Chapter Two: Fission
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©2000 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
I had the freedom of the base. Actually, I had the freedom to go wherever I wanted, but I felt comfortable on the base, which is why I rented quarters there. With the PX for groceries and household supplies, the NCO club for the occasional libation, the base hospital to make sure I stayed healthy and work to fill any other voids left in my waking hours, my life was complete. Of course, now that I had survived, the fact that I threw myself into my research in hopes of solving the gender problem helped. I had actually convinced myself that gender was not an issue and that life would continue as before with minimal modifications such as a change of name from George to Georgette -- did I ever tell you about this bridge I keep in my back pocket? It is for sale -- cheap.
There was no single event that brought reality crashing to the fore. If anything it was a remarkably average day, two days shy of three months since I awoke free of cancer... and a few other pieces of anatomy.
It started at the lab. Felix Agutter and José Guttman were arguing again. That they were arguing was nothing new, they argued over everything from breakfast to bedding, girls to gametes. My role was to keep them on target. I remember once accusing them of arguing over so many things; all they had left to debate was how many angels could dance on the top of a pin, only to have them begin to debate exactly that. This time it was over the meaning of the latest test results showing that the protein clusters were remaining in my body long after we expected them to be gone. "The clusters cannot survive this long. In all our animal subjects they were expelled from the body within a couple of weeks," Felix insisted. "They are regenerating somehow."
"They can't regenerate," was José's immediate response. There is nothing to regenerate them. Somehow they are being reintroduced into her body."
"Not possible," Felix grabbed some papers off a nearby countertop and waved them at José. "This is a clean environment or we too would have them and our tests come back clean. Could it be that they are being reintroduced from some outside source?"
"Not a chance. No one else on this planet has these protein clusters. They do not appear naturally. Either her body is regenerating them or one of us is reintroducing them into her body."
"Well, it's not me and she has no reason to reinfect herself. You must be injecting her while she sleeps José."
"You could at least laugh when you say that. I guess we assume she's regenerating them Felix old boy." He paused for effect. "Unless she's reinfecting herself."
"But she has nothing to gain from such an action and could actually be injured should it be determined that she is contagious."
"Well, we've already ruled out contagion," he tapped the papers again. "Could she be reinfecting just herself?"
At this point, I could see they needed some redirection. "Gentlemen."
"Then maybe they are regenerating themselves. Did her last MRI show anything unusual?"
"Gentlemen!" I tried again, louder.
"I don't know," he started flipping through files. "Give me a moment."
"No coffee now. We're trying to work here," Felix grumpily waved me away without even looking up from his papers. I gaped at him a moment, shocked at his boorish behavior before I laid into him. "How dare you? Where the hell do you get off making a comment like that, especially to the man who pays your salary? I ought to fire you on the spot and I guarantee you that it is not your personality that is the reason I am holding back. Now get out of here. Take an early lunch or something -- and when you get back here I expect you to behave in a totally, you hear me, totally, professional manner."
"Bye Felix," José called out cheerfully as Felix stormed out of the lab. Apparently, he thought that meant he had won their debate. It was time to clear up that misconception also.
"And you," I railed on him. "You're not much better or have you forgotten the sound of my voice too? Until now, I've never stopped your incessant arguments, but I have expected to be able to be included in them and to be able to steer them in functional directions, at least while you're in the lab."
He hung his head, but didn't quite wipe the smile off his face as he responded, "Yes, Ma'am."
I think it was the "ma'am" that stopped me in my tracks. It was not wrong, but it just caught in my brain and seemed to jam the gears. Instead of standing there with my lips moving but no words coming out, I too stormed out the door.
When I returned from an extended lunch, Felix and José were back at work -- silent. I got a polite nod when I entered and that was it. Every time I had attempted to initiate a conversation, to loosen the tension, they responded with "Yes ma'am." or "No ma'am." and nothing else. Even my best lawyer jokes fell flat. I mean who does not laugh at jokes like "Why won't a shark bite a lawyer? Professional courtesy." or "What's 3000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea? A good start." Even my very best, the vase joke I mentioned earlier, fell totally flat.
I did not have to be hit on the head with an anvil to realize what was happening, they were punishing me for being their boss. By the end of the day I was in a foul mood and happy to be leaving the lab for the first time in years. In hindsight, this probably set me up for the next blow. Paul came by to visit.
