishments to convince me to stay. I even got a couple kisses.

"Hey, cut it out!" I rumbled. "I can't stand being kissed by men!"

"I don't know about you, baby," said Andrea, "but I'm not going to be a man until tomorrow. Come to think of it, that'll no reason to stop kissing a cute little piece like you!"

"Chill out!" Dori told everybody. "Erin's a good sport and we've picked on her enough."

"What am I supposed to do with you guys?" I complained. "Thank Heaven you only want to humiliate me, not sell me into white slavery."

This is Jordana McNallen trying hard to look sultry. She was always a good bud to me and one of the smartest people in the Association. She also played the guitar and became the poet laureate of our movement.

"The white slavery doesn't start until midnight, buttercup," Andrea teased.

They led me back to the pool chairs and, still disgruntled, I plopped down into one. Allie took a place at my lef, and Rod lat claim to the chair on the right. I adjusted my wrap to cover as much of my thighs as possible.

"Bullshit aside," grinned Andrea, "I'm awfully glad you came, Erin."

"We all are," seconded Jordana.

"You shouldn't be ashamed to let people see more of your body, Erin," Billie said. "You're beautiful."

"Don't make a federal case out of it. I'll be all right!" I scoffed grumpily as I crouched into my chair.

#

Mickie showed up just a few minutes later and, after having quickly taken stock of things, she started filling paper cups with Cool-Aid and passing them out. Considering my mood, I could have used a stiffer drink than mere grape Cool-Aid.

"I guess you're excited about going home," remarked Jordana to Andrea.

"I suppose I am. But I'm gonna to miss all of you."

"In less than a year you won't know anybody here," said Mickie.

"Jake'll still be here, I bet," Billie quipped.

The black girl laughed bitterly. "Earth doesn't have much to recommend it, but it's gotta be a better place with him/her/it over here!"

"You've got people at home?" I asked.

"I sure do, if any of them have survived the last year."

"What do you mean?" Allie asked.

I mean their neighborhoods are like war zones! Nobody dares go out after 9:00 a.m. because that's when the street gangs crawl out of bed."

"Kids their age ought to be in school!" Mickie said sternly.

"School? The only people who don't carry guns at school are the security guards. Those kids never learn to read, but, man, can they push drugs!"

Her mood turned darker still. "I've got a cousin who worked hard in class and got good marks despite everything. But when it came time for financial aids for college, she didn't qualify because her grades and discipline record showed that she wasn't "at risk." Under the system, you can't get help unless you're an illiterate troublemaker. The last I knew she was frying hamburgers at a Burger King."

"Who sets up these programs?" Billie wondered out loud.

"I don't know, but if it was the Nazi party they couldn't done it better. I get mad every time I think about what those bastards in Washington are doing to us. If a revolution ever comes, I'm gonna get me a gun an' start shooting, If it doesn't, I might as well move to some free country, like Uganda or Singapore. Hell, maybe I should take a page from your book, Erin, and start the revolution myself."

I shifted uneasily. "Shooting isn't part of my book, Andrea. The trouble with revolutions is that the people who get killed first will be the honest fools doing their duty, the soldiers and the cops on the line. The people with the power are going to hide in their bunkers until the last."

"It wouldn't be any fun to kill that kind first anyway. I want them to feel the noose tightening, like Hitler in his bunker."

"Hey, all this talk is getting heavy!" laughed Billie nervously. "Anybody want to join me in the pool?"

"I will," volunteered Rod.

Billie plummeted into the water like a playful teenager and Rod leaped after her. The driblets from his mighty dive rained down on my bare legs.

As I watched the two of them plashing around the pool my brows knitted. What was my escort doing swimming with the most beautiful girl on Tiresias? More reacting than acting, I pushed up to my feet and paced hesitantly to the diving board.

"Take your cover off and come on in!" called Rod.

"I'm not taking anything off," I yelled back as I leaped into the water, knifing down, feet-first, between the swimming twosome.

"Oh, Erin, you're so silly!" the dunked blonde admonished me.

"Will you stop making a big deal about my clothes?" I complained as I leveled off and began to float.

"It's not fair that you get to see all of us in our swimsuits and we can't see you."

"Just drop it! It's not normal to want to see me in a bathing suit" I told her sharply as Rod glided around behind me.

Suddenly my treacherous boy friend grabbed my arms, crying, "I'll hold her, Billie. You undress her!"

"You voyeuristic bastards!" I yowled as the traitorous Billie undid the ties of my wrap. Then Rod stripped the cover-up off my back and splashed out of reach as I tried to pummel him. Billie also dog-paddled away, afraid that I was going to punch her out.

Rod quickly climbed up to the tiles, holding my cover-up for all to see, like the token of a panty raid!

"Come on out, Erin. Let's see what you look like!" Jordana called.

"Not on your life, you degenerates! I'll stay in the water until it's dark!"

They all laughed until Allie scurried to the edge of the pool and yelled, "Better come out, Erin, or we'll all sing Wild Leopard Spot Bikini until you do!"

"Go to hell!"

She was as good as her threat:

"Two, three, four, stick around we'll tell you more!
"Now she's afraid to come out of the water.
"I wonder what she's going to do.
"Now she's afraid to come out of the water,
"And the poor little girl's turning blue!
"Everybody sing!"

"No! No more!" I pleaded. "I'd rather be tortured in the cellars of the National Organization of Women than hear another word!"

I swam over to the ladder and emerged dripping wet. "All right, laugh if you want to," I growled. "That's what all this is about anyway!"

"Photographs!" shouted Mickie and there was a click-click-clicking all around me; every hand seemed to have a camera in it.

Given my mood, it was a wonder that the water beading me didn't steam. Then Rod sidled over and put his arms about my waist, laughing, "Simmer down, Erin. It's just because you're always making such a big deal about women's clothes that you invite a lot of joking around."

"Yeah, sure. What's next? Anyone want me to drop my top?"

"Do your own thing, baby. We're all grown-ups here!" yelled Andrea.

I sat down, teeth gritted, but my pride prevented me from retreating back into my soaking-wet cover-up.

You look really wild in those leopard spots," observed Andrea. "Don't let the barbarians see you in that getup -- or one of them is just apt to throw Erin the Jungle Girl over his shoulder and take her off to the woods for some major whoopee!"

