From Fire, From Ice
by Jeffrey M. Mahr
©1999 Jeffrey M. Mahr -- all rights reserved
Be thou chaste as ice, pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.
-- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, III, i, 142
Desolate but breathtaking, that's how Charlie Dawson always described the Alaskan tundra. After completing his residency in General Medicine, he had fled joyously back to the land of his youth. Others had twisted and fought like salmon at the end of a hook only to be slowly reeled back into the bosom of the state that had covered the huge loans incurred by eight or more years of study and training. For some reason, the State of Alaska expected them to practice in the "Land of the Midnight Sun" or immediately reimburse the state for its costs -- with interests and stiff penalties.
Based at the top of the world in Nuigsut on Prudhoe Bay near Point Barrow, Dr. Dawson was the only physician north of Fairbanks. He provided medical care for about six thousand oil riggers and Aleuts spread over the more than 150,000 square miles of Alaskan tundra located within the Arctic Circle. True, it was cold; fifty degrees below was common in the depths of winter, and week long snow storms often grounded his Cessna, making his rounds of the various villages he served more erratic then he preferred, but there were compensations. The people were the nicest, friendliest, most open, he had ever met; many were still untouched by the cynicism of the world down below and the lights of the aurora borealis shining off the ice floes of the Beaufort Sea were like nothing anywhere else in the world. It was more than enough to make the isolation and difficulties worthwhile.
Besides, if he wanted to, Charlie had plenty of opportunity to take his fill of "civilization," during his semiannual vacations. This time he had eschewed civilization, instead choosing to hike through Kitmai National Park and the "Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes," one of the most active volcanic areas in the world. Some might call it ugly with its meandering mud filled streams, but Charlie thought it amazing to be able to stand in a valley of greenery surrounded by white capped mountains partially obscured by smoke venting from fissures everywhere. The smell of sulphur was a bit much and the well water provided by Park authorities had tasted brackish compared to the melted snow he was accustomed to drinking, but brushing a fine powder of ash off his tent each morning was no different from brushing snow off the roof of his home after each snowstorm.
Of course, there had been that brief bit of excitement when he had discovered a football sized, cylinder of dull grey with strange -- what had National Geographic called them -- "glyphs" etched onto its sides.
It was the day after one of the stronger of the area's ubiquitous tremors. He found the object partially buried in a new puddle of steaming mud not far from his tent. Charlie guessed that it had been buried and then pushed out of the ground by the eruption of the still smoking vent nearby.
Poking it with a tent pole, he eventually pried the cylinder from its resting place and chivvied it close enough to the edge that he could pull it loose from the greyish brown ooze that fought to keep it. Placing a marker so investigators could find the spot where he had discovered it, he stuffed it into his backpack and dropped it off at the ranger station on his way out of the park.
Before leaving it, Charlie had made the Aleut boy manning the gate write a note for the ranger including Charlie's name, address, and a brief description of where and how the cylinder had been found, but the teenager had seemed more interested in the two Aleut girls giggling and whispering from the porch of the nearby cabin than the scraggly hiker and Charlie was taking long odds on whether the note, stuffed into a shirt pocket, would ever get to the ranger.
As he flew his plane homeward, Charlie had promised himself he would call once he'd landed and snowshoed home to assure himself that the authorities had the proper information, but it had been pushed to the back of his mind when he was forced to veer from his original flight plan to an Eskimo village at Venetie to for a Caesarian section complicated by excessive bleeding. The baby was fine, but the mother had needed hospitalization and he had flown her, and her petrified family, to the hospital at Fairbanks where he restocked his medical bag and started his rounds from village to village without ever going home.
When he finally made it home, almost a month later, no one knew what he was talking about when he called the ranger station to check up on the cylinder. Rather than try again to explain, to what sounded over the telephone to be the same bored teen, Charlie had hung up and forgot about it as not worth the effort to pursue. The idea of a quiet dinner looking out over the bay, a long hot shower, and a dozen or so hours of sleep seemed infinitely more appealing than a series of unsatisfying telephone conversations with a bunch of uninformed bureaucrats.
In fact, it was a cold dinner, eaten fighting the wind, as he was driven in an oil company Arctic Cat back to the airport to be brought by helicopter to platform seventeen to try to save a rigger's hand after a chain had snapped and nearly severed it at the wrist. Seven frustrating and disappointing hours later, following a rough ride back to the airport just ahead of another storm and a tedious drive back to his cabin through blowing snow, nothing mattered more than sleep.
Waking slowly, luxuriating in the softness and warmth of a bed, his enjoyment was marred only by two things. The first was a headache, stuffed nose, and rumblings from his GI tract. The symptoms were promptly diagnosed as flu, which meant he would be in self-imposed quarantine for the duration rather than infect and kill any Aleuts with whom he came into contact. Earlier settlers had not been so considerate and many of the native Eskimos had died of lack of immunity to even the most common diseases from down below.
The second was that Charlie could see the snow swirling madly beyond the bedroom window. Grumping a bit, his thoughts shifted away from his body as he wondered how long it would be before snow encased the bedroom window, and the other one in the great room that doubled as an office. He had paid a fortune to have the windows made especially for the extreme cold of Nuigsut, with one inch thick glass and quadruple insulation. They were the only picture windows for several hundred miles and he loved the looks of amazement whenever a tribesman made the trek to his office for the first time. However, the first winter after their installation, Charlie had learned all too quickly that if he did not regularly shovel an ever widening path toward the sea, he had nothing more than a matched pair of shiny wall surfaces.
Groaning in resignation, he pushed aside the multiple layers of quilts and headed for the bathroom. Completing his shower, Charlie dried himself, and cleaned the steam off the mirror in order to shave. At thirty-one his curly black hair had long ago departed in favor of alopecia, or male pattern baldness as he described it to his patients. As an act of defiance, Charlie had let what little hair he had left grow as long as it wished, only cutting the tips enough to keep it neat.
Surprisingly, the long hair also helped his patients feel more comfortable. The Aleuts valued it as a sign of virility and were amazed at how it curled about, unlike their straight hair. The riggers felt he was another iconoclast, one of that rare breed that thrived on the challenge of life on the edge.
The rest of his slightly taller than average body was nondescript with few distinguishing marks except for his pasty white skin and the razor straight three inch scar on his abdomen just above the hip where he had tripped and fallen against a harpoon as a child visiting family friends at the fishing village of Seward. The cut had been deep and he had nearly bled to death as he was rushed to the nearest medical clinic a hundred miles away on the outskirts of Anchorage. That had been what had convinced him to become a doctor, and why he had decided to remain in Alaska rather than seek a job where the money was, in one of the large cities of the lower forty-eight, like Boston, or San Diego like his old college roommate Dan Brown.
A quick rub of the chin convinced Charlie that his stubble was minimal enough that a shave would not be needed today, so instead he trimmed his mustache, dressed, and debated what to eat. The rumbles from his stomach settled that choice and he limited himself to some coffee, toast, and a couple of pills from a sample he'd recently received from a pharmaceutical company offering a combination of antihistamines and analgesics designed to relieve the discomfort of the flu.
The next few hours were spent on the radio checking the status of various patients in the farther reaches of his catchment area, followed by another hour of correspondence with friends and colleagues over the Internet. Then came the billing records needed to convince the State of Alaska that they were paying him for good reason, and it was time for lunch.
Still not hungry, Charlie forced himself to prepare a more traditional cure for his malaise. The chicken soup smelled heavenly and tasted better than usual, but he couldn't complete more than half before running to the bathroom. Diarrhea had set in.
The afternoon was spent alternating between skimming journals and the bathroom. With a light dinner and an early bedtime, Charlie hoped he would sleep through most of the discomfort of this particularly annoying strain of the flu. His last thoughts of the night were to wonder how the experts had so badly misjudged the predominant flu strain when preparing this year's shots.
