In the Beginning
by Mark McDonald
©2001 Mark McDonald -- all rights reserved
Journal> Journal Date: 12/19/2081 -- 4:22 P.M.
Journal> Journal Empty!
Journal> Voice dictation journal editor, open. Proceed!
"I've been sitting here trying to figure out where to start, my journal screen just sitting there in front of me, open, like a gaping, empty mouth waiting to swallow me. So where do I begin with this? How do I say what I have to say?"
Journal> Voice dictation journal editor, ERROR.
"What now?" Smack. Come on!"
Journal> Voice dictation journal editor, ERROR.
"Piece of garage!"
Journal> Voice dictation journal editor, open. Proceed.
"Okay, let's try this. I was born Michael William Vello on November 15th, in the year 2062. Therefore, by easy addition, that means I'm 20 years old, or at least I have seen twenty years pass in my short lifetime. Ten months ago, when this whole thing started, I was still nineteen and a freshman in college."
There! That wasn't so hard! What's next? Let me see. Oh yeah! How could I forget?
I had been in school about three months at the time my little unfinished journey began, having moved out of my parents modest home, which had been made to be slightly more spacious by the death of older sister, Erin, about two years earlier. Until then, our lives had been about as normal as one can expect since the war and all the shortages and rationing started, but all that happened before I was born, so I really don't remember anything else. For me, life has always been about shortages. Others have it so much worse. I really have to remember that, especially now!
Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yeah, life was about as normal for our family as it was for most others. My Mom and Dad had grown up before the shortages and explosive population growth and remember a much different existence. From what they've told me, it must have been a very opulent time; things like beef and other meats available at anytime without any rationing, grains and bread on open shelves in the grocery store and the freedom to pick and choose what kind of cheese or bread you bought. Yeah, yeah, I know what you're going to say; those types of choices still exist, but as I'm sure you're already aware, they only exist for the very rich or privileged in our society. Most of us don't have any clue about the comfort that these choices can provide.
Normal life for our small quartet ended with the death of my sister in the summer of 2079 in a HOV accident. The driver lost control, ended up trying to hover over water and sunk like a rock. After that my parents, caught in wave after wave of grief, made life unbearable for not only themselves but for anyone who came within a thousand yards of them. Please don't get me wrong. I loved my sister very much. We were very close and I was devastated the night she was killed. I lost my only true loving family member. Yes, Mom and Dad loved me, but Erin was the "special one," the "favorite son" -- or daughter in this case. I don't resent anyone for this. In fact, I understand it -- and on the night she died, we had shared some of the most profound moments we had ever shared as brother and sister -- but after two years, the pain of loss diminishes and one finds it's time to move on. I'm sure my sister wouldn't have minded.
My parents, on the other hand, wanted to wallow in the depths of their despair as though it were a warm bath to be enjoyed at the end of a hard day's work. I guess it's hard to betray the memory of a child, your child, by admitting that it's time to move on without them. I can see how some could view that as a sort of perverse abandonment and I don't think they ever forgave me for what I decided to do next. I left!
I had graduated from high school in that two-year period after my sister's death and was ready to make a life for myself. I felt that the best way to honor Erin's life was not to defile my own.
It was clear that my parents weren't going to help send me to school, so I self-qualified for several grants and scholarships. Then, I applied for on campus living quarters and badda-bing, badda-boom, I'm attending City College. I started during the winter semester and lived in a small single room in the men's dorm two blocks away from the main campus. It's sometimes hard to believe that moving out and starting school all happened less than a year and a half ago. Then, after what seemed a quantum leap later with a little poor judgment thrown in for good measure, here I am -- but I'm getting ahead of myself.
God, has it really been that long now? I guess it has. I still remember the date. How could I not? For me, it's kinda like remembering what you were doing when the first colonial ships landed on Mars or where you were and what you were doing as you watched President Houston commit suicide on a national vid broadcast. My moment of infamy was March 4th, 2081. The night before all this started, I had been hanging out at a local club where my band was currently playing sold-out shows four nights a week, Thursday through Sunday. As luck would have it, Gary knew just where I could be found that Monday night.