"Remember what Lila said about tattoos, collars, and slave dances," put in Mickie.

"You broads have been watching too many porno flicks," I grumbled. "Will you stop making me the center of attention?"

Funny thing about a bikini; after you've worn one in public for about half an hour it doesn't feel that much different from wearing bib overalls!

"She's right," agreed Allie. "We've had enough fun with poor Erin. Let's get off her back." Turning my way she said: "Would you like to take some picture of us for revenge now, roommie?"

I accepted her proffered camera. "I guess so; I can always make trading cards out of them."

"That was low," blenched Andrea, and even Allie looked pained.

******

"Love demands infinitely less than friendship."

Adventures in Contentment, William Pratt, 2003


Chapter 11

Things settled down after that; we all chatted, swam together, and then played some volleyball. Subsequent to another quick dip to cool off, we repaired to the chairs and the topic of Rod's book came up.

"When's your research going to be done?" asked Jordana.

"It's really done already," Rod said. "I mean, I'm always learning new details, but I have what I need to discuss the proposition intelligently and, anyway, my leave is almost up. I won't have a job to go home to if I stall any longer."

"Have you been stalling?" wondered Billie.

"A little," he admitted.

I hadn't realized that Rod was so close to leaving. I had nine months to go on Tiresias myself and suddenly felt very much alone.

"W-When do you go?" I asked, appalled by my telltale stumble.

"At the next big transfer. It's not scheduled yet, but will certainly be in less than a week. They have to send Jesse back and Andrea's tour is up, but they still want a few other things to come together before they pull the switch. Operating a transfer isn't cheap."

"Are -- Are you going to miss this place?" I asked haltingly.

He cast a meaningful glance my way. "Some things I'll miss very much."

"When I get back to Earth I'll want to look you up," I said carefully. "That'll be all right, won't it?"

"I'd be very sorry if you didn't."

I thought I should say something more, but no words came. Suddenly I wished that I could leave the party gracefully and go off by myself to have a proper funk.

"It's strange, but I almost regret the inevitability of becoming a woman again," the journalist remarked.

"You wouldn't regret anything if you had to put up with what we do back home," advised Dori seriously.

Rod shrugged. "I suppose that's true."

"You know," Andrea interjected, "this place has changed my head. I've seen the system with its pants down and from now on all I care about is what's good for me, my friends, and my family. If anybody says 'boo' to that, the fuckers better duck for cover!"

"You're turning into quite a revolutionary, Andrea," Dori observed.

"Damned straight!" the black girl snorted.

It was getting dark and the insects bothersome, so we started wrapping things up. I had had a good time, over all, up to the point where Rod reminded us that he'd soon be going home. That prospect bothered me more than I had ever thought possible.

#

Rod and I spent much of the weekend together without directly addressing the subject of his imminent departure or the big story he intended to break once he got there, but it finally couldn't be put off any longer.

"Erin," he suddenly said when we met in the dormitory lounge, "the word's been given. I'm leaving on Wednesday morning."

I felt a huge emptiness. I had expected at least a couple more days than that. "That's not very long," I said, trying to hold my voice steady. "You never mentioned how little time you had left until the party. Why?"

"You never asked."

I looked away.

"No, that's not what I wanted to say. What I mean is, I wasn't looking forward to leaving, not after I met you. I was trying not to think about it and I certainly didn't want to bring it up and rain on our parade.

"Yeah, we make a good team."

"And there was one other reason."

"What?"

"-- I didn't want to mention it and then find out that you didn't think that it was any big deal."

"Rod! We're better friends than that. We --" I was groping. "-- We could have given you a party."

He laughed, amazed. "I don't need a party."

"I think you should have one."

He squeezed my upper arms. "Erin, listen. I just want to spend as much time with you as possible before I go. That'll be my party."

I kept my chin up. "Sounds good. Are you free Tuesday night?"

"I didn't make any special plans. What did you have in mind?"

"I'd like to cook you a last supper."

"A last supper? Erin, that's sweet, but I'm not being executed!"

I scowled. He laughed gently.

"I'd love to taste your cooking, but you really don't have to make it sound so final."

"It won't be. I'll be seeing you once I get back to Earth. I promise." For some reason, my mind flashed back to our first meeting. "You know, I was positive that you were out to seduce me that night we met." I didn't add that I was a little disappointed that he'd never even tried. It was just like all the guys said; when a girl says "no" she really means, "maybe."

"I didn't want it that way, Erin. Making love to you would have been wrong."

"Why?"

"Because there's never been a time when it would have felt right. Maybe things would have developed that way if we only had more time; I don't know. I just hope that we'll be given another chance later."

"We never did have a chance, did we?" I said, almost indicting Fate.

"Of course we did, but we both had too much past baggage to overcome first."

I turned away again. "Why am I feeling so wasted? It's not like we ever had a lot going. We've never even kissed!"

His drew me close up against himself, forced me to face around. "We could change that, if we really wanted to."

"I suppose we could."

"When?"

"We're running out of time, so we'd better shake a leg."

"That's what I was thinking."

He drew me up against his chest; it felt strange to be engulfed by such mighty strength, but I stayed steady as he lowered his lips and I tentatively raised mine. Our mouths pressed together and for the first time his five o'clock shadow prickled my face. It felt, well, if not wrong, new, and I had a sense that an unexplored door was opening, while another was closing behind my back.

But for all its strangeness, being held in Rod's strong, commanding arms felt surprisingly right and natural.

It could be -- habit-forming.

#

Rod's impending departure and our first kiss preoccupied me afterwards and all I could think about was seeing him again. In fact, we had a date to go bowling with Jordana and a friend of hers, Mark.

Rod and I had arrived at a watershed; we no longer needed to pretend that we were meeting just to interview but could admit to one another that we simply wanted to be together. How I regretted that our relationship had moved at the pace of a glacier and that we had wasted so much valuable time. But now I didn't know whether I should go bury my head in shame or start dashing in slow motion across a field of poppies.
I made plenty of blunders at work the day following our kiss, so I wasn't too surprised when the warden called me in. But when I got close to the door, I began to wonder whether Gershom was about to lower the boom on me for creating the Tiresian Women's Rights Association. Or had he found out that I knew something about Jake's dirty, underhanded dealings? It was possible, if he had planted bugs in all the so-called "private places." I had a premonition that things would never be the same again once I got out of that office.