We usually managed to get together at least once a week, but I hadn't seen or heard much from Paul in the last few months, just the occasional brief telephone call. Apparently, he had been tied up with an extremely complex case in another part of the state that had just been settled and he wanted to celebrate. We were to meet at the NCO Club and move on from there, so when I got back to my quarters I cleaned up and put on one of the two suit dresses I had bought in case I needed to present to some bigwigs. It was a simple navy blue and gray pinstripe that the saleslady had said looked "divine" on me. I also added the matching smoke gray pantyhose, navy patent leather shoes with the one-inch heels -- she had pushed me to get three-inchers, but there was no way I was going to give up comfort for the sake of some saleslady's image of the perfect female -- and a simple white silk blouse.
Oh yeah, and a brassiere as I was now a 36C, whatever that meant. I cannot say that it was more comfortable to wear one, but it seemed less annoying than not wearing it, between leering enlisted men and unwanted movement as I bent over an electron microscope or reached into a specimen freezer. Finally, out came the scrunchie that had become a permanent feature of my attire and I ran my comb through my now shoulder length hair, then I grabbed my small black, over the shoulder, utility purse. Sadly, I'd given up the wallet I usually kept in my back pants pocket prior to the change as I found it hard to put anything into the back pockets of women's clothes, even baggy pants, assuming they even had pockets, which my skirt did not.
I was expecting him to be late and had planned accordingly, heading out a full fifteen minutes after the time he was supposed to meet me. If he was actually there on time, I was betting he would insist that I was early rather than admit to timeliness. His mother once told me he was even late coming out of the womb, which he claimed had set the tone for the rest of his life.
I once tried to pull his leg by telling him I expected him to be late for his own funeral but he just smiled knowingly and said, "I have every intention of doing exactly that." It took the wind out of my sails and I had had to scrounge around for another way to tease him that night. If memory serves I ended up picking on his tie, one of those gag ties from the Warner Brothers Store with Taz® dressed in a judge's robe and one of those white powdered wigs, leaning over the bench to pound Elmer Fudd® with his gavel while Bugs Bunny® looks on laughing. As I recall, I kept asking him which one he was supposed to be and looking askance at him whenever he said he was Bugs. That tie saved the night and I hoped Phil would be as obliging again soon.
When I got to the NCO Club, I checked the bar and dining room to see if he had showed up on time for the first time ever. Once I had confirmed his ability to maintain tradition, I grabbed a stool at the bar and ordered a Seven and Seven, laying out a twenty to cover the cost of drinks and tips for myself -- and for Paul when he finally arrived. After taking a long, cool, refreshing swig I set the plastic glass down and sighed. That is when I noticed the twenty was laying on the bar untouched.
"Hey Joe." All bartenders are called Joe, are they not? Someone once told me it was part of the labor-management agreement. "You forgot your money."
He looked up from the drink he was preparing and raised a finger to tell me he'd be with me in a moment, but before he could get back to me, an innocent-faced kid in fatigues tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a nearby table with three buddy-clones grinning hard enough to be just short of drooling. "My buddies and I paid for your drink. Would you care to join us?"
Now I remembered why I did not go to the NCO Club as often as I used to. It was nearly impossible to avoid the frequent pickup attempts by flocks of sex-starved teenagers. In memory of my own clumsy attempts at his age, I decided to be gentle, "Thanks for the offer, but I'm waiting for someone."
"We don't mind. Come sit with us until he arrives. That way there won't be any more pickup attempts." He waited expectantly, but I had heard that one before.
"Good try, but no thank you. Next you'll be telling me that you have a bet with one of your buddies that you can get me to kiss you or something before the end of the night." I still felt a responsibility to be gentle with him in memory of my own experiences so I waved to Joe and told him to buy a round for innocent-face and his buddies.
Turning back to my drink, I was surprised to find a hand on my arm gently trying to pull me from my stool. "Aw please Miss. We're awfully lonely. Why don't you try to be a bit more friendly?"
My mellow mood was gone and all the grief I had received from José and Felix came crashing back. How dare he try to tell me what to do. Smoldering, I slowly removed my arm from his grasp and whispered through clenched teeth. "Soldier, I strongly suggest you slink back to your friends right now and find some other way to occupy yourselves. You do not want to get into a brawl here. All the MPs will do to me is ask me to leave, but you could find yourselves doing KP, or worse, for the next month."