Charlie was surprised the next morning to find that both the snow storm and his flu symptoms had ended. Relieved to be feeling better, he optimistically showered and shaved, prepared a huge breakfast, packed more food for the cooler in the Cessna, and grabbed his medical kit.
Completing his preflight checks, Charlie pulled the small plane out of its Quonset style hanger and taxied out. A smooth takeoff and he headed off toward Anaktuk at the far western end of his region. Once he was at cruising altitude, he set the autopilot on, popped an audio tape in and refreshed his memory about the patients he was expecting back on routine follow up. There was work to be done and Charlie knew his patients needed him.
"Is that the last one Kate?" Old Rampart was the next to last stop on his regular two week long run from clinic to clinic.
"Except for Mr. Popov, Anatuk Popov." The short bubbly Indian nurse who served as the entire staff of the clinic at Old Rampart was struggling to hide something.
"What's the problem and have I seen Mr. Popov before?"
"Anatuk mushed over from Old Crow with his wife and family. His wife insisted. He's been having headaches, dizzy spells, and nose bleeds."
"Ignoring for the moment that Old Crow is more than a hundred miles away and across the border in Canada which will play havoc with any attempt to bill anyone, I want to meet a man from this area who actually listened to his wife, "Charlie laughed. "Did you check his blood pressure?"
"Yes Doctor. It was 180/95. I took it twice."
"Whoa! Get that man in here now."
Charlie went through the full ritual of examining eyes, ears, throat, prostrate, and heart. He asked for and got urine and blood samples too, but the diagnosis was easy, high blood pressure. Charlie prescribed the cheapest effective generic antihypertensive and gave him as many sample packets as he could.
Watching the man, his wife and two children, climb back into the dog sled and mush off, he wondered where the man would get the money to purchase more once the samples were gone.
"Let's try this again," Charlie grinned. "Is that the last patient?"
"Yes Doctor, and I've already refilled the clinic stock from the supplies in your plane. We can close up for the day now."
"Good. I should have just enough time to get to Fort Yukon before nightfall."
"Have a good trip Doctor -- and by the way, you look nice without your mustache. I wish my husband would shave his off."
"Thank you Kate. It was starting to get a bit scraggly so I figured it was better off gone." Zipping his parka and putting his snow goggles on, Charlie headed for the door.
"Here's some of my grandmother's special recipe moose stew. You look thinner, like you haven't been eating well lately." Kate handed Charlie a large sealed plastic bag filled with frozen stew.
"Thanks Kate, I just haven't had my usual appetite lately. I guess I am losing some weight." Taking it, he headed for the patch of smoothed snow Old Rampart called an airport, smiling behind his scarf and musing as he walked how civilization, in the guise of plastic food storage bags of all things, kept intruding into the nearly idyllic life of the people up here.
Day Fifty Nine
While on autopilot during the flight to Fort Yukon, Charlie concentrated on one medical file to the exclusion of all others, his own. The weight loss was to be expected if his appetite was reduced, but he was also showing signs of loss of muscle tone which told him that he was getting to that age where he would have to exercise more if he wanted to keep his weight under control. The presence or absence of a mustache was not life threatening, although its absence was still missed when he looked in the mirror and made him wonder about some little known selective form of cicatrial alopecia, not that he knew of a history of baldness of any type in his family tree. Setting his personal medical folder aside, Charlie forced himself to review the upcoming cases.
Day One Hundred Sixty Six
"Damn, I've got to exercise more." Charlie had long ago stopped worrying about speaking aloud when no one was about. Looking at his reflection in the bathroom mirror, it was clear he had lost about twenty-five pounds in the last five months, and while one hundred and thirty pounds was twenty pounds below his ideal weight range, he liked being thinner, besides all his routine labs had come back "normal," except for the one that had to be a mix-up at the lab.
Of more interest, was the new hair that had been slowly returning to the top of his head. It was still short, only an inch or two, and sparse, reminding him of someone getting hair plugs transplanted, but he was stumped for a medical explanation of why it might be happening. Luckily, this year's vacation was going to be in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and he had arranged his flights so that he could stop off in San Diego to visit his old college roommate and colleague who specialized in reconstructive surgery.
Dan Brown had a clinic that many of the brightest and best from Hollywood visited. While his patients were usually more interested in enhancing their appearance and slowing the aging process, Dan was also the most knowledgeable person outside of a beautician that Charlie knew in the area of dermatology. If Dan didn't know what was causing the hair growth he would know, from the literature and professional contacts, who would. Charlie chuckled at the thought of having such a horrid problem as hair growth in a desirable location, unlike some of Brown's patients suffering from disorders involving excessive hair growth, like idiopathic hirsutism.
The more sobering thought was the disappearance of Charlie's mustache. It had never returned after he shaved it off more than four months ago. The absence of facial hair and the new growth on his head had Charlie concerned and curious, if not disturbed.
Dan's nurse knew Charlie was coming and greeted him cheerily as he entered the nearly empty office. "Good afternoon Dr. Dawson. How was your flight?"
"Fine thank you... Gretchen," he read her name tag, propped perkily above an impressive pair of breasts and surrounded by the most form fitting white nurse's uniform he had ever seen outside of a soft porn movie.
"If you'll come this way, I'll bring you to Dr. Brown's office," she swayed off.
"I believe Dr. Brown was going to do an examination."
"Oh yes Doctor," she gushed. "But that's after lunch. He'll be finishing his last appointment in a few moments and then he'll be right with you."
The office was such a far cry from Charlie's rustic clinics with their antiquated army surplus desks and log or Quonset walls that he couldn't resist examining it minutely. Rich wood paneling and expensive paintings hung beside assorted diplomas and certificates. Then there was the desk. It was disgustingly clean and barren, with the wood polished to a sparkling shine and not even a telephone.
The bookcase behind it had books that were all the same height and lined up as if someone had used a ruler. Charlie didn't immediately recognize any of the texts Dan and he had used in medical school so he strolled over to examine them.
He was about to reach out and pull out a random book when Dan Brown walked in. "Don't bother, they're fake," Dan laughed. "It's actually paneling made to look like a row of books."
"But why?" Charlie turned his back on the bookcase and shook hands with his old friend.
"Don't bother sitting. Let's get out of here and grab a bite to eat. I'm free for the rest of the day and we have a reservation at the nineteenth hole of my golf club." Dan took his friend's arm and led him toward the door. "Gretchen was supposed to put you in my real office, not this one. This is for show. My patients seem to expect it."
Dan kept up a continuous monologue as they left. "Bye Gretchen, see you tomorrow. Don't forget to lock up.
"Charlie, it's great to see you. You're looking fabulous, younger than ever, although I'm surprised to see that you've shaved off your mustache. I thought you loved that little chunk of hair. And you're looking thinner than I remember. Have you gone on a moose-free diet?" he poked Charlie in the ribs as he laughed.
They had made it to the parking lot and the telltale beeping indicated that Dan had already unlocked his Mercedes before Charlie got a word in edgewise. "Dan. Dan. Slow up. I'd love to have lunch with you, but I also want you to examine me."
"Sure Charlie, no problem, but first some lunch. Okay?"
Charlie threw up his hands in defeat. Dan had always been like a steamroller, burying any objections or problems beneath his enthusiasm. "Fine Dan, but I have a plane to catch at eight tonight, so let's please skip the usual evening entertainment."
"If you insist Charlie Boy, but I had a doozy of a night planned. Gretchen has a couple of friends and they were all going to join us for a party at my beach house." Dan stopped, hand on the car door and looked closely at his friend. For the first time he saw the look of concern on his friend's face, then he really examined his friend. Without another word he closed the car door, locked it and headed back to the office with Charlie in tow.
Day One Hundred Seventy Seven
Cabo San Lucas had been great. The beaches were pristine white and the hotel room richly appointed. The meals had been some of the best Charlie had ever had, but he had such a small appetite that the chef even came out one evening and with broken English asked Charlie if there was something wrong with the food.