Warden Gershom was an overweight Sally pushing sixty. "He" had been active in the women's movement in the 'eighties and 'nineties and then moved into a cushy job in the federal bureaucracy. Affirmative action moved her up fast.

But it was hard not to show the jumpiness I felt. This -- person -- might have been a criminal -- one able to engine an unfortunate "accident" if I needed one. Behind that mild face could hide a depraved brain. I bet he'd deserve to land him behind bars himself, if there were any justice left in the world. Now I knew what it felt like to be a White House employee called into the Oval Office. Carl "Charlene" Gershom gave the impression of being smart, tough, and knowledgible. In fact, I still believe he knew everything about the dirty business going on at the prison and helped it along. I wonder how he liked having his hair fall out after "she" turned male.

"Please, sit down, Mr. Carter," he said with a pleasantness that threw me.

"Mister Carter?" I murmured.

"Yes, mister. I have very good news for you; that little matter of discipline which led to your Tiresian transfer has been resolved entirely in your favor. Leda Cavendish's complaint has been set aside as being utterly without merit."

I couldn't believe it -- and to tell the truth, I wasn't in a state which could bear many shocks.

"That's good," I muttered, somewhat dazed. -- And it was good news, no denying. Trashing that nonsensical charge would take the single black mark off my otherwise blemishless record of service.

Gershom seemed to want to say something more than he had but was taking his dear time about it.

"Do these happy circumstances have any further ramifications?" I asked.

"Indeed they do, Officer Carter. The main office agrees that it's not at all proper that you be asked to fulfill your tour of duty at this installation -- unless you absolutely want to. That means you can return to Earth immediately and you'll have a new assignment waiting when you get there. In fact, the next transfer is scheduled for Wednesday morning. You may have Tuesday off with pay to get ready, if you wish."

I was stunned. I could come away from Tiresias with a clean record and, better still, go back arm in arm with Rod! I was already starting to think of him as "Rhoda;" we'd finally be ourselves again -- and together. We could find out whether what we had as a woman and a man could survive a life lived as a man and a woman. I almost shouted, "Yes, sir, thank you, I will!"

But I was suddenly struck by a vague skepticism. As hard as I had fought to defend my good name, I had been railroaded into an ignominious exile. Why would the EEOC division of the USCS have bothered to keep my case open once I was safely out of sight and out of mind?

They probably hadn't; Gershom probably had had friends back home put pressure on both agencies to reverse judgment. For whatever reason, this "clearance" of my record was calculated to help the Service, not me.

"Shall we plan on your departure Wednesday, Officer?" Gershom pressed. He seemed as overly anxious to see the last of Aaron Carter as a kid was for Christmas to arrive. Why?

"I'd like some time to think about this, Warden, sir. -- I've made a lot of friends here and I really don't have a lot of things going back home," I ended lamely.

"Of course, Mr. Carter, if you need time. . . ." Gershom seemed bemused; I suppose that he'd expected me to leap out of the water into the bait pail.

"I think I can give you an answer by tomorrow," I suggested.

I did, but as yet I had no idea what that answer would be.

#

I wanted to talk my momentous choices over with Allie, but I didn't get the chance before Jordana called me down to the lounge to meet Mark and Rod. We all went bowling and, because Rod and I both had so much on our minds, Jordana and Mark slaughtered us in all three games. If there had been only Jordana I probably would have brought up the subject of my meeting with Gershom, but I kept mum because I didn't know Mark Norwich at all well.

After we all left the recreational area, Jordana and Mark split off while Rod and I went up to the big lounge between the men and women's dormitories. Rod had been picking up my unspoken signals that something big was on my mind and that I was anxious to talk about it.

I told him what had happened and he gave me a hug. "That's great!"

"Is it? I don't know."

His elation became bemusement. "Why? Are you having second thoughts -- about us?"

"Oh, yeah, sure I'm worried about us. But that's not what's bothering me."

"Well, then?"

"Rod, this smells bad. I've been thinking about what's behind it."

"What have you decided?"

"I'm betting that they think they can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

"How do you mean?"

"I think they're worried about the Rights Association. They're thinking that if they can get rid of its leaders it'll die off of its own accord."

"Will it?"

"I don't know, but if they're manipulating me I don't want any part of it."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I don't know. I want to go home with you, but I keep thinking about Gabrielle's baby."

"What's the baby got to do with you and me?"

"Gabrielle is a role model. She had to go through a lot to create something wonderful."

"Yes?"

"And, well, since I've been here I've created something, too. Doc's staying on Tiresias to suckle her baby; maybe my baby needs suckling just as much."

Rod looked grim, but I think he understood.

"I've gotten people's hopes up and I'd feel like a rat leaving them in the lurch," I clarified.

"What more can you do?"

"I don't know. I don't want to think that I'm indispensable. Maybe one of the other girls could do the job better than I could, but even if that's so, they'd just go after her next."

"It's not fair to take all this on yourself, Erin -- but it's just like you."

I looked up at him. Had I made him angry?

"It's why I love you so much."

"You love me?" I echoed with a quaver. But that begged another question: "Like, ah, what do you mean? What kind of love are you talking about?"

He was struggling to answer truly. "The best kind of love," he said finally. "The boy and girl kind of love."

That was mind blowing: "Is - is that right?" I stammered. "Who's the boy and who's the girl?"

"Maybe we should flip a coin."

The crazy guy! I felt like kissing him. So I did.

*Oh, baby, you've come a long way.*

#

On Tuesday morning I put in for the whole afternoon off, then went in to see Warden Gershom. There was no trouble in getting an interview. -- No trouble at all.

The old Sally listened patiently, but without a smile as I told him that Tiresias had so far been a good experience for me and I'd decided to stay for my whole tour. He seemed decidedly unenthusiastic about my enthusiasm and told me he'd keep the offer open, should I change my mind.

Rod had warned me the night before that if the Service couldn't get rid of me by playing nice-nice, they'd start riding me to force me out early. Maybe they would, but I was determined to make myself a tough burr to get rid of.

After work I went to the provisions department and picked up the food that I had ordered that morning. It cost me a lot and it exhausted my monthly allotment of special purchases, but the occasion was one that warranted a little splurging.