He finally returned to his table and I turned back to my now unwanted drink. Pushing it aside, I turned my seat towards the Club entrance waiting impatiently for Paul to get his butt over here. My ears burned as I heard muttering from my erstwhile suitor and his friends, especially when I heard one phrase clearly, "Pukin' Lesbian."
I actually started to get up and stalk towards them, intent on the idea of cortical stimulation via sensitization of the pain receptors when I saw Paul standing by the entrance and squinting into the dimly light bar. Still angry, I considered inviting Paul to share the fun, but my self-control won the coin toss and I just stormed off to join him. When I reached him, I just kept walking, grabbing his arm and twirling him around so that I could pull him back outside while muttering angrily.
"Miss?" he sputtered from behind me. "Miss, do I know you?"
Once outside I stopped and turned back to him growling, "What's the problem Paul? Has it been that long since you saw me last?"
"George?" His eyes widened almost enough to be mistaken for an anime character. "Is that you George?"
"Of course it's me, and you're late again, as usual. Now let's get out of here before I drag you back in there and start a brawl with some snot-nosed kids."
"Well okay, but wait just a minute while I get a good look at you." He moved me under the entrance light, positioning me with his hands on my upper arms. Then he stepped back and just stared at me for a long while, long enough to make me uncomfortable.
"Enough already." I brushed his hand off my arms and stepped back to let some other folks get by us and enter the Club. "So what do you want to do tonight?"
Paul claims that being a trial lawyer has honed his wit razor sharp, although I usually claim he is only half right, but he actually paused before answering. "I -- I'm not sure. I was happy to get this last issue resolved and I just wanted to see my old friend and celebrate."
The corner of his mouth turned up just a bit and I knew he was about to offer a zinger. I was sure of it when he sounded so pitiful as he continued, "But here you are, and you're not even dressed for dancing."
Phil could instantly see he had made a mistake, as my face turned stormy and my fists clenched. He tried to backpedal. "Joking. I was joking. I sure got you this time, didn't I?"
"Please tell me you didn't just try to ask your best friend for a date," I asked through teeth that were getting tired of being clenched so often.
"You know, until today I didn't thing there were any major differences between men and women. I figured I was alive and that was all that mattered. Boy was I wrong.
"So far today, I've had intelligent researchers, people I've worked with for almost five years, exclude me from a discussion in my own lab and then have the audacity to ask me to get them some coffee. I've had the joy of being reminded that I need to wear different clothes than I've worn for thirty plus years, just to fit in enough to avoid a scene. I have had a group of fresh from the tailors non-coms try to pick me up and then publicly claim I was a lesbian because I said no. Now, my best friend, the guy I grew up with, who got mumps with me, who helped me with the knot-tying merit badge in Scouts, wants to date me. Since when am I your type? I thought you like the long-legged, svelte bimbos with long wavy blonde hair and big tits."
That was when I doubled over in pain and slowly collapsed into his arms. The damn fool was so surprised by my outburst he almost did not move in time to catch me. My last thought before everything went black was, "I bet he wishes he was holding one of those blonde bimbos instead of me."
I woke up because sunlight was flashing over my eyes as a gentle breeze made the curtains in Paul's bedroom flutter -- and I was ravenous. If Paul walked in just then, I was going to start gnawing on his leg. Tossing the covers aside, I stood up and stalked toward the kitchenette, absently noting that I was wearing nothing but my briefs and an oversized tee shirt and that Paul was racked out on the couch in his living room.
Once upon a time, there was a television commercial. It was for an indigestion medication and the catch phrase was, "I can't believe I ate the whole thing." As I sat there looking at the remains of Paul's kitchenette, I couldn't believe I'd eaten everything in it, probably a week's worth of food for an adult male like Paul, and I'd eaten it all.
About half way through, Paul staggered in, saw what I was doing and gaped for a while before heading off to his bedroom to shower and dress. I think he left for a fast food breakfast because I could see the edge of a nearly empty cup of coffee Dunkin' Donuts® on the end table by his hand as he sat in the living room watching television and waiting for me to finish.
Rubbing my pleasantly full belly and wondering where everything I had eaten had gone, I joined him, dropping down on the other side of the couch and comfortably crossing my legs on top of his coffee table. Paul just sat there watching me as I licked some icing off my fingers and watched CNN®, something about a sudden, nationwide flare-up of criminal activity. Finally, I asked, "So what the hell happened and how did I end up here? The last thing I remember is doubling over in pain just outside the NCO Club."