The place was nearly empty Monday to Wednesday since the band didn't play those nights and Marcus, the owner, didn't have anyone else playing to fill in the gap. The place held about two hundred people comfortably, but on Friday and Saturday, it was common to find as many as five hundred or more crammed in to hear the band. Monday, Marcus was lucky if forty people showed up all night let alone at one time. This made it easy to spot me at the bar. My attention was diverted from my drink to the door when it opened. In walked Gary, a huge plastic looking smile on his face. I couldn't help thinking to myself that Gary had found some new thing to fill that 'Danger Niche'.
"Yo!" Gary shouted from across the room. I raised my hand and smiled to him.
"Hap?" I asked.
"Nada. You?" He gripped my hand, squeezing it hard. Then, he gave it a couple of good pumps before letting it go.
"Drinkin' for free," I said and lifted my glass to him.
"Marcus. One of those for me and put it on his tab," Gary said with a smile.
"You pay for your drinks Shipley," he growled with a huge grin as he set the glass down. "Besides I know you can afford it."
"Aw, Marcus. I'm truly hurt. You know this man here wouldn't be earning you so much money if it wasn't for me."
"Bullshit!" he responded, but made no move to leave, as if expecting the rest of the explanation.
"Truly." Gary sipped his Water Ale. I raised my eyebrows and looked at Gary, also waiting for an answer.
"Why, I was the one that recognized all that talent in this tall, lanky, useless pole of flesh," he said with a grin. I rolled my eyes and went back to nursing my drink.
"I thought it was his sister that found out about this fine man's particular talent," Marcus asked and leaned in to Gary.
"Yah, that is the popular rumor, but what you don't know is that I'm the one that told her. Knowing of her immense talent in the musical field, I was led to the decision that she would be the best to handle his burgeoning career. I was merely acting in the capacity of a -- oh let's say -- a talent scout," Gary finished and took another sip of his drink.
"Talent scout," Marcus snorted, then looked at me for confirmation. I nodded ruefully and he said, "Bullshit artist, more like it. That will be six bucks, Shipley, cash or chip?"
Gary glowered at Marcus with a mock-surprised look on his face, then cracked a smile and produced a transaction chip from his wrist clip.
"Thank you Mister Shipley, your chip has been debited six dollars. Would you like to tip your server?" Marcus asked with a genuine smile.
"Sure," Gary said. Marcus was about to debit the chip again when Gary said, "Don't stroke yourself on roadside during rush hour. You'll get arrested."
Marcus' face clouded over. He turned and tossed the chip back to Gary, then stormed off to tend to more generous customers.
"Thanks asshole!" Gary muttered beneath his breath.
"You know, if you'd stop prodding him, he would probably buy you a drink from time to time, just because he knows you're my friend," I observed with my head still facing my drink.
"There's no fun in that. Besides, he likes it. We wouldn't be friends without that lively exchange. He'd think I was useless and no-account."
"Gary, he thinks that now," I laughed.
"Yeah well, fuck him if he can't take a joke."
"So what's up Gary?"
"Huh? What do you mean?" he said trying to look surprised and innocent at the same time.
You're busted, I thought to myself. I turned around on my bar stool and faced the nearly empty room. "You mean you came all the way down to the campus bar just to, " I waved my hand at the room, "enjoy all the night life? You? Mister Excitement?"
"I can't come down and see how my best bud is doing? Mikey, now I really am hurt." He had been looking at me but now turned away and acted as if he were pouting. That only made me laugh.
"Okay, Good to see you then," I said chuckling. "I was about to go get something to eat, want to join me?"
"Naw, I'm eating down at my folks' place tonight, helping out some later, but thanks."