I carried my stuff back to the dormitory, where I bypassed my own room and went directly up to Dr. Trent's. I'd talked to her the night before and she'd given me permission to use her kitchen. I left the bags on her counter and then went to ask Allie a big favor.

"You want what?!" my friend exclaimed, her blue eyes starting.

"You heard me, damn it! Do I have to shout it down the hall?"

"Erin, are you sure? You've hardly been here three months. This is moving pretty fast. You won't be setting the record, I grant, but it's still pretty fast. You're the last person I'd have thought -- "

"All right, so I'm human after all. Are you going to let me have one?! I can pay for it." My abruptness was born out of pure embarrassment.

"Of course I'll share; I don't expect I'll have any use for them the rest of the time I'm here." Without further argument we went to her drawer and located the bottle under discussion. After explaining how I should use it she startled me with a big hug. "Go to it, gal," she whispered.

Once I had my best friend's blessing I felt worlds better. There was so much to do that I was sorry that I hadn't asked for the whole day off; we began by dismantling Allie's bed, which a housefellow on duty let us temporarily store in an equipment room. Allie promised to sign me out a small dining table while I hurried back to Dr. Trent's place.

While I puttered around in her kitchen, little Eva started crying up a storm, which sent Gabrielle hurrying to her crib. After checking her diaper and finding it dry, the doctor next unbuttoned her blouse and offered the infant a nipple, which didn't meet with her offspring's satisfaction either. So, finally, the new mother tried to calm the infant by singing lullabies and rocking her gently. Dr. Trent's voice had a lovely lilt I noticed and while I filled the little apartment with aromatic cooking odors, I listened to her singing herself breathless with such ditties as:

"There was an old woman
Who lived in Dundee,
And in her back garden
There grew a plum tree;
The plums they grew rotten
Before they grew ripe,
But she sold them quite dearly,
Three pennies a pint. . ."

I took this picture just a few weeks after using Gabrielle's kitchen. You can see that "mom" is fixing up some pasta while teaching little Eva how to cook early. I smiled grimly; there was a downside to being a mom. Eva kept up her crying jag the whole time, with only brief lulls between cranky outbreaks.

During one such respite a tired Gabrielle came into the kitchen to peer over my shoulder. "Are you finding everything?" she whispered hoarsely.

"No problem. Eva's being tough on you, isn't she, Doc?"

The physician chuckled sadly. "Last night it was like sleep-deprivation torture. Everything you read about infant care doesn't add up to one ounce of the reality; it all has to be learned by the seat of your pants." She paused briefly, then sighed, "Be very careful about what you ask for, Erin. -- You just might get it."

Her words struck me because I, too, was asking for something, and the odds were that I would get it, too. Once I had it, though, what was I going to do with it?

"Just to stay sane I'm going to have to find some quiet time," Gabrielle remarked wearily, touching her much-reduced belly, "-- especially some time to work out. I don't want Eva to be stuck with a dumpy hausfrau for a mother." I took a hard look at my companion and realized that once she'd tightened herself up, Gabrielle would have a fine figure.

But more than that, I noted that Dr. Trent had unthinkingly referred to herself as a mother and not a father.

"The association is thinking of sponsoring an aerobics class," I told her. "Dori might lead it; she's reading every exercise book in the library."

"I could use it. By the way, do you need any help in here?"

"I could use a hand chopping the onions."

"Sounds fine; I could use a good cry," Dr. Trent jested softly.

She seemed so tired that I felt sorry for her; Gabrielle was finding out the hard way how tough it was to be a single parent. But she was keeping her sense of humor and I was sure that she'd come through. All of us Charlies would feel ennobled if just one of us could prove out to be a good parent under such circumstance.

But more than that, I wanted to personally do something to help Dr. Trent succeed; maybe it was time that I learned how to baby-sit. But I couldn't start my second career that night; I had a full and pressing itinerary.

At the dining table, Dr. Trent cut the onions with the precision of a surgeon, occasionally wiping away a tear on her cuff. A saying that I had not heard since childhood suddenly came back to mind for no special reason.

To be a surgeon, one needed the eye of an eagle -- and Dr. Trent's alert and discerning eyes had impressed me from our very first meeting. The surgeon also needed the heart of a lion, and our good doctor seemed not to lack courage. And, finally, he needed one more thing, a thing which seemed especially fateful and ironic in our present circumstances.

He had to have the hands of a woman.

I squeezed Gabrielle's shoulder fondly, and she looked back wondering what had suddenly moved me.

#

Once I got back to my room loaded down with Pyrex and Tupperware, Allie did everything she could to help me get dinner laid out. While my best bud set up the service, I took a quick shower to get rid of the kitchen residue, rubbing myself down with scented soap. Afterwards, when I emerged rosy, fragrant, and well-scrubbed, she did my hair and make-up. Finally, bless her, she made herself scarce.

"I guess I can clear off a piece of floor in Dori's and Jan's room for the night."

"I owe you one, pal."

"No you don't! This will be the best piece of gossip we've had in a long time." With a wink, my roommie tucked her pillow and blanket under her arms and vanished.

*Well, Aaron, it's going to be all over the place. If you're going to have the name anyway, let's just hope to play a wild game!*

When everything seemed in order to the last detail I went down to the main lobby and waited nervously for my guest. Seeing me dressed up, everyone felt duty-bound to ask if I was expecting someone. I muttered something about dinner, feeling as awkward as a schoolgirl going to her first prom.

Then I saw him and sprang from my seat, at once regretting that I couldn't play this thing out more coolly.

"Well, look at you!" he said with a broad grin.

"Well, look at yourself!" I replied archly.

He had on his natty ingenue party suit, while I was sporting my little white dress. I had considered borrowing something which Rod hadn't seen me in before, but decided against it. -- Both of the previous two nights on which I'd worn my outfit had been good ones and if the little item was good luck I didn't want to tempt fate.

"Well, come on up," I said nervously, my tense lips almost too stiff to smile.

He took my arm. "I'd love to."

*******

"Love is the is the irresistible desire to be desired irresistibly."

Louis Ginsberg, Public address, 1968

Chapter 12

His fingers weren't cold, but as soon as he touched me I was covered with goose bumps, which must have looked horrible since I was showing so much skin. But Rod didn't seem to notice as he ushered me into the elevator and up to my door.

