The cool obsidian that makes up the walls of the Transgression Centre seems to absorb the beam from the fluorescent light. Tessa sits on the cool metal examination table with her legs crossed demurely. She is completely naked—they’d taken all her belongings when she arrived to be sent along separately—and but she figures she had best try and keep some sense of her dignity here. There is no clock on the wall, and the room itself is oddly insulated; no sound reached her. It never occurs to her to check if the door is locked.
Suddenly, the handle turns and a dark skinned Transgressive officer in a uniform almost as black as the walls strides in. He takes in her naked body without much fanfare and smiles, showing a stark row of white teeth.
“Miss Carter? We’re ready now.” His accent is strong and British and it soothes her jangling nerves as Tessa scoots off the table and follows him out of the room. She figures he will walk ahead of her, the way her father’s bodyguards used to do, always leading her somewhere, scanning for danger; instead, he walks beside her as if they’re out for a stroll and not lost in a sprawling medical centre. The hallway is cool and the air conditioning hardens Tessa’s nipples, but she doesn’t bother to try to cover them—her nakedness is the least of her worries now. Besides, the hallway is empty and the officer has already seen it all.
“Where are you headed?” the officer asks, startling Tessa. She had assumed he would know already.
“Yeah? I had a cousin who went three years ago, my aunt and uncle get occasional transmissions from her. Seems okay, I think. Heard on the news they were having problems with us because of all those diamond mines they’ve built on. Seems crazy they’d have millions of dollars in stones just laying on their beaches like rocks, eh? This way.”
“Yeah, I guess,” Tessa says as she and the officer turn down a short hallway and come to an open door. Tessa waits for the officer to go in ahead of her, but he waves her through.
“Sorry, this is as far as I go. We’ve got sixteen other transfers today.” Tessa isn’t sure why he’s apologizing—as if they’d built some bond in the last five minutes. She nods and steps past him into the room. It is much like the first, except replacing the examination table is a large vat that reminds Tessa of one of those old hydrotherapy chambers from the sixties. What seems like a thousand large and small tubes lead from it down through a vent in the floor. A woman in a black uniform stands at the head of the tub squinting into a small computer screen. She sees Tessa and smiles.
“Ah, here you are! All set?” she bustles towards Tessa and guides her with a gloved hand towards the edge of the vat. Inside is dark, dark, dark. The blackest fluid Tessa has ever seen. It seems almost bottomless.
“What is it?” she asks.
“Oh, they should have told you when you signed the consent form? It’s amniotic fluid. Perfectly safe, of course, but there is no other substance on earth that will recreate your body in the next dimension as completely as this stuff. Come, now, in you go.”
Tessa remembers now, as she steps into the fluid. They had told her, along with a thousand other things when she had decided to leave this dimension three months ago. The fluid is thick and thankfully warm, and when she sits upright in the tub she is covered to the tops of her breasts. The woman attaches several electrodes to her neck and forehead before putting a small IV into her arm, chatting all the while.
“They’ll be waiting for you on the other side when you arrive. They’re some of our best receivers, really. We have some dimensions that slap you out onto the floor and expect you to find your own way. Aristophantis, though, they’re great. I suppose it’s something about having a little bit of both genders that keeps them level. Although I suppose they don’t see it that way. Imagine, living in a place where no one—well, I suppose you won’t have to imagine anything in a minute.” Tessa longs to duck her head under the fluid and shut out the woman’s voice, but she fears she’d suffocate before the woman shut up. Finally, the oxygen mask is slipping over her head and gentle hands are pushing her shoulders down, down, down underneath the fluid as the woman mutters something about being fully submerged, lest she come through in pieces. She takes a big breath of the oxygen she knows will be there and—
Tessa’s eyes open to wide, soundless darkness. Everything is empty, and she feels as though she is floating a thousand miles under the ocean in a sightless, soundless cave. The surface a distant memory, the air—
Air. She needs air. Her mask has disappeared, and Tessa begins to lash out at nothing with her arms and legs, already burning. Just as her body begins to convulse with pain, she feels hands grabbing and pulling her hard, almost wrenching, towards them.
Light, bright and blinding, assaults her. Tessa kneels on a hard floor and gasps for breath. She squints at her knees and sees that they’re covered in a thick, almost oily substance. Suddenly, everything comes rushing back to her in a nauseating flood as the world begins to right itself.
The room she is in is far quainter than the harshness of the black building she has left. Smooth yellow walls greet her, with a picture window that looks out upon a lush courtyard. There is even a vase of hydrangeas on the counter in the corner of the room. A vat similar to the one she had stepped into stood behind her, open and empty. Tessa jumps and spins around on her knees, slipping in the soiled fluid as hands rest against her neck.
“Sorry, sorry, we’ve just got to get these electrodes out of your hair,” they say. They are tall and thin, like most people on Aristophantis, but with long brown hair and a pair of obvious breasts. Tessa had read somewhere that most people on Aristophantis usually choose to have one breast removed as soon as they are able to, believing it furthers the duality of their bodies, but clearly that isn’t everyone. Tessa shakes her head and wipes her face. When she chose this place, the idea of one being two—or one being neither—appealed to her more than anything. Nobody must choose between anything here, and that had seemed more freeing than anything.