We sat in stony silence for some time. His silence was uneasy, but I couldn't figure out a way to get the truth out of him, so I finally said, "Well, enough for me. I'm hungry. Sure you won't join me?"
"For cold pizza or fish and chips? Ah... thanks but no thanks. You know I can't eat that crap and you shouldn't either. It will gum up your insides."
"My parents don't own a four-star restaurant and I'm poor, remember?" He blushed and I silently kicked myself for being such a jerk. Then I said, "Well, if you change your mind, it sounds like you know where to find me. See ya."
I turned and called to Marcus, waving. "Hey pal, see you Thursday, Okay?" Marcus waved and smiled in return. Then, I slapped Gary on the shoulder and made for the door, glancing behind me just a little to see when Gary got up to follow me. It took longer than I though it would. I had just about decided that I'd been wrong about him this time. Maybe he had just wanted some company after all. I was about to turn around and head back to the bar when I head the door crashed open and someone come running in my direction.
"Hey Mikey, wait up!"
I pulled up and waited, "You change your mind about dinner?"
Ignoring my statement he proceeded with his own question, puffing a bit as he did, "Ah... listen... I was ah... wondering..."
"I was wondering if maybe a few of us could meet at your dorm room tomorrow night?"
"Why my room?"
"Ah," he started looking a bit confused. "It's... convenient," he answered smiling, obviously proud of himself.
"And what are we doing?"
"Oh no, no, no. Not we... everyone that's going is already on board. I just thought that it would be a good place for us to meet before we moved on to the evening's excitements."
"Oh, I see. Well then, what are you doing?" An old thorn began jabbing me in my side. I wasn't sure I really wanted to hear the rest.
"Look I can't really talk about it here. It's, kind of covert," he whispered with a sly smile. "But we're gonna miss you on this one Mikey."
I raised my eyebrows at that. I was being excluded from one of Gary's excursions. In advance, I was being excluded.
"Am I going to get into any trouble letting you meet there?" I asked.
"Mikey, when have I ever placed you at any risk?"
I shrugged at the comment. "So, you don't want me along, is that it?" I was as surprised by the comment as he appeared to be.
"This is a one-night adventure for six people. You've never wanted to go in the past; we just all assumed that you wouldn't want to this time either. The boat's full, sorry."
I guess I was visibly surprised, because Gary continued with his apologies in rapid succession.
"Jeez. Mikey. I didn't even think you would want to come along, After all the times you just 'bowed out' as you like to say." He rubbed his blonde hair back with one hand in a fretful gesture. "Man, I don't know what to say, except I'm sorry."
Hurt, but not wanting to it to show I said, "It's Okay." I meant 'It's Okay,' but remember, I said that as if it had been one word. "Well, you're probably right." Then, to prove I was not hurt, I consented. "Sure you guys can meet there. What time? I'll need to be there to let you in." This was the first time since I had come to know Gary that I could remember that I had been deliberately excluded from one of his 'adventures'. I was surprised again that instead of the jealously I usually felt at his daring, I felt the slightest bit of pain at having been rejected as a choice for the first time. I shivered. The winds of change were blowing in my life again. Gary, my childhood friend was moving on, and I guess so was I. With the band's popularity, or my studies in school, it would only be a matter of time before we went our separate ways, but it still made me sad to think that this chapter of my life was coming to a conclusion. That's the way it happens though isn't it? When you least expect it, your life changes forever. Rarely is there a way to ever go back.
"Right. Six sound okay?"
"That's polar. Class is over around three-thirty so I can be there whenever."
"Kewl" Gary said and then stopped. "Say, are you Okay?"
"Yeah, I'm great, why?"
"Okay, if you're sure?"
"Why wouldn't I be Gary?"
He waved it off and said, "Never mind. See you at around six tomorrow."
"See ya," I said. Gary turned and made his way down the street in the opposite direction from my place.