I put Mozart's "Serenade for Winds" into the player and served a quiet little supper. The main course was poached salmon fillets and skillet rice with shrimp. For dessert we had papaya-buttermilk smoothies. The wine was Grable's White Label, a California brand which somewhat embarrassed me despite the fact that I couldn't afford better. We didn't talk much at first; knowing we soon would have to part didn't leave much room for empty chitchat.

"I wish I could go with you," I finally said.

"You could! I'll help you pack tonight."

"Don't tempt me, Rod. I just can't. -- Does that upset you?"

"No. I understand, or I wouldn't take no for an answer. What worries me is that we're up against something so big that we won't be able to beat it."

I looked up from my plate. Was he finally going to talk about the sex-for-drugs conspiracy again? Not a good idea; the president of the Rights Association was the most likely to have her room bugged.

"I mean," Rod continued, "we're going to be two completely different people soon, doing completely different things. Maybe it won't be so bad to take the pressure off, to think things over."

Time enough for thinking later; on impulse I got up and stepped behind him. Putting my arms loosely around his neck and leaning forward I whispered into his ear: "It'll be bad."

He took my wrists and kissed them each in turn.

"Rod -- " I muttered throatily, "I've been trying for two days to think of a way to ask you -- about something -- and -- and I thought of a lot of different ways to do it. The trouble is that now that the moment's here, every way I thought of sounds absolutely amateurish and inept."

"It's nice to be amateurish about some things," he said, still holding my arms fondly.

"For Christ's sake, how can one guy ask another guy to let him make love to him without sounding gay or something?"

"What guys are you talking about?" he asked teasingly.

I pulled my hands free and rapped him on the side of the head. "I'm talking about you and me, damn it!"

He chuckled, pushed his chair away from the table, and turned.

"That would have been my first guess."

"Maybe you're not as dumb as I thought you were?"

"What made you think I was dumb?"

"I'm still a virgin, aren't I?"

He captured my right arm and swept me into his lap.

#

I thought he was going to kiss me, but instead said soberly, "Erin this is a big step. I don't think we can ever be the same two people if we do it. Are you sure you're ready?"

"No -- so don't ask me that question again!"

We sat there quietly for a moment, just looking at one another thoughtfully, before Rod said, awkwardly, "I didn't bring -- anything."

My mouth involuntarily pursed. It frustrated me that he could be so practical at a time when I was so carried away with emotion.

"I'd have been awfully disappointed if you did," I managed to reply. Obviously, if Rod had brought a condom it would have meant that I hadn't surprised him. And if my proposition was no surprise, what kind of a -- person -- did he think I was?

"Women! I'd never be able to make a bit of sense out of that if I hadn't been where you are a few times myself."

"A few times?"

"A couple times. -- Once!" he clarified.

"That's better," I said, giving him a hug. I'd hate to think that you were a loose man."

"You're doing terrible things to my self-control, Erin. I only hope you took the pill."

"I did," I answered, "-- one of Allie's." My face flushed hotly when I made my confession, and so that he couldn't see me blush I crushed my mouth against his. This time I barely noticed the texture of his face as our lips met.

"Have you ever made love to a woman?" I asked.

"Not on Tiresias."

"What the hell -- ?!"

"Take it easy, Erin, I'm only kidding."

"Okay. Okay," I murmured uneasily. "I shouldn't get so uptight."

He squeezed me again. "No, you shouldn't."

"What's up-tight is that dress!" Rod observed. "I don't know how you can breathe in it -- I don't even remember how I used to breathe in outfits like that."

"I almost can't," I sighed. "What are we going to do about it?"

He turned me around on his knee and I learned how good a former woman can be at undoing eye hooks and zippers at record speed! I let him have his fun, but pulled in the reins at the last second, not wanting my program to be spoiled. "Whoa!" I said.

"Wait? For what?"

"I want to make it perfect."

"It's a perfect now -- "

"Spoken like a man," I said, enjoying the chagrined look on his face.

"God," he said breathlessly, "it's so powerful. How do you guys ever resist it even for a second?"

"We respect our women."

"Bull!"

I pushed away and got up, holding up my unfastened dress so that he wouldn't get an eyeful. Now that he was turned on, my unexpected exit into the bathroom seemed to echo after me in a psychic scream. Well, he could chock it up to learning; he'd never understand the basics about being a man until he understood sexual frustration.

For whatever reason, it's always the woman who sets the pace and writes the meter of romance. I used to think that this was because the man needed the woman more than she needed him -- that beggars can't be choosers -- but that could hardly be true with Rod and me. I think now that it's just part of the baffling dynamics of psychology that operates automatically during male and female interaction.

I returned to the room a few minutes later fragrant with "Passion in the Dark" and wearing my little green tunic, minus its matching hair ribbon. I was hoping to look glamorous, provocative, sexy, but when I stepped into the room I felt more like an out-of-sorts plucked chicken.

Oh, God, don't let me make a hash of this.

"I don't see any foot-long gray beard," Rod teased, his glance bright.

"Don't remind me," swallowing hard. "We all say silly things sometimes. I'm trying to look like a sexpot; how am I doing?"

He stepped closer and placed his hands upon my hips. "You're doing fine, but I'm not sure I want a sexpot."

"You don't? Well then, I'm a silly goose!"

This is the nightie that the party committee gave me. Rod liked it, so I guess I have to like it, too.

"No. I think you're wonderful. In fact, I've had fantasies about you wearing that thing ever since I saw it at the party."

"Fantasies, huh? Got any others?"

Did he! He kissed me suddenly, running his hands up and down my back, and lower. I could feel his body heat right through the flimsy fabric. I couldn't help but reel; rather than let me collapse, Rob scooped me up and carried me to the bed. I hadn't expected the caveman-approach, but didn't make a fuss about it. For the first time, being in the grasp of a person much stronger than me made me feel protected instead of intimidated.

He placed my head over the pillow and eased me down to the sheets. They weren't satin, but might as well have been. "Whew! We really got here in record time. -- I'm actually not that kind of girl," I added with a twisted grin.