Charlie had apologized profusely and taken his meals for the last two days in his room or at one of the other fine restaurants rather than face the chef again. Still the chef had been right to be curious why Charlie had failed to do more than nibble on some of the best Seafood Paella in the world. He was still eating less than half what he was used to eating.
Actually, Charlie had to admit that he had had the worst vacation of his life. He had been so preoccupied with thoughts about what he would hear when he got back to San Diego and Dan filled him in on the results of all the blood work and other tests that had been done that he had not even dated a single one of the scores of beautiful girls he'd seen strutting about. Considering their many conquests at school, Dan would be razzing him about that too. The last night came none to soon.
Day One Hundred Seventy Eight
"I've got the results of your work up here Charlie. I can tell you what's happening, but not why. I think you'll need to tell me the why." This time they were in Dan's real office, the one with the journals strewn all over the place and with bookshelves stacked high with textbooks.
"I don't understand Dan. What did the results indicate?"
"Your body is awash with a variety of estrogen compounds. The loss of body hair and the return of cranial hair is because of them. Your weight loss is also probably a result of the high levels of estrogen, and no, it wasn't a lab error.
"If you keep going like this, all too soon you're going to have all the other related secondary sex characteristics of a female of the species. In fact, I'm surprised -- no make that amazed -- that you don't already have significant gynecomastia, increased fat deposits in your buttocks and markedly greater atrophy of your scrotum and testes," he pointed to Charlie's chest, waist and crotch as he spoke.
"What you need to tell me is why. I always thought you were a well-adjusted heterosexual male. Hell, we roomed together and went hunting babes together. Is there something you want to tell your old pal Dan?"
"You think I'm purposely ingesting female hormones? That I might be transsexual? Dan, I'm as shocked as you are to hear these findings. I came to you because I knew something was wrong, but couldn't put my finger on what. I assure you I have no interest in becoming a faux female."
"So you weren't going to ask me for gender reassignment surgery? You know I do them too, don't you?"
"Yes Dan, I knew -- and if that were my goal, I'd certainly come to you, but that's the furthest thing on my mind. I can assure you that I am not knowingly ingesting female hormones. If that's what's happening, I'm completely in the dark as to how it's happening. In fact, I don't understand why I'm not seeing similar results in most of my patients. We eat the same food, drink the same water, and breathe the same air." Charlie took a breath and for once Dan didn't fill the void with words.
"Actually, I think your body is producing its own estrogen compounds. The CT-Scan showed a pair of formations the size and shape of ovaries, and located where one would expect ovaries to be."
Charlie was silent for a long time. Finally, his shoulders slumped in resignation and with a weary voice he said, "Well, it's not likely to be life-threatening -- or did you find anything else?" Dan shook his head no.
"Then I've got my work cut out for me. When I get back, I've got work to do while I wait for you to figure out what's causing this." Charlie started to stand. "By the way, is there anything new in the literature other than androsterone and testosterone as treatments and is there a source other than horse urine? Remember. I'm allergic to horses."
"Whoa, Charlie Boy. You've got a unique medical problem and you sound like you're going to head back into that frozen wasteland you call home. I want you to stay here so I can do more tests and monitor you for other symptoms. You can stay at the beach house. I don't use it that often."
"Thanks Dan, but I can't do that. I've got patients that need me and even if I was willing to leave them, I'd still need to return and provide services until a replacement could be found."
"Charlie. Think straight. This is a unique condition. We don't know the cause. We don't know the course this will take. You may need hospitalization as this progresses. It could affect your mind and then you couldn't provide for your patients."
Charlie started to speak, but Dan shushed him. "Don't interrupt me. We've been friends too long for me to let you just go off and disappear into the tundra. Think it through Charlie. I can help you get the treatment you need. I can..."
"For now you can be my friend and answer my question. Is there another source of male hormones besides horses and is there some other treatment you can suggest?"
Dan's mouth worked silently for a moment, then his shoulders slumped. "I never could win an argument with you Charlie, anyone else, but not you.
"No. I know of no other treatment. And yes, there's a small pharmaceutical company in England that extracts testosterone from goats. I've used it a few times for patients who were allergic like you. It's about twice the cost, isn't as effective, and can produce just as many undesirable side effects. In addition, I'm sure you remember that increased testosterone can produce a variety of unwanted, even life-threatening symptoms like cancer.
"If you've got to do this on your own, please, at least promise me you'll keep me informed."
"And if I can discover a cause or hear of any new research or treatments, I'll..." he cleared his throat and looked down at his desk. "I'll let you know immediately."
They shook hand and Charlie silently left. Dan ignored the insistent buzzing of his intercom and stared off into space.
Day Two Hundred Nineteen
The mirror didn't lie, much as Charlie might wish otherwise. His body was changing, betraying him. When he thought about it, Charlie found that he was sufficiently knowledgeable as a physician to understand and accept intellectually what was happening to him, but his emotions were another matter.
He had never been overly concerned about his sexuality, considering it more like a comfortable old shoe that was used and served him well, but was not a defining feature of his life like it was for some people. He had "sowed wild oats" and enjoyed himself. Heck, sex felt good but he considered himself straight and had no interest in the more esoteric forms of sex portrayed on the Internet. It was not a first choice, but if necessary, Charlie could survive without it.
More than the sex was the concern about how others would respond. Alaskans, as a rule, were quite conservative. Charlie had difficulty imagining them openly accepting him as a man with female secondary sex characteristics, and doubted they would care that it was an involuntary change. If he wasn't careful, he could lose his patients and his practice.
The emotional issues were harder to express. Lurking in the back of his mind was the obvious, "Why me?" coupled with anger at his predicament. Sometimes he would find himself alternately cursing, begging, and negotiating deals with a deity he was unsure he even believed in, in hopes of a sudden and miraculous cure. Charlie intellectually understood that he was grieving, going through the various stages of the process, not that it made him feel any better.
The goat testosterone had arrived three weeks after Charlie's return from San Diego. Using the dosing instructions Dan had e-mailed him, Charlie tried one dose, only to become deathly ill. Apparently he was allergic to goats also. Throwing away Dan's instructions he tried a second partial dose in hope of titrating up to a normal level without the side effects, but that too failed.
Dan had no other alternative sources for testosterone so that treatment was out. Every day Charlie told himself, it was okay, gender did not define him, it was just a small part of what made him who he was. Intellectually, he was resigned to the changes that kept happening. Emotionally, he was not so sure. With no treatment options left, Charlie threw himself into his work. If he could not help himself, at least he could help someone else, at least for as long as he was permitted.
Day Three Hundred Two
Now that he realized what was happening, it was much easier for Charlie to recognize the faint signs of change. He added new ritual to his mornings. After his shower he examined his body, watching the fat slowly creep, day by day and week by week, from his waist to his buttocks and the slow growth of breast tissue. It was still easier to accept the changes when it was observed from behind the clinical detachment of a trained physician.
In a break between patients at the Old Rampart clinic, he made idle conversation. "So Kate, I guess that guy from Old Crow is doing well. What was his name -- Popov?"
"Yes Doctor. Anatuk Popov. He sent us a package as payment for his visit last month. It's on your desk." The nurse brought the package over to Charlie. Opening the package, Charlie found a letter.
|Dear Doctor Dawson,
Anatuk ask me write you. Thank you for help. Anatuk lives still cause of you. He now get pills from Canadian government. They send thing to check blood and he using it now you show him how. We not have money to pay you so we send you gift as thanks.
Miluka and Anatuk Popov
Inside the package, wrapped in some old newspaper, was an intricately carved matching set of jewelry including a necklace, a bracelet, and earrings made of whale bone. Charlie's eyes began to water and Kate silently offered a tissue.
"That was nice of them, and the craftsmanship is superb, I'm glad he's doing well." Charlie wiped his eyes and smiled thankfully at Kate. To himself he thought, how he loved his job and hoped he would be able to keep doing it as he continued to change.