I wondered what he meant by "covert" and shivered again. I had the deepest dread that tomorrow might be the last time I ever saw Gary again. The thought put me in the doldrums as I went about the rest of the evening. That night was entirely uneventful. So much so, I don't much remember what happened following my meeting with Gary. I do remember that fish and chips sounded rather good and I got an order on my way home.
The next day I dressed, went to class, came home and waited. I spent the time between studying and doing my 'good boy never does bad' routine of homework and checkbook balancing. I remember thinking that I had to get my latest grant installment deposited to the bank as soon as I could. It sometimes amazed me that cash was still being used, but I guess you can count on the government for a few constants.
At around five forty-five Norman and Frank, two close mutual friends of Gary and I showed up. With my schedule in the band, there hadn't been much time for all of us to get together and shoot the bull in quite a while. I was stung again by the fact that I hadn't been asked to join in. What the hell did they think I was, a coward?
"What's up gentlemen?" I asked, shaking hands as they entered. They mumbled their greetings and shook my hand in return, each one coming in and finding a place to sit in the small, overstuffed room that was my one-room dorm. I felt uncomfortable; there was no conversation from these two old friends. We sat down and stared at each other.
"Well, it's been a while hasn't it?" I started, trying to break the ice.
"Yeah!" and "Hell yeah," were the responses I got followed by "Long time..." and "Hell yeah, too long..." then silence. I looked from one to the other and back several times. "Damn, you boys talk too much!"
Norman laughed nervously. "Come on... what's going on tonight? Frank, what is it that Gary feels I'm not..." someone knocked on the door and you could see the look of relief on Frank's face, the look of a boxer about to be counted out as the bell rang.
"Door's open," I shouted and I got up to greet whoever came in, then looked at Frank and added, "We're not done."
The door opened and Kit oozed into the room. I liked Kit. He always seemed so smooth. Many people around campus considered him odd. He was quiet until you got to know him. He never put himself forward for comment unless asked. When in social situations he usually just sat and quietly listened to the various conversations going on around him. He was not a dater. He had an occasional steady girl he would see for a while but so far nothing too serious. He seemed to glide when he walked.
I read an old book written some time ago by a lady named Anne Rice. It was about a vampire named Louis. This vampire could move fluidly from one place to the next, seemingly without really moving his legs or feet. The way Louis moved in that book reminded me a lot of the way Kit moved. I found Kit thoughtful. He didn't speak often, but when he did you had better listen. It was usually important. He was perhaps the best straight man I knew.
"Hey, Kit! How are you pal?" His eyes had a slight glassy look to them. "Feelin' no pain I see." He said nothing, just stuck out his hand and shook mine, grinned and moseyed off to the corner of the room to start listening.
Of the three now present, Norman the one we all most worried about. In fact, there was some question as to whether or not he was actually mentally impaired in someway. He very often forgot where he was even when traveling with a group or in a clearly marked area or well-known place. At times like these, he seemed at a loss for where to get a clue. He quite often said things that were inappropriate, as if he had no idea who was listening or that the company he was keeping at that time might be offended by what he had just said. He had a heart of gold and would never hurt anyone. He just wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. In fact, he was more of a spoon.
It was this one unchecked element that let me know what was going on just as Gary and Rod arrived at the dorm building. Norman said, "So does anyone know if Rod is bringing the skins here or what?"
I was absolutely floored. Skins! What the hell could Gary be thinking?
I looked around the room to gage the reaction of the others at the news that tonight's little adventure involved what I considered something more than just risky. Most of them just looked at the floor or at the ceiling, anything but look me in the eyes. I did catch Frank roll his eyes at Norm. Everyone already knew.
I verbally leaped on Norm, "Hey, what the hell is this about skins, Norm? Gary didn't say anything about that to me!" Then to all of them I asked, "How many of you knew about this before you got here?" Yeah, yeah, yeah, I knew the answer but I needed the admission from all of them. My brow scowled at them all. They were not impressed.
One by one, they all started counting off. Kit raised his hand, then Frank. Even Norman raised his hand, looked around and realized I already knew he knew and slowly lowered it again.