"Neither am I," whispered Rod while he loosened his tie and took his shirt off in the blink of an eye. I felt myself tense up and he noticed right off. "Relax, Erin," he whispered. "We can stop anytime you want."

I looked up at his lightly-furred pecs. "Oh, yeah? You'll traipse off to a cold shower if I say so?"

"If I have to."

I reached out and tugged at the dark tufts upon his chest. "You're too good to be true."

"I am. You're lucky you found me."

"I only had to go to another planet and get a sex-change."

"See? A piece of cake."

I hit him with the pillow. He scooped it out of my hand and kissed me once more. Then he eased down next to me and started fondling my breasts. I was just beginning to get into it when his fingers located the elastic band of my panties and I felt his tug.

Hey, guy! I just put that on!

I swallowed hard as Rod slipped the garment down my thighs, along my shins, and over my feet. Though I wanted to be pliant and playful, my body was stiffening like a board.

"Please, Aaron, I love you so much. Calm down; I'd never do anything to hurt you."

I nodded and closed my eyes, turning the process over to him. Suddenly, he rolled me to my face into a lovemaking position with which I was not totally unfamiliar, but it worried me a little. It's not that sauce for the goose shouldn't be sauce for the gander, but I would have appreciated a little practice with the missionary position first.

I needn't have worried, it turned out; Rod simply wanted to massage my neck and shoulders.

I needed it -- and how good it felt! But thinking ahead about my agenda, I became so anxious that all his efforts to thaw me were undone.

What is this? Am I frigid?

Get it together, Aaron! I scolded myself. My virginity? What was that? -- I'd lost it when I was seventeen and never looked back. But now, suddenly, in a strange way, both Rod and I had become virgins again. That was the miracle of this planet; what was lost was found again. Good old Tiresias!

I savored the massage -- a respite from tension was exactly what I needed. I had tried to go too far too quickly, only to discover that I wasn't as ready as I had supposed. I hoped that my boyfriend wouldn't think that I was some kind of a jerk.

But then I relaxed; no need to fear. Women are never jerks, no matter how inept they may be when making love, no matter how catastrophically they may fail, no matter how close they get to the payoff before they chicken out.

I tried to remember exactly what I would have wanted a nervous virgin to do back when I had been a man and decided that the best thing was to let Rod take charge, to lead me through this jungle of passion at his own speed. In fact, his massage had made me feel so buttery that he could have done just about anything he wished at that moment and would have gotten no complaint.

What he did was turn me over and draw my tunic down to my elbows, then pressed his face into my breasts to lip-nibble them. When I felt the tickle and the moist warmth I thanked my lucky stars that Rod wasn't all knotted up with jitters.

Make a note, Erin: confident guys are fun!

I heard someone moaning and didn't immediately realize that it was me. Rod gave a soft laugh and I tensed again, afraid that I had done something silly, but when I peered up at him I saw that his face remained mild and reassuring. My nervous grin conveyed to him all the permission he needed to carry on and he smoothly undressed me, pushing my tunic down to my waist. My arms were free now, but I didn't know what to do with them, so kept them close to my sides.

He pushed back a little and drew his fingers along my thighs, across my stomach, and up to my breasts which he seemed to like so much. I shivered from my scalp to my toes.

What the hey? I'm so passive! I'm letting this guy play me like a violin!

He now noticed how much my nipples had hardened. In fact, they were standing up like they do on those porn-novel covers and tears suddenly burned my eyes as I realized that the crazy reactions of my "slut" body were making me seem "easy"-- and hence not worthy of respect.

But Rod never let on if he was thinking that. He kissed my lips while his hands continued exploring my breasts and belly. Finally he peeled my tunic away completely; the loss of contact with the fabric sent another thrill of panic through me, though it had been absolutely inadequate as a cover-up.

He clutched me to him then, but something else intruded to change the equation utterly. His maleness had grown enormously, the head of it had kissed my thigh through his trousers, even while his soft lips played suction cup with mine.

I could hardly breathe, and it wasn't just because Rod's face was covering my mouth and nose. My heart was racing like some small animal trapped inside my rib cage; if I had had a coronary condition it would have been curtains for me right there. Rod drew back, but only to pry off his shoes, kick his trousers down and away, then remove his socks.

"I always hated when a man didn't undress completely," he explained.

"M-Me, too," I stuttered. "I mean -- "

"I know what you mean."

He began to ease the weight of his upper body upon me and he felt heavy, out-weighing me by at least fifty pounds. I hadn't realized it before, but my ankles were pressed close together as if tied. This didn't suit Rod, so he slipped his fingers between my thighs, teasing them apart with a light burrowing motion. I tried to cooperate, but my pegs had a mind of their own and before I could relax them Rod had brought in the heavy equipment, working one of his knees in to separate them.

I swallowed a painful gulp; the moment of no-return was barreling down on me and I was as jumpy as a colt. Hadn't intended to be so inept about this, but --

Erin, as a sex-kitten you're a washout!

He kissed me again, but this time pushed the tip of his tongue inside my mouth. It would have surprised me more, except that this wasn't the first time the big lug had tried that. I pried my teeth apart and our mouths began to play together like two wet, warm oysters making love.

I understood that he was bringing me along slowly and carefully, like a doughboy guiding a blind buddy through no-man's land. But I was still afraid -- afraid that I wasn't very good in the sack and that I'd let him down.

Rod was nuzzling my neck as his right hand continued to swivel over my body, finally arriving at its goal. I shuddered as he stroked my vaginal lips, when his fingers edged close to my clitoris. The next thing I knew, one of them was working its way deeper, deeper. Gasping, I instinctively clutched his sides, my nails biting into his taut flesh.

By now Rod was moving his finger where no man had gone before. He touched me, deeply, and --

"You have a maidenhead," he remarked softly.

"Inconvenient," I chuckled with a hint of hysteria. But I recognized that what he had found was my FDA seal of freshness. The thing proclaimed my purity and once it was broken it would not be coming back; everyone after Rod would know that I was used goods.

Everyone else? Was I suddenly fantasizing myself with a slew of lovers after Rob? Some kind of Messalina welcoming all comers? No, that's not what I wanted!
He withdrew his single finger only to replace it with two. I sucked in a sharp breath and my hips raised of their own accord, as if seeking additional penetration.