"I have something for you too, Doctor." Kate handed him a gift-wrapped package about the size of a folded up shirt. "I had to guess at the size, but I think I'm close."
Charlie opened the package expecting a slightly belated birthday present, but his face turned beet red and his eyes bulged in shock when he saw the contents; then the package dropped to the floor as he hands flew to his face and he began to cry.
"It's okay honey," Kate held his head to her breast and gently stoked his hair to comfort him. "It's okay. This is from all of us. We don't understand what's happening, but we want you to know we all love you and want you to stay."
"You know?" Charlie choked out between sobs.
"I know," Kate gently pulled back and picked up the fallen box. "The point is, it doesn't matter. You're a wonderful doctor and an even more wonderful person. Please take the gift as a sign of our continued friendship."
Charlie examined the woman standing before him intently, trying to peer through her eyes and deep into her very soul. All the while, Kate stood silently, hand outstretched offering the box, a smile of friendship on her face. Finally Charlie took the box, closed it up and, without another word, headed off toward his waiting airplane. As he flew back toward home, his thoughts couldn't help vacillating between wondering if he shouldn't just accept the obvious and wear the enclosed bra and panty set and how long he would still have his job if he unbound his breasts and admitted he was not, for all intents and purposes, female.
Day Four Hundred Seventeen
Charlie stepped out of the shower. Cleaning the steam off the mirror he began the daily ritual of self examination. By his records, this was the four hundred and seventeenth day since he had first noticed the changes. The hair on top of his head had grown out lush and full, joining the rest of his hair as it extended to just below his shoulder blades, thick, black, and wavy unlike the curls he had been born with.
Picking up the tape measure on the bathroom counter, Charlie measured himself again. A thirty-seven-inch chest, he still preferred not to use the word bust, a twenty-four-inch waist and a thirty six inches at the buttocks. They had remained stable for the last six months as had his weight at one hundred and twenty-one pounds. His height had never changed and was still five foot nine and a half inches.
The only things still changing were his genitals. His testicles had been the first to go with the scrotal sacks shrinking to a ripple on the flesh of his crotch just thirty-four days later.
The last vestige of his manhood was his penis, but in total disregard for medical science, it too had been shrinking. It had been barely visible yesterday, but today it was gone, buried somewhere in the ripples of his long gone scrotum.
Charlie had thought he'd cry when his penis finally disappeared -- or rage at the heavens -- or even kill himself. Instead, he put away his record book and tape measure and calmly walked back into the bedroom to dress. The bra and panties had been a regular part of his wardrobe since that fateful trip to Old Rampart.
For the last two months he had been practicing with makeup at Kate's insistence. It was totally unnecessary here, north of the Arctic Circle, and he had no expectation of being anywhere where it would be needed, but if he was going to be a female, he presumed it would be necessary to learn the relevant skills.
Charlie practiced diligently and methodically, just as he had studied in medical school and on his last visit, just two days ago, Kate had announced that he was proficient.
He then put it all away, filing it as another probably useless skill, available if it was ever needed. The next time someone wanted advice or help with their makeup, he would be ready to save the day. When he was feeling humorous, he could almost see himself running up to some poor woman to explain to her why she was a summer shade and should reconsider her choice of blusher, thus saving her from a fate worse than ignominy.
Dressed, Charlie ate a light breakfast. It was nice to be able to eat again. His appetite had almost completely returned shortly after his return from San Diego. Charlie was no psychiatrist, but he felt fairly confident that the return of his appetite was as much relief at having an explanation, such as it was, as it was a change in his symptomology.
It was time, probably past time. Stalking determinedly to the desk, he opened the file drawer and pulled out a folder. Setting it on his desk, he opened the folder and slowly read it through for what had to be the hundredth time. As he finished each page, he signed or initialed as necessary. Once all the necessary authorizations had been completed, he placed the paper in an envelope and sealed it up.
With moist eyes he saluted the envelope. Then he put on his severe weather gear and snowshoed to the post office before heading to the airport for yet another day town hopping from patient to patient.
Day Five Hundred Thirty Seven
It had taken several months, but the chain of events she had started with the mailing of that envelope had come to fruition. All of her records had been revised to reflect her sex as female. Except for her brief ceremony saluting the passing of her manhood, it had gone effectively unnoticed.
The State of Alaska didn't care as long as he provided competent medical services and none of the citizenry complained, and none of Dr. Charlie Dawson's patients were going to complain. Her patients didn't care who cured their colds and sewed up their wounds. A rigger with a broken shoulder didn't care about the gender of the person that reset the break and the parents of a squalling baby were thrilled by the physician's announcement that their baby was healthy regardless of the physician's sex. In effect, the change had proved to be an irrelevance to Charlie's position.
Seemingly poetically, on the same day she received the confirmation that her gender had changed, Charlie had her first period at thirty-three, although she had to admit, she looked more like she was in her mid twenties. She had been expecting her first period ever since the vaginal opening had finally burst through two months earlier.
In fact, she was actually quite happy as she had been having erotic dreams for the last year and had been masturbating for relief when she first felt the thinning of the wall where it had been developing. Now she would be able to perform that function more effectively.
When her vagina had first appeared, she had closed the clinic for the day. Setting several mirrors in strategic places, she climbed into the stirrups on her examining table and clumsily but thoroughly examined herself, not forgetting to take a pap smear.
Charlie had been pleased to see that everything looked normal and immediately radioed Dan Brown to keep him informed as she had promised. Next she called Kate, who had been her friend, confidant, supporter, and teacher throughout. Finally, she contacted her boss in Fairbanks and asked for a vacation.
Day Five Hundred Sixty Five
"Hello Gretchen, is Dr. Brown in?"
"Yes ma'am. Do you have an appointment?" The woman before her was dressed in the latest fashion although Gretchen was unimpressed with her choice of jewelry. The carved native bone jewelry detracted from the sleek lines of her business suit.
"No, but I'll wait. Please give this note to the Doctor." With that the woman turned on her heels and strode purposefully to one of the plush chairs in the waiting room. Gracefully seating herself, a Cosmo caught her eye and she began leafing slowly through it.
"Excuse me ma'am. Please come this way." It was just a few minutes later that Gretchen escorted the woman to Dr. Brown's office. The nurse held the door open gestured for the woman to be seated.
"No thank you Gretchen, I'll wait in the real office," she said, striding past the surprised nurse and into the cluttered back office.
An angry Dan Brown showed up surprisingly quickly. Standing by the door, hands on his hips, he glared at the woman who calmly returned his attentions. "What is the meaning of this? I am not your father and we both know it. I expect an immediate explanation or Gretchen will be notifying the police and my attorneys."
Dan waited impatiently for an answer and opened his mouth to call Gretchen when the woman suddenly began giggling. "My God Dan, I really had you going, didn't I?"
"Madam, I don't believe we know each other and I have little interest in knowing anyone who would make patently preposterous claims in order to get my attention. Now leave immediately."
"But of course Dan," she gasped as she fought to regain her composure, "but I have a reservation for two at the nineteenth hole of your favorite golf course and this time I don't need you to examine me, although I wouldn't object."
"Wh -- what the hell?"
"Last time I had a plane to catch for Cabo San Lucas. Ring a bell -- roomie?"
"Ch -- Charlie? Charlie Dawson? Is that really you?"
Charlie nodded and gave a tentative smile. Picking up a pen and taking a piece of paper off the cluttered desk, she scribbled her name and gave it to Dan.
"Damn, if you looked that good when we were in medical school, I never would have graduated," his frown became a broad smile as he slowly examined her from her patent leather heels to her enticingly cut hairdo, "but then again, I wouldn't have cared."
Then his expression became serious again. Closing the door, he walked over to his desk and sat heavily in his chair. "How are you taking it? Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Well, you could have lunch with me, like I offered before."
"Can we make it dinner? I can't just ignore my patients."