"God damn, guys I know you've all heard the stories. You can't think this shit is okay," I declared. I was incredulous, but no one said anything; they just stared at me with wide eyes and blank faces as if to say Yeah, So?
I could not believe these guys were actually thinking of going off and doing something as stupid as trying on skins. I had heard some really ugly things about these devises. I'm sure most of them were urban legends; even so, some are really scary. Like the twenty-five year old guy that programmed a four-day lockout to a skin only to find out once he got it on that it was the skin of a very old man. He had a heart attack trying to get it back off and died in the skin. Shit like that really nerved me out.
What few so-called facts I did know, I felt relatively certain were true. These were used for subversive operations by the government. Why? The reason for that was simple, they made perfect disguises.
I had learned that originally, a genetics company in New York City had developed them for commercial use. The idea was to give those of the general population who were unhappy with their looks and opportunity to change their looks without surgery. The skins genetically modified a person's own structure to reform him or her into the shape of the person the skin was designed to emulate. More to the point, you literally became the person the skin was programmed to make you. If you got a woman pregnant while wearing a skin, the baby would have the genetic traits of the person you were when you had the skin on. Surgery or operations could not detect the use of a skin nor could such a procedure be used to remove or deactivate a skin.
In fact, another one of those urban legends is of a US agent shot in the line duty while wearing a skin. In order to save his life the surgeons removed a kidney. After he had recovered, the agent in charge of his case had him shipped home. When the time came to have the skin deactivated, they discovered that, by removing his kidney, they had changed the algorithm used to store his original information and the skin could not be deactivated.
This was some serious shit! It was just the idea of the possibility that gave me the willies.
Frank reached over, popped Norman in the back of the head with an open hand and scolded him, "Good going Norm, you limp noodle!"
"How the hell was I supposed to know Mikey didn't know? It's not like he wouldn't find out," Norman defended himself.
"Found out?" I was confused. If they had all left without saying anything, how the hell would I have found out?
Outside a van pulled up. Doors slammed and I could hear Gary and Rod laughing to each other. It was a laugh that was too loud and strong. I could tell Gary was nervous.
"Good, Gary's here," said Frank as he got up and made for the door.
I made a grab for his sleeve, "Wait a minute, what did Norman mean when..."
"The door man, I'm gonna get the door!" Frank tied to pull away but I had a grip on his sleeve.
Don't worry about the door, I'll get it you just tell me..."
There was a knock on the door. Before I could answer it, the door burst open and in walked Gary and Rod. Gary was holding a small cardboard box under one arm. It appeared to be damp in a few places. Steam appeared to be coming from inside. As Gary crossed the tiny room, the faces of the others in the room lit up like light bulbs. Hands were stretched out in greeting and shaken. Rod followed close behind. The scene reminded me of a politician stumping a crowd for votes, and this small crowd loved him for it.
Gary locked eyes with me and saw right away there was trouble with his plan. He glanced over his shoulder at the others, I guess to see who had betrayed him. Just past him, I saw Norm drop his head and blush.
He never skipped a beat. When he reached me, I grabbed him by the forearm and escorted him roughly to the far side of the room where my kitchenette was, smiling and making small talk the whole way. The kitchenette was the only place where we might be able to get just a little privacy. I didn't want to make him look stupid in front of everyone else. "What the fuck are you thinking Shipley? God damned skins?" I whispered, starting in on him as soon as we were both out of earshot, which was hard in my little sub-divided room.
He didn't say a word. Instead, he shoved the box he was carrying in to my arms. It was much heavier than it looked. The damp spots were in fact damp spots, but the steam coming from the box was not because the contents were hot.
"What's this?" I asked harshly. I didn't want the edge in my attitude to be dulled by his lame peace offering.
"Open it up and see," was all he said.
I peeled back the corner of the box and inside I could see the red and white markings of a six-pack of Stromsburg Beer. This was real beer, from a Pittsburgh microbrewery.