He withdrew his delving digits a minute later and changed position, his penis inadvertently dragging across my flesh, communicating its size and hardness.

Rod and I loved to watch the sunset together.Only after I saw this picture printed did I remember that we always saw our sunsets while looking over a tower. It was strange that I never noticed any tower when Rod was beside me. He's going to do it! But I can't let him go all the way! I can't -- I --

My skin prickled; he was about to take something from me that I could never get back again! Yet I forced myself calm; I was going to do the same thing to h im, of course; we weren't misusing one another -- we were sharing something. But if only the feeling of subjecting myself to a permanent, unrecoverable change didn't daunt me so.

I put my hands under Rod's arms, preparing myself for the inevitable, unable to keep my eyes from closing.

Can I let him do this? Do I dare? What if the pill didn't work?

I sensed him guiding the head of his penis to my loins and I stiffened. What was wrong with me? Why the dread? Hadn't I started this myself? Hadn't I wanted it to happen?! I tried to find comfort in the memory of the girls I had held in my own arms, trying to project the soft feelings I had felt to them into Rod's heart.

Meanwhile, bracing my heels against the sheets, my body prepared itself to succumb to the breakthrough at Normandy. It must have been Freudian to imagine myself in the role of the loser. The charge, when it came, required little of General Ganners -- except for a slight back-and-forth jarring.

I felt something letting go with a twinge of pain that was more shocking than hurtful. He was filling me -- perhaps by only an inch at a time, but it felt like mile upon mile. Rod persisted -- what guy wouldn't; his weight was full on me now, his maleness triumphant -- and the total effect was overwhelming. It felt like being inside a woman as a man, only completely different.

"Erin," Rod whispered, "I love you more than my own life."

I blinked, peered up into his eyes, and saw my own reflection in them. His words soothed me like a balm upon raw flesh, made me feel like a person again, not a piece of meat dangling above the grinder. I relaxed just a little, then lurched as he pressed deeper.

"Shhhhh," he whispered just before he started pushing himself into me. What was he feeling? I tried to remember as I pressed my head back upon the pillow, groaned, endured, and tried to find some way to enjoy it.

Enjoy it? At this point I felt like a sausage casing being filled. Penetration was unlike anything I'd experienced before. Savor it, I told myself; the first time never comes twice. Despite my anxiety, the sense of intimacy was, in fact, incredible. It was like we were merging into one physical being.

Rod didn't pump me at first; instead he lightly kissed my eyelids, my temples, my cheeks, and my neck. When he got serious I sensed that he was still trying hard to keep his passion under leash and encourage me to remain calm.

A futile task; his lovemaking was like a fire-stick and my edgy desire provided all the starting fluid he required. I moaned in both misgiving and pleasure -- and that I could feel pleasure amid such a rush of emotion astonished me.

Rod's action caused my breath to quicken and my heart to beat in wild staccato. I felt as though his penis was growing longer and thicker, filling me to capacity. My nipples were so blood-charged that they hurt when his chest bounced lightly against them.

While Rod "took" me he was also caressing my haunches, sending ripples up my spine as if it were a high-conductivity cable. By putting his hands under me, he raised my hips slightly, and I unconsciously shifted my knees, allowing him better access into the steam-hot recesses of my body. His thighs slapped rhythmically against mine as they worked me over and when I detached myself enough to think about it, I simply couldn't believe what was happening.

How did you get from there to here, Aaron, my boy?

Rod's thrusts grew stronger as his primordial male drive crowded out his genuine desire to be gentle. My passion kept building and building, wringing tears from my eyes and forcing me to cry out, even though I hated "screamers." It was like I feared that what was happening to me would never happen again and that this one experience would have to last a lifetime. In that state of mind, I wanted nothing to be left to the imagination, to have it, and know it, all.

My skin beaded with perspiration as the procedure continued. It seemed that Rod was purposely not climaxing, despite his inexperience, but was trying instead to usher me into ever-higher states of excitement. If only this didn't have to be the only time. . . .

As I lay there under him my body seemed to cast off all conscious control, making me just a passenger in a runaway coach. Then suddenly I hit the exit-trough of a water-ride -- an incredible rush in which waves of pleasure swept thorough me, their sharpness increasing with each repeated surge, until I thought I was going to lose my mind.

My legs reared up and locked around Rod's waist, my arms clenched his neck; my breasts were flattened by the pressure of my body against him. My skin had gone all prickly, and my insides seemed to blaze -- hot and soft and oozy -- as though I were melting. It was like I was not in bed, but in another dimension of space and time, though I felt my nails dig into his back and rake across his skin. When he grunted I knew it was partly from pain and partly from the pleasure.

Not bad for a couple of virgins.

In another instant we were both sharing simultaneous climaxes, a sensation that charged not just my genitals but every atom of my being. For the first time I understood what women were describing when they talked about their orgasms.

Rod had groaned and buried his face in my hair as his own spasms overcame him. Warm fluid gushed into my womb and I clasped his buttocks, holding him flush lest any of it be spilled and I be less his than I longed to be.

Then it was all over, except for the afterglow. Rod quieted and became like dead weight upon me for a few seconds before he rolled to the mattress at my side. He did not release his hold on my body, though, nor did I release my grasp on his. Our ragged, wasted breathing, harsh at first, gradually softened to light sighs as we lay entwined. Rod 's breath sounded sleepy, though his heart was beating wildly near my ear.

Reluctantly, each of us took our turn in the bathroom, then returned to bed. Warmed by his nearness, my tears came in a silent flow as I reflected on what I had done, what I had undergone. My spring-like innocence of the ways of Womanhood had been sacrificed, never to return. It was summertime now; I was no longer a virgin field upon which the pioneer only gazes with wistful dreams; I had been fenced, plowed, sewn. But would I thereafter know a husbandman's kindly attentions for many years to come, or would it be simply slash, burn, and move away?

Foul your nest and move West?

Rod fell asleep quickly and the last thing I remember was drawing up the opposite sides of the bedspread to cover our damp, nude bodies, as by the folding wings of a butterfly.

#

I slept until Rod's movements awakened me in the night. I let him think that I remained asleep while he got up and visited the bathroom. So much to think about; so many impressions to sort out. I was suddenly worried that Rod would hurt me when he came back, should he only realize that I was awake.