"Done, but if it's dinner, I choose where. Let's say seven o'clock? I'm at the Hilton. Room twelve twenty."
At precisely seven, Dan Brown, smartly dressed in his best Armani suit, knocked on the door to room twelve twenty. From behind the door came a muffled shout, "Come on in. I'll be out in a minute."
Unsure of himself, Dan tried the door knob. It turned. Taking a deep breath but not sure why he did it, Dan grasped the knob more firmly and opened the door.
Room twelve twenty was a suite. The door opened into a sitting room, not lavish, but well appointed, with a couch, several plush chairs, a large screen television set and a wet bar to the left and a small dining nook to the right.
"Would you fix drinks please?" Charlie called from the other room. "I'd like a martini, with an onion, like you used to make them in college. Remember how we used food coloring one Halloween to make them look like eyeballs?"
Smiling at the reminiscence, Dan had just finished the drinks when there was a knock on the door.
"Would you get that please? I hope you don't mind, but I thought it might be nice to eat here. Where we can talk in private?"
With a shrug, Dan obliged. The bellboy wheeled in a cart full of food. Item by item, an antipasto, Chateaubriand, double cooked potatoes, and asparagus tips with hollandaise sauce were set out on the room's small table. Champagne was popped and set on ice, and candles were lit. Dan tipped the bellboy for his efforts and shut the door behind him.
Charlie cleared her voice and Dan turned to see her leaning against the bedroom door jamb. She was wearing a diaphanous white nightgown. "I thought you'd like to examine me before we ate."
Dan's jaw fell open and he stared.
"Oh hell. I was afraid this was a bad idea." The bedroom door slammed shut behind her.
"Charlie?" Dan moved to the door and knocked gently.
"Charlie, please open the door."
"Charlie, I can't leave you like this. We've been friends for way too long." The silence was even more uncomfortable.
"Charlie, please open the door and talk to me. If you won't open the door, I'll do it myself. Charlie? Charlie?" Dan slowly reached out and tried the doorknob. It turned.
"Charlie? I'm coming in Charlie." He held his breath as he turned the knob. There was no demand that he stop so Dan continued, slowly opening the bedroom door.
The opening door revealed a large bedroom, plushly carpeted, with a huge canopied bed in the middle. Charlie sat stiffly on the edge of the silk-covered bed and staring intently into space while hugging herself. The only movement was from tears slowly streaking down her cheeks.
"Charlie?" It was almost a whisper. She shivered as he spoke, but otherwise failed to respond.
Dan could hear the carpet being crushed under his feet as he slowly approached the bed. Tentatively, he placed a hand on her shoulder and she shivered again. Kneeling before her, his other hand gently touched her damp cheek and forced her to look at him. "Charlie, please. Listen to me. We've been friends way too long to let it end like this. I was just surprised. Until that moment when I saw you by the doorway, despite all the e-mails we've sent each other, even despite seeing you at my office, I had not thought of you as anything other than my best friend and ex-roomie."
She shivered again and tried to look away, but his hand on her chin gently pulled her back.
"I see you now as the woman, the ravishingly beautiful woman, that you've become. I know you're my friend, but I'm still adjusting to the truth that you are also a sensual sexual woman. More than that, I'm trying to correlate and synthesize all these new images with that of old my college roommate, the guy who introduced me to my first steady, the guy who shared his Playboy magazines with me to help when we were studying anatomy.
"If you want, I will leave, but I want you to know that I will always be your friend. I can't imagine how you're handling this as well as you are, I know I wouldn't, but I need you to know that I'll always be there for you." He fruitlessly searched her face for a sign. Finally, Dan signed and began to rise.
"Huh?" Her words had been so quiet that he wasn't sure he had actually heard anything.
"I said 'Wait'." Her words were louder now, but still not much more than a ragged whisper. "Please don't leave."
"Whatever you want Charlie, just tell me."
"Let me get changed out of this foolish costume and then we can talk, okay."
"Sure -- but it's not foolish. It's -- enchanting, and you look fantastic in it."
"Really?" her face brightened. "You mean it?"
"Of course I mean it Charlie," he sounded a bit hurt.
"Then let's move into the sitting room and we can talk."
"As you wish." Dan stood and extended his hand. When Charlie tentatively reached out, Dan's hand enclosed hers and gently but firmly pulled her to her feet. He had intended to gallantly escort her to the sitting room, but when she stood she was just as tall as him and she was mere inches from him. He could suddenly smell her perfume, hear the rustling of her nightgown, stare into her huge, soft, beckoning eyes. He looked down to tear him self away from those eyes and saw the curve of a thinly veiled breast covered with goose bumps. He couldn't help himself. He found himself swaying closer, ever closer. He felt her breath against his cheek -- and then their lips touched.
Realizing what had happened, Dan jerked back, fearful that he had gone too far, that he had violated his friend's trust. He started to stutter out an apology when Charlie's hand moved to his lips, stilling them.
"No. It's all right. If I didn't want it, I wouldn't have been here." Her eyes half closed, Charlie languorously brushed his cheek, sliding her hand back to the nape of his neck and slowly pulling him to her -- and they kissed.
Day Seven Hundred Forty
Life was good. Charlie loved her job, loved her patients, loved to fly, and loved her cabin overlooking the Bay. But most of all, she loved her vacations. For this year's vacation Charlie had decided to return to Cabo San Lucas.
This time, she expected to enjoy the beaches much more and she had a couple of new bikinis fresh from mail order that would let her compete on an even footing with the other girls there. But the real reason for enjoying it was that this year she'd have company. Kate and her husband were going to be there to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary and Charlie expected them to leave their room at least often enough to share a dinner or two with her, but Charlie knew she wouldn't be lonely. She would be sharing her room too -- with her old roommate, Dan.
Day Seven Hundred Fifty Nine
Cabo had been splendid. Life was wonderful and Charlie felt complete. Kate and Bill were still back in their hotel room. They had come out long enough to join Charlie and Dan for one day at the beach and one scrumptious dinner. Now without Charlie and Dan to coax them out, Charlie was betting they would spend the last few days of their anniversary vacation in Cabo in the comfort of their bedroom.
The flight back was spent with Charlie's head resting comfortably on Dan's shoulder admiring her new engagement ring and kissing her husband to be. There was only one more thing to get resolved, what had caused "the change." Being physicians, the first thing they had done was rule out every possible medical explanation they could identify, so using Occam's Razor they now had to find a non-medical cause. Straining for something, anything, out of the ordinary, Charlie had finally remembered the cylinder. Dan had already rearranged his work schedule to give him some additional time off and Charlie still had a week more vacation coming. The plan was to take a couple of hours to restock the suitcases with clean clothes and head for Alaska. Dan had wanted to publish the findings regarding Charlie in the New England Journal of Medicine. Charlie was not thrilled with the thought, but Dan had promised that he would keep her anonymous. The problem was that the paper would have much more impact if they could also explain what had caused "the change," not just report its occurrence. With that in mind, when they landed at San Diego airport they picked up their luggage and strolled hand in hand through Customs.
Day Seven Hundred Sixty One
Two people hiked up to the Ranger Station at the entrance to Kitmai National Park. Both had heavy backpacks, but the man seemed less comfortable with the extra weight than the woman. The Ranger-On-Duty greeted them and signed them in.
"Where ya headin'?"
"We'd like to visit the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes."
"No problem, just stay away from the north side of the valley and any flowing water. We've had some heavy rains recently and the streams are swollen. There've already been a couple a' mud slides and more are possible. The banks are especially treacherous.
"The next bus leaving for the 'Valley' will be departing in an hour n' a half from the Visitor's Building over there," he pointed.
"Thanks." They headed off toward the building identified. "The bus ride is about forty-five minutes," Charlie informed Dan. "Once we get settled on the bus I'm going to take a nap. I'm bushed."