"Where did you get this?" I asked in wonderment. The edge in my voice, I wanted so desperately to preserve, was now as dull as a creek stone.
"The folks have a couple of restaurants, remember? How do you think I was able to get you those beers on your birthday?" he smiled his biggest, `you're my best buddy' grins at me.
"But this is a whole six pack Gary, your folks are gonna' know. This shit ain't cheep, son -- and you still live at home. I can't accept it," I told him, but made no offer to hand it back.
"Yeah you can, besides if you work with us tonight, you will have earned it. So it really isn't a gift."
"Work with you?" I thought for a second and then it came to me. "Duh! It's a bribe!" I was the sixth person; I had been all along. He knew if he put me in a position where I had to back out in front of all my friends, I was less likely to do it. "Holy shit Gary, do you know what..."
"Mikey, I'm hurt! I wouldn't do anything to you that would require bribing you. That would suggest that I would knowingly put my best bud in danger." He gave me what looked to be a genuine look of personal pain in his eyes. Ol' stupid me, I fell for it!
"I'm sorry, Gary. I know you wouldn't do anything deliberately. I didn't mean that. It's just..."
"Great, then have one of those beers and let's get back in with the rest of the guys."
I stood there wondering how the hell he had just done that. He had defused the entire issue before I could even make a single objection. I didn't even know how to approach the subject again without looking like a coward in front of everyone. Back in the other room, Rod was explaining that the skins were at the warehouse. He hadn't taken any to bring to us because the place had been crawling with people during the day, but, he said, he had an unsupervised entry code that would prevent flagging at the security station. He and his buddies programmed it to use when shipments of booze or other useful and marketable items came into the bonded area of the warehouse.
I stood listening to Rod, sipping my beer, waiting to find a mistake or a flaw in his plan. Hell, there were many I could have tried to exploit into a reason we should not do this, but I needed one that no one would or could counter with a better reason why we should do this. None presented themselves.
I offered a beer to those standing around listening. Only Norman took one, which I thought was strange. The fact that no one else took one left me feeling a bit uneasy, as though they had all been told not to tamper with Mikey's bribe. Only Norm was too stupid to remember to turn it down if he was offered one.
The shipment had come in a week ago and was now sitting unattended and unknown to others in the bonded area. An area that was supposedly protected from prying eyes and available only to special warehouse workers and government inspectors. According to Rod, there were hundreds of boxes with at least six skins per box.
Rod was saying that we would have to go now if we were going to do this. So, we silently piled into his van, which was a solid-paneled job, used mostly for deliveries. It was very utilitarian in appearance. Inside, there were discarded boxes and papers everywhere. The five of us scooted boxes and trash around until we were able to clear a small space of van flooring to sit on and made ourselves as comfortable as possible. Rod cranked up the hover jets and we took off for the harbor.
So that was it. I had been tricked into going on one of Gary's adventures. Gary had been right. I hadn't wanted to go with them that night. I was a bit put off by not being asked to go, but, if I had been asked, I would have turned him down. So in the end, he put me in a situation he felt I wouldn't make too much of a scene over and thereby be forced to go. As we sped along to the warehouse, all I could think of were the people that would most want to protect these things from popular public knowledge. Skins, according to the government, didn't exist, but neither did the ruins on Mars. The Military had landed on Mars in 2010 and from the reports, if they are to be believed, the ruins were found two years later. However, it wasn't until commercial tankers and civilians started landing there that the evidence could no longer be hidden. Until then, they had been an urban legend just like skins are now.
The government's hard line on this was due primarily to its own involvement in the use of these devices. As I found out later, this or any government that had this technology, could program these things to emulate anyone, infiltrate the highest levels of any bureaucracy and take it over from the inside out. Not only did our government want to keep the technology with in our borders, it wanted to use it before it was used against it. They also wanted to be the ones to defeat this technology before it got away from them, as all significant technologies do eventually.