Not physically hurt me, of course, but I been rendered fragile. What if Rod didn't really care about me beyond the physical experience? Was it possible that he had set me up, had brought me along until I had actually believed that what we had done had been my own idea? One mocking word, a single unkind sentiment and I would be burned like a match set to tissue paper.

Poor Allie. How had she survived Buck's betrayal? Could I be just as brave and resilient? Would it next be my turn to find out? I wiped my nose with the back of my hand.

It was like I had felt the Midas touch and had turned into brittle crystal. One small act of insensitivity, one deprecating remark, one suggestion that the experience we had shared had been only a physical thing with him, and I would shatter into fragments. But I didn't want silence from him either. I wanted -- more than anything else -- some word of reassurance. I needed some small expression to prove that Rod still respected me, that something was still the same even though so much had changed.

And how I had been changed! I had never worried about these sorts of things before. They had never been absent from my mind when I had been a man, of course, but they had always lurked in the background. They were right up front now; that and so many things were becoming clearer to me.

I realized that I hadn't made love because I wanted pleasure for myself. Just holding Rod's hand gave me pleasure, his hug was bliss, his kiss sent me to Heaven. What I had wanted was to impart to him some small parting gift. I had wanted to send some part of my being home with him. I had wanted to say, without the banality of words, that I understood that to be loved is to be changed, that I trusted him and wasn't afraid to be changed by him. I wanted --

Oh, I don't know what all I had wanted! I had wanted the world; I had wanted nothing. I had wanted to take; I had wanted to give.

Most of all, I had wanted to forge a bond of understanding which would not break in the face of the strange alteration of form and role that must overtake us when we returned to Earth.

Rod was coming back and so I pretended to sleep. He paused over me, somehow knowing that I was playing possum. He eased himself down beside by my side and I could feel his moist cheek against mine. When I realized that he was going to speak, my breathing stopped. What would he say? I feared that I might misconstrue almost any innocent word in my foolish agitation and ruin something fine and beautiful.

"Thank you," he whispered.

I opened my eyes, saw his mild expression. He had said 'thank you.' Simply 'thank you.' He hadn't intoned them like "Thank you, I've got to be going. Maybe we'll run into each other again someday." It was more like, "Thank you for accepting me into your life, into your being. Thank you for becoming a part of me, and letting me become a part of you." They were exactly the words that I had most needed to hear.

I nestled closer, my eyes hot and flowing with emotion. We clenched hands, impressing upon me again that his were so much larger and stronger than mine. I marveled at the gentleness with which they could touch me when a man's strength could do such devastating harm. Rod, still smiling, was asleep in moments, but I lay awake for just a little longer.

It was after midnight, I knew, and later today Rod would be gone -- not just from the prison, not just from the continent -- but from the planet, from the entire universe. I could search from pole to pole, ocean to ocean, like Psyche seeking Eros, and never find him. Rod would, in a sense, have ceased to exist; not even a grave would be left behind for a monument.

I blinked away the dew filling my eyes. I'd be left alone with my girl friends, with the Rights Association, with the routine of my job -- if I could manage to hold onto the latter with the management breathing down my neck. Could these little things fill up the vast canyon of emptiness that Rod's absence would create?

Did I really love him?

Yes.

Did I love him in that special way, that way which would forever after leave me incomplete in myself?

Well, maybe -- I didn't know for sure; I thought that only time could prove what kind of love ours was.

Did fashioning a lasting bond take a little longer than our brief springtime on Tiresias had allowed? Perhaps. Possibly the seed which we had planted on an alien world might be transplanted to Earth, but maybe not. Was this a kind of shipboard romance? Could what we had nurtured here, under a strange, star-lit sky of a bright, new, exotic planet survive in the bleak, cold, decaying environment of Twenty-First Century America? I could not say; I could only hope.

What I did know was that loving Rod had changed me in some important but indefinable way. I might again be a man in nine month's time, but I could never again be exactly the same man that I once had been. I had become someone else, something else; I had taken the man whom I loved into my bed and shared with him my entire being. The old portrait of myself had been painted over with fresh colors, ingenious new images. It might be repainted yet again by future experience, but the buried colors would always remain an undercoating, unforgotten and unforgettable.

Some changes are transitory, some are not, I recognized. Living transforms us in ways that only death may eradicate completely.

-- Unless we are truly immortal in spirit, as I was reared to believe.

There had been a time when I had thought I could be master of my emotions, that I could use reason to avoid the painful follies of others; now I knew that that was impossible. Likewise, there had been a time when I had believed that I might stand along the sidelines of life upon Tiresias, watching, learning, but not experiencing. That, too, had proven a dream.

I was no longer sure of what I was, or what I was capable of being, but I better appreciated my limitations, my humanity. I knew I could not go through life wearing detachment and cynicism for a suit of armor because there was no iron in me. My flesh was soft; my spirit compliant; if injured, my blood would flow as freely as another's. But worse than any physical hurt might be the injury that a heart sustains; it was beyond my power to care and yet not feel.

I could not tread close to those things which are alluring and sweet without, sometimes, becoming entrapped by them like the fly who steps into a drop of honey. I could not ride the vicissitude of life like some fearless rodeo star. No matter how desperate my hold upon the reins, occasionally Life must throw me off. And when I crashed to earth I will lie there injured, blue with bruises

When my fall comes, I hope that I would be able to struggle to my feet under my own strength, or, in the absence of such strength, that I have loving friends to help me rise.

I had learned a little more about the man -- the person -- that Aaron Carter was deep down. -- I had learned that he cannot always be brave, nor wise, nor always calm, aloof, and rational. He could not always be dignified.

There would be times, I now knew, that I must revert to type, when I could be nothing more than what I am -- that simple, multifaceted-but-human-and-very-fallible creature which the inscrutable gods of Tiresias have decreed that I must be.

A woman.


THE END?

Just one final picture to put some faces on a few more friends mentioned in passing. Jordana took this snapshot of Christy (on the far left) the night she introduced her to three of our more active Association members. To the right of Christy is Frankie, Georgette, and Davida. That's Frankie clowning for the camera. Poor Christy; when the photo was taken she was still showing the cuts and bruises inflicted by wild man Jesse. Notice that all four of them have the same type of cheap high-heel shoe that the prison store kept in stock.