"I'm not surprised. A four-hour flight to Anchorage followed by another three-hour flight in your Cessna. Who wouldn't be tired?" Settling in on the rickety school bus being used as a tour bus, Charlie suited actions to words and was asleep before they had pulled away from the Visitor's Building.
Dan spent the ride sitting as still as he could. Charlie had curled her feet under her and had her head resting precariously on Dan's shoulder. Only Dan's arm around his ex-best friend's shoulder kept her from sliding off the seat.
Because he was concentrating on Charlie, the scenery seemed to pass in a blur of road winding through mountain valley, pine trees, and rushing waters. Dan mulled over the changes in his ex-roommate and was amazed. It was more than just the physical changes which were phenomenal in and of themselves, it was also the changes in mood.
As a man, Charlie had been more of a loner. Charlie had had a strangely twisted sense of humor like most medical students and they had pulled some really great practical jokes, like the time they had replaced the full body human skeleton in Anatomy class with obscenely posed mannequins, but it had always been Dan who would drag Charlie off to a dance, a party, or a study break road trip. Now Dan found himself in love with his best friend and on a quest for a cylinder that could not possibly do what it very likely had done to his friend's body. Not for the first time, Dan wondered fleetingly if this were not some elaborate practical joke, but instantly dismissed the possibility as even less likely than the improbable situation in which he now found himself. There was too much of his old friend in this new person. It had to be Charlie, although Dan was constantly amazed at how well she had adjusted. He doubted he would do as well in her position.
It was less than Charlie had hoped for, but the nap, choppy as it was on a bus driving too fast on a barely paved macadam road, helped and she felt almost human again. Stretching, she opened her eyes to see Dan smiling beatifically down at her.
"What? What are you smiling at? Is my fly open or something?"
"Nope, just looking at my best friend and fiancee." Dan surprised himself to find he was blushing and turned away. Charlie just smiled happily and cuddled even closer.
When it stopped, Charlie was one of the first off the bus, leaving Dan to struggle to keep up as she headed off toward the "Valley" Ranger Station at a trot. He grabbed the backpacks and ran after her, but she was already out of the Station and heading toward a nearby cabin before he could catch up.
"What's happening?" he wheezed.
"The kid's not there. He hasn't been around for months, maybe years."
"So what about the Ranger? Did he know anything about the cylinder?"
"Not a thing. He acted like I was some kind of nutcase. I don't think the kid ever told anyone."
"So what now?"
"We talk to the people in that cabin."
"Whoa." Dan grabbed Charlie's shoulder and spun her around. "Enough of the monosyllabic speech. Stand still and talk to me. I'm more likely to be an active participant in this process if I have a clue or two as to what's going on."
Irritation at being grabbed warred with reason. Charlie stepped back, just out of Dan's reach but then bit off her snappy response. "You're right. I apologize, but I'm just so anxious to get to the bottom of this.
"When I was here last, the kid I gave the cylinder seemed more interested in a couple of girls on the porch of that cabin," she pointed, "than what I gave him. I was hoping I could find one or both of the girls and see if they had a clue as to where the kid had gone."
"Fair enough," Dan clicked his heels together and made a courtly bow. "Shall we go milady?"
"Cut that out," Charlie swatted him on the arm but her attempt to look angry failed miserably. Giggling, she grabbed his arm and dragged him off toward the cabin. As she climbed the three steps her pace slowed and by the time she was at the cabin door Charlie had stopped.
"So are you going to knock?"
Charlie knocked, then knocked again. No answer.
"Damn. What now?"
"We try the door knob." Charlie suited actions to words and was rewarded with a creaking sound as the door opened.
"Geez. Don't folks up here lock their doors?"
"Nope. Except for the locks required by law on my narcotic drug box, I don't have any locks either." While she was talking, Charlie pulled a flashlight from a pocket on her backpack. Flicking it on she led as they entered the darkened cabin.
"Shall I dig out the lantern?"
"Would you please. There doesn't seem to be much here, but some better lighting might help us find a clue."
The two small windows offered minimal entry for the setting sun so the gas lantern helped quite a bit. The cabin had one room, with a backdoor leading to an attached shed bathroom. Aside from the wooden table on which Dan set the lantern, there were two rickety chairs and two cots with thin and faded mattresses folded over atop the springs. On the wall beside the door was a small clump of carved bones held together by leather.
"Can I help you?" Dan and Charlie jerked about to face the door and the huge uniformed ranger standing silhouetted in it.
"We -- we were -- looking for some friends - well, actually acquaintances," Charlie explained. "An Aleut family with a couple of teenaged girls. They were camping here two years ago and they accidentally took something of mine -- nothing valuable, but still it had a lot of sentimental value. I was hoping they had returned this year so I could see if they still had it."
"Well," he rumbled, "then why don't you come back to my office and we can check the rental records? Maybe we can find you an address instead of running you in for breaking and entering." The man turned and left without a backward glance, expecting them to move without need of further prompting, and they did.
"Nice recovery," Dan whispered as they trailed behind the ranger.
"No recovery. Truth. If the rangers don't have the cylinder, the kid must. The luck totem beside the door tells me that the people renting here were probably Aleuts and I'd bet dollars to donuts that the kid and the girls knew each other. I'm hoping that they were part of the same tribe."
"But how did you know the totem was theirs?"
"I -- oh shit," Charlie looked strickened. "I don't."
"Well, don't worry about it. It's still our best lead. Let's go with what we've got."
Day Seven Hundred Sixty Five
"That should be Norton Sound in front of us and to the left. We've been homing on Nome Tower so we should be about fifty miles west of St. Michael," Charlie explained. "Now we cut across the Sound toward point Romanof and Kwikpak."
They had just made it over the water when Charlie started flipping switches and muttering. Dan watched worriedly, feeling even more uncomfortable due to his inability to do a thing to help. Charlie pulled the stick to he left bringing the plane into a gradual circle toward the frozen land. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Yeah. Grab the radio and start sending out an S.O.S.," Charlie spoke through gritted teeth as she struggled to control the plane. The engine sounded very rough and loud all of a sudden. "It's already set to Nome air control. Just hold the button and say 'Mayday. Mayday. This is BF 88730 C bearing South South East at longitude 172 degrees latitude 63 degrees. We are having engine trouble and are trying for a dry landing at the edge of Norton Sound about 50 miles from St. Michael.' When you've said that, let go of the button for a couple of second and listen for an answer. If there's no answer, say it again and keep saying it until we get an answer."
Dan grabbed the radio and started the Mayday. They were slowly getting closer to the land, but it was still not a sure thing. Charlie kept fighting for every updraft she could find.
Dan could see the whitecaps and the ice floes below much more clearly than he wanted as he worked the radio. There was still no answer.
"Is your seat belt tight?"
Dan paused to check it, and Charlie's also. "Both are tight."
"Good. Don't worry yet, but we better be prepared," Charlie nodded curtly at the approaching land mass. There were boulders strewn everywhere, reaching upward like claws curled to catch and shred the bottom of the small Cessna. "I'm praying for one last big updraft just at the shoreline. If we can get inland a bit, it should be frozen flat tundra."
"My, doesn't that sound appealing."
"Better than an instant autopsy by rock," Charlie grimly laughed. "Don't worry until you have to." Dan just muttered about the deterioration in Charlie's sense of humor and returned to his Maydays.
The boulders stretched about thirty feet up from the shore and the plane was only fifty feet about the water and about two hundred yards shy of the shore when the engine finally sputtered and stopped.
"Now you can worry. I had hoped for an updraft by now, but no such luck. We're committed. It's too close to turn and too late to try something else. Put your head in your lap and hug your knees. I'm going to try to thread the needle between those two," Charlie pointed to two larger boulders with several smaller ones strewn about them.
"There's enough room?"
"I don't know Dan, but it's all we've got so I certainly hope so."
"Charlie? This seems like a good time to tell you, I love you."
"And I love you too Dan. Now shut up. Put your head down. And if you've got any 'in's anywhere feel free to try a quiet prayer or two while I try to give us both a chance to prove we love each other."