“Would you have a towel?” she asks. One is placed into her hands promptly and she attempts to dry herself as best she can. They pick the electrodes out of her tangled hair and help her to stand, leading her out of the nice room and into a more generic hospital hallway.
“The showers are just here,” they say. “We’ll wait right outside.”
Washing the dried goo off of her body is a blissful moment. So far, Tessa hasn’t seen anything too out of the ordinary—even the showers are the same. Although she hardly imagines that anyone would be walking around with their genitalia clearly visible. In fact, it seems as though she is the only one doing that.
She is given a pair of jeans and a t-shirt—her own jeans and t-shirt, they must have made the trip—and led to a small waiting room with a bank of large windows covering one wall. Her things rest in a neat pile in a corner. After checking to make sure everything is there, she wanders to the window. This side of the building faces the city and Tessa leans against the glass to see all she can. The buildings are not the dark, reflective metal of any metropolis she knows, but a bright, shining marble like a Grecian holdover. Pillars soar far above the Transgression Centre, and Tessa can feel the sun’s heat on her chest through the window. Mountains hover like watchful gods miles away. In the distance, a statue looms, partially obscured by buildings, and Tessa squints to make it out.
“Hermaphroditus,” says a voice behind her. Tessa whirls and steps back from the window. It is the person from before who had hauled her out of the vat.
“I’m sorry?” Tessa is breathless. They walk towards the window and look out, hands behind their back.
“The statue, it’s of Hermaphroditus, the two-sexed son of the gods your Greeks called Hermes and Aphrodite.” They turn to face Tessa, smiling warmly. Their face is angular and marble smooth, with sharp, aquiline eyes. From what Tessa can tell, they look like the pictures she has seen of many Aristophantis citizens. They are almost angelic, framed in the sunlight streaming through the window. Tessa knows that they are here to check her—the transition is not always a smooth one, and the mind can arrive damaged even if the body is not. She knows she’ll be here for at least three days before they allow her to leave and start her new life.
“I hope your transition wasn’t too painful. We weren’t aware you had woken up until you started to struggle. Rarely do we have anyone born so quietly.” They stare at her as if they expect her to account for her own rebirth.
“It was an odd feeling,” is all she says.
“I imagine it was. I have never left Aristophantis myself, but I understand that the process is stressful for the body and mind.”
“Would you ever try it?”
“I’m not sure I have anywhere to go. I’m told that in your dimension, intersexuality is rather rare?”
Tessa shrugs. “I think so. At least, you never hear about it much.” They nod, as if validated.
“Still, it must be fascinating to have so many different ways of identifying.” They seem less interested in Tessa by the second, and their eyes drift to look just over her shoulder. Tessa wants to roll her eyes, but settles for gazing blankly out the window behind them. In the distance, a black dot emerges over the peak of the mountain and seems to hover in the air. Tessa leans closer, confused. Aristophantis prides itself on not even having automobiles, let alone aircrafts. It seems to grow larger by the second.
“What is that?” she asks.
“What is w—” there is a sharp, loud clap and Tessa watches as their left arm explodes in a mass of gore, severed from their half-turned body at the shoulder. Behind them, the window crystalizes and collapses in on itself. Made of something other than glass, it seems to fall out of the building in one great sheet. It is a missile-like thing that Tessa has never seen before. Sleek and dark, she knows she has seen the symbol on the wing, many times. She used to steal her father’s notepads and scratch out the flame balancing on the needle at the bottom of each page.
She thinks she is screaming. She has ended up on the other side of the room, fumbling for the door. Behind her, the wind howls and snatches at her wet hair. The sound of gunfire is deafening. Her fingers land on the door handle and she looks back once more before throwing herself out of the room: fire, smoke. A fraction of the destruction.
The hallway is chaos. Empty before, it is now teaming. People rush in both directions, and Tessa isn’t sure which way to go. She needs to get out. She picks someone in green trousers running with what looks like a broken nose, blood pouring down their front, and decides to follow them. As she steps out into the hallway an explosion rocks the building, throwing Tessa and everyone else backwards three feet. Struggling upright, Tessa realizes she’s lost sight of the green trousers, but heads in the same direction. Tessa sobs as smoke begins to fill the hallway, her eyes streaming. Someone grabs her arm and pulls her towards a door—she thinks about fighting, but where would she go? She’s crowded into a stairwell with fifteen other people. The lights are out, and the only sound is distant explosions and muffled weeping. As a group, they struggle down the stairs, flight by painful flight. No one has asked what they will do when they reach the bottom.
Tessa knows they are here for the diamonds—they’ve been vying for them for years—but part of her wonders if they’re not also here for her. Her records were sealed, and he is not all powerful, no matter what he thinks. He cannot know she is here—he would never risk her safety like that. Or would he? Terror and guilt threaten to overwhelm her. She was supposed to be safe.
Another explosion. The building shudders around her. She is not sure if she’ll make it to the bottom. Soot and ash choke her, and she gags.
I was supposed to be safe.