They came in low and fast. Dan could hear the waves breaking on the rocks above the sound of air whistling past the plane's fuselage. Without warning Charlie started frantically yanking on the post while her feet slammed down on pedals and the plane slowly seemed to tilt and turn on one wing. Charlie was actually out of her seat and straining at the straps with the force she was exerting.
Dan took a quick glance out the cockpit window and wished he had not. They were so close to one of the huge rocks that he could see bird nests in its crevices. As his head dropped to his lap there was another sound, like someone struck a match only louder, much louder. This noise was accompanied by a brief shudder and then Dan could hear Charlie frantically struggling to straighten the plane and land. Even before they were straight the plane bounced once and then they skewed to the right and started to spin.
Dan squeezed his eyes tightly closed and hugged himself as hard as he could. It was several moments before he realized they had stopped spinning. With a whoop of joy he popped his seat belt and turned to hug Charlie. She was unconscious and bleeding from a wound on her forehead where she must have struck the side of the cabin as they were twirling about.
Instantly, Dan's medical training took over and in rapid order he checked vital signs and was relieved to find a pulse. Then he checked her eyes and her pupils were enlarged. Gently lowering her seat back to a nearly supine position, Dan gently carefully felt for neck injuries while hoping Charlie would wake up.
When the cursory examination was finished and she was still not awake, Dan reached back behind her seat and pulled out Charlie's medical bag. Grabbing an ammonia ampule and breaking it, he waved it in front of Charlie's nose to no effect.
"Shit!" he muttered. Betting on a subdural hematoma, Dan returned to the medical bag seeking futilely for an injectable corticosteroid.
"Mayday. Mayday," Dan shouted into the microphone again and again. He had to get help or Charlie was going to die from the blood filling her skull cavity and putting more and more pressure on her brain.
"Shit!" this time louder. "This is BF 88730 C, bearing South South East at longitude 172 degrees latitude 63 degrees. We have crashed at the edge of Norton Sound about 50 miles from St. Michael. The pilot is injured and needs immediate medical attention due to a probable subdural hematoma." He was still calling for help an hour later when the man in the fur parka knocked on the door of the plane.
"Thank god," Dan cried as he dropped the radio and opened the passenger door to let the man in. "Do you have any medical supplies? The pilot is injured and needs immediately help."
"Then can you get us to somewhere where there is medical assistance? It's a matter of life and death."
"Please," Dan's clinical detachment was rapidly abandoning him. "She needs help or she's going to die. Can you do anything to help us? Anything?"
The man thought for a long while as Dan nervously checked his patient. Her breathing was becoming slightly erratic. If she continued to deteriorate at this rate, Charlie would be dead in an hour.
"One chance. Help move her onto my sled and bundle her up."
Dan had not even noticed the dogsled, but he was willing to grasp at straws, especially since there had never been an answer on the radio so no help could possibly be forthcoming from that quarter. "I'll take her head and you take her feet, when we get her into the sled we need to brace her head as best we can, but don't cover her up. The cold may slow her heart rate and give her a little extra time."
The ride back was hell. Every bounce had the potential for exacerbating the bleeding inside Charlie's head, the bleeding that could kill her. After what seemed like forever, they approached and entered an Eskimo village. The children playing outside the igloos made it look like a frozen Norman Rockwell, but Dan didn't care. This was his only chance to save Charlie.
"Where's the doctor?"
"Then why the hell did you bring us here? Is there a radio? She's going to die without immediate medical attention."
"Come. Save woman." With that the Eskimo turned and entered the nearest igloo. Dan hesitated, not wanting to leave Charlie unattended, but it really came down to one issue. There was no other choice. Getting on his knees, Dan crawled into the igloo.
The inside was surprising in its warmth and in how well lit it was. A small fire in the center provided the heat and a small portion of the light, but most of the light came from a series of open bowls with lighted wicks floating in oil strategically placed about the room. Seated on a pile of furs was a grizzled old woman. His erstwhile rescuer stood behind the old woman.
"You have a friend who is dying. We have none of the medical services you wish. We have but one way to save your friend, but it will be at great risk to you."
"At this point I don't care what you want to try. Let's just do it quickly."
"Bring the hurt one to the shrine," she spoke to the standing men and returned to chewing on a strip of hide. With a gesture to follow, the man left. With a shrug of his shoulders Dan followed.
Outside, the man mushed his dogs and headed for a lone igloo well away from all the others. Stopping about twenty feet from the entrance to the solitary structure, he turned to wait for Dan to catch up.
"I go no more. Take hurt one into igloo and wait." He helped Dan move Charlie to the ice, but then backed quickly away from the igloo. Jumping onto the sled, he left, pointing back at the igloo.
Once again, Dan had no real options and little to lose. He pushed the snow away from the entrance. Then, pulling Charlie behind him he crawled backwards into the igloo. Once they were both inside, Dan made sure Charlie was as comfortable as possible before turning to examine the enclosure. There was no fire and there were no lanterns. The only light was from the ubiquitous opening at the peak of the roof to allow the smoke to escape, so it took a moment for Dan's eyes to adjust. Lying haphazardly in the center of the igloo was a small cylinder with "glyphs" on it.
Day Seven Hundred Seventy Nine
It had been touch and go, but the cylinder had done its work on Charlie. By the end of the first day she had awoken and by the time rescuers had found them two days later, even the cut on her forehead was gone. She had changed however. More passive. More feminine. If anything she had become even more beautiful.
Dan's heart broke with every glance. His friend was alive, but their future was dead. Dreams of love and marriage had ended with Dan's exposure to the cylinder. He had yet to feel the quasi-cold symptoms Charlie had reported, but the changes in him were coming. They were inevitable.
As soon as he could hand off care of Charlie to competent medical professionals Dan left for San Diego. He never even said goodbye, not knowing how to say their lives together were over. For that matter, Dan was not sure he wanted to live long enough to become Danielle. His first day back, Dan had tried to throwing himself into his work, but he found himself irritable and abrupt. Worse, he found he could not regain the pleasure and excitement he had always previously felt practicing medicine. The last four days had been spent sitting on the deck of his beach house staring out at the ocean, drinking domestic beer and thinking.
Just that afternoon he had made a decision. For the first time since arriving at the beach house, he showered and shaved. Dressed in clean clothes, he opened a bottle of wine he had been saving for a special occasion -- this certainly applied -- and poured himself a crystalline goblet full. Setting the goblet and a Smith and Wesson on an occasional table beside his lounge chair, Dan sat down and enjoyed the orange glow on the water and the reds, purples, and greys of the nearly cloudless sky as the sun set for one last time. The wine, a hearty burgundy, was superb and Dan took his time sloshing it gently about the side of his glass and enjoying the bouquet. Finally, it was time and he carefully placed the goblet back on the table and reached for the gun.
"Daniel Webster Brown! Don't you dare touch that pistol!"
Dan was so surprised he spilled the wine as he tried to grab the gun and turn to face the intruder in his house at the same time. The spilled wine was ignored as he saw Charlie standing at the sliding glass door between the deck and the living room.
"How dare you give me an engagement ring and then abandon me," Charlie glared, hands on hips. "You don't really think you can get away from me that easily. Do you?
"Speak to me Dan. Speak to me... please." The last was barely audible. Tears ran freely down her face.
"Charlie. I missed you so. But you've got a life. You need to leave me." Dan slumped back into his lounge chair, facing the sunset.
"Why? If you love me and I love you, why shouldn't we be together?"
"Because soon I won't be able to be the man in you life. Because I don't want to live my life as a woman."
Charlie walked over to the deck railing and leaned against it and considered the man seated before her. "I'm not sure which of those comments to respond to first. There is the obvious. Suicide is never a solution. You're a physician damn it! You've spent your whole life saving lives and now you would consider ending one? What's wrong with that picture?
Dan said nothing, but he did blush with embarrassment. Charlie's comments had hit home.
"As for the second, I don't know if I should be complimented or insulted. It's okay for me to be turned into a woman, but not you? That almost implies I wanted this change." There was a tinge of anger in her voice.
"Dan, you have no idea how many nights I spent alone, even surrounded by people, considering what was happening to me and how hard it was to be forced into something like this. I found out something remarkable. Do you know what I found out?"
Dan shook his head no.
"I found out that gender is not the primary measure of who I am. I am much, much more than a male or a female. I'm a pilot, a physician, a friend, a caring human being, a -- oh hell, you get the picture. Do you have any idea of the nightmares I had where my friends rejected me, I lost my job and I was forced into something ridiculous like prostitution in order to survive? By the way, not once did I consider suicide and the changes I faced were much more daunting than what you're facing. Now, as I should have said before -- give me that gun and let's talk."
Charlie leaned against the railing, arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently as she waited for Dan to absorb everything she had said and respond. She was about to scream in exasperation when Dan's hand slowly moved toward the gun.
She sucked in a breath as his hand paused over the stock, but then it continued on to the barrel and he slowly handed it to Charlie. Taking a deep, ragged breath, and then the gun, Charlie said, "I'll be right back." She quickly carried the gun, dangling between two fingers as if to carry it without touching it, through the sliding glass door and into the beach house. There was a dull thud followed by a metallic clang and Charlie returned wiping her hands at a job well done.
"Now that that's out of the way, we need to talk." This time Charlie was feeling more confident and dropped down onto the second lounge chair.
"What is there to talk about? I won't kill myself, but we still have no future together." Dan stared gloomily at the ocean rather than look Charlie in the eyes.
"I'm sure you believe that. You're just sitting there waiting for breasts and a vagina to form, aren't you?"
Dan said nothing, but his eyes betrayed him.
"You left as soon as help arrived. Did you at least stop to talk to the Aleut wise man who sent us to the cylinder?"
Dan shook his head no, still avoiding even a glance at Charlie.
"I didn't think so. If you had, you might have learned at least a little bit about the properties of the cylinder."
"Properties? What properties? It changes men into women. Come to think of it, where is the cylinder now?"
"Right where we found it. I couldn't think of a safer place and I had no intention of announcing its discovery to the world, if for no other reason than to avoid both of us becoming someone's permanent lab rats."
"So. Are you going to ask me what I know or not?" Charlie pouted prettily as she waited for an answer.
"Why not," Dan sighed. "What do you know?"
"Why Danny Boy, Ah do declah. Ah thought you'd nevah ask," Charlie mugged before becoming serious again. "I still don't know where the damned thing came from, pick one of the standard science fiction explanations and you've got as good an answer as any. But thanks to an enlightening conversation with the wise man, I have a better, albeit not perfect, understanding of what it does."
"And that is?"
"Danny Boy. I'm impressed. You've initiated two whole questions. Maybe your suicidal depression is officially over," Charlie flinched inwardly at the bite to her words, but she knew she had to keep him from thinking about suicide. "But to answer your question, I'll tell you a brief story. You see I now know what happened to the cylinder from the time I dropped it off with that kid at the ranger station."
Dan interrupted to offer her some of his wine and eschewing a glass, Charlie gratefully took a swig from the bottle.
"I was right to think the kid was more interested in the girls at the cabin than the cylinder. He apparently stood by his post until the end of his shift, more than long enough to start being affected by the cylinder. At the end of his shift he closed up, taking the cylinder with him to show the two girls I mentioned -- to impress them. You know how guys can be," Charlie winked.
"Anyway, the three of them decided it was a holy relic of some sort although none of them could tell me how they came to that conclusion and Aleuts are not known for collecting, or even having, religious artifacts. At the end of the week they headed back to Kwikpak and the rest of the tribe. Oh, I forgot to mention, the guy was married to one of the girls. I guess I underestimated their ages by a couple of years when I first saw them. The other girl was the wife's sister. She was visiting -- and probably husband hunting.
"It took them about a month to get back to the tribe, in close proximity to the cylinder. The changes were significant, to the point that they had to convince the tribal elders who they were. Did I tell you the cylinder acts faster the longer you're in close proximity to it?"
Dan shook his head.
"Didn't think so. As I said, the changes were significant by the time they got back. The guy was a really pretty woman except for her genitals."
"So tell me something new," Dan grumped.
"The sister-in-law was also a much more attractive woman."
"Great. So it sucks the masculinity out of everyone, an equal opportunity gender vampire. Why didn't you destroy the evil thing?"
"Close, but not quite, Danny Boy." Charlie took another swig before continuing. "The wife was well on her way to becoming the very man who found our plane and rescued us."
"What?" Dan sat upright in his lounge chair. "You mean there's more to the cylinder than we've thought all along? What happened to her? Can we go back and use it? What did she do differently? Talk to me woman."
"Now you're suddenly interested. Dan I never knew you were so wrapped up in your sexuality."
"I wasn't, but remember I do sexual reassignment surgery. I think watching some of these folks suffering from gender dysphoria, not having a body to match their mental image of their gender, has made me feel good about having a gender identity that matches my physical body. I really would have liked to have kept it that way, damn that cylinder."
Charlie wasn't so sure that what he had said was anything more than a glib rationalization for a more serious issue. "Would it have killed you to become female?"
"No. To be honest, what's been eating at me the most is that I wouldn't be able to marry you and have children with you. You know, the house in the suburbs with the picket fence, etc. It's just not in the cards anymore... and I can't handle the loss of that."
"Then I guess I better finish my story. The other members of the tribe were afraid of them and wouldn't come near. Only the old wise man would even come close enough to talk and he ordered the separate igloo built. He immediately recognized the uniqueness of the cylinder.
"They've used it a couple of times since then, to save someone with a serious injury, enough to pretty well understand what it does, if not how. It seems to be a collector of sorts, but instead of electrical energy, it collects 'masculinity' for lack of a better term. When one person, male or female, comes within proximity of the cylinder, it takes their masculinity and as a trade, maximizes the person's feminine attributes. That's what happened to me -- twice now.
"When several people come into contact with the cylinder, it's a bit different. All but one lose their masculinity, while that one becomes even more masculine. They think the one who becomes more masculine is the strongest personality although if there were experimentation it could probably be better quantified."
"Does that mean what I think it means, that I'm not going to become a woman, that I can still marry you, that we can still have a life together?" Dan was standing in front of Charlie, hands on her shoulders squeezing her painfully in his excitement.
"Ow! You're hurting me."
Dan let go. "Sorry, but is that what it really means?"
"Yes, Dan, we can still be man and wife," Charlie smiled.
"Oh god, that's wonderful." He yanked Charlie from her chair and danced her about the deck. Charlie joined in with equal enthusiasm and they kissed a deeply soul-satisfying kiss. When they came up of air Dan asked, "Marry me. Please marry me. Marry me right now. I'll call a friend of mine who's a judge. We can..."
"Whoa. Let's talk about this a bit," Charlie pushed him away.
"You don't want to marry me?" Dan was instantly morose again.
"No. No. Nothing like that. I'd love to marry you, but I need to know how you feel about me taking your surname."
"Surname?" Dan was taken aback by the question, seemingly out of the blue. "What about my surname?"
"I'm not sure I want to take your last name when we marry."
"Why not? I'm not wedded to the idea, but I don't understand. What's wrong with my surname... or do you want me to take yours?" Dan chuckled.
"Tempting Danny Boy," Charlie laughed. "How would you like to be 'Danny Dawson' of the Yukon?" Before he could answer, she continued, "Actually, it's the opposite problem."
From the look on his face, Dan was clearly confused. Charlie stepped back and poised sexily. "I'm not sure I want to be called 'Charlie Brown.' Do I look like a Charlie Brown to you?"
Dan's jaw dropped. Charlie broke out in laughter as she embraced her husband to be. Her last coherent word was -- "Gotcha!"