Nevertheless, others felt they had a stake in the skins as well. The mob had financial designs on these things. It was rumored that a white male skin at age 18 to 25 went on the black market for anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 cash no questions asked.
Male and female skins were used for any number of reasons. I read in the months since that some people use skins to change their race from an undesired or oppressed one to a race that is more widely accepted. Older people had been rumored to use them as a one-time fountain of youth. Men that wanted to be women, women that wanted to be men, the ugly that wanted to be beautiful, it seemed the combinations were as limitless as the imaginations of those who wanted to use them. Then, there were the rich who used them temporarily as elaborate costumes. Skins could be the complete and total package in escapism. Again, however, urban legends abound surrounding this group of losers.
Here's a group of people that could have, potentially, anything they wanted and they decide they want the flexibility to be someone else for a limited amount of time. Their wealth and affluence spawned a certain arrogance that falsely led them to believe that all is at the mercy of their control because of who they were and, of course, what they possess. Yet here too there are tales of poor unfortunate souls that lost their money and power because the skins failed and they could no longer prove their identities.
However, the tale that bothers me the most is the one about the couple that wanted to live for one weekend as each other. They found a genetics smith to fashion two skins with their genetic codes imbedded in the chips. When activated, they had, essentially, switched places. At the end of the weekend fantasy, however, only one skin could be removed. The husband's, now the wife-imposter's, skin stubbornly refused to be deactivated. To the horror of the couple, they found that they were now, no longer husband and wife but twin sisters, forever. They couldn't even get the genetics engineer to reproduce the husband's skin for the true wife to use because his genetic pattern was lost the minute the skin he wore failed.
He had controlled all the business ventures and money, and most of the assets were mired in extensive partnerships. They lost everything. What's worse, they were both eventually brought under suspicion of murder. Both were too afraid of the consequences of their use of skins to admit that the husband had not died but was now trapped and living as his own wife. Devastated by what had happened to them as a couple by the loss of position, influence, money, you name it; the original wife is reported to have hung herself, leaving the former husband alone, trapped in the form of the woman he once loved. These were the thoughts that were running through my mind as we drove. I was a little more than nervous. If the boxes really contained skins, then it was reasonable to assume they were Government Issue. And if they were, then the Government would be watching. The closer we got to the warehouse the more nervous I became. The beer I had drunk was making my head buzz but not enough to dispel my fear. I remember thinking that didn't want to do this any more. Jesus Christ, I was scared!
The hover-van stopped. Outside I could hear voices. We must be at the security gate. There was an electronic buzzing and the sound of something metallic being moved out of the way -- the gate I supposed -- then we were moving again. We didn't go far. The HOV stopped again and this time, after hearing Rod and Norm crunch around on the ground, the doors of the van were thrown wide. Harsh overhead streetlights shone in on us and one by one we each popped our heads out to look around.
We were at the edge of the bay, on the opposite side of it from the college campus. A huge empty dock lay just to the right of where the van was stationed. Beyond that, the harbor curved around to the place we had just come from. The City College lights were visible in the darkness; they rippled off the water in a cascade of ever changing patterns. Beyond the college on the waterfront would be the dorm building; it would be close enough to walk to. It might take a couple of hours but it was still close enough that it could be done.
On the other side of us was the warehouse. It was an enormous thing, with two huge hangar-like doors that met in the middle, easily large enough to accommodate a sizeable commercial aircraft or shuttle. The building was devoid of windows; there was only strong metal siding everywhere I looked. The building looked very secure. I was beginning to hope that perhaps we wouldn't be able to get inside.
My hopes were dashed almost immediately as I saw Rod walk toward a small door near the right corner of the structure. There was a small keypad by the door and Rod was punching in numbers. When he was finished, there was a click and the door opened just slightly.
Gary was standing directly behind me. My nerves were practically singing, so when Gary surprised me by touching me on the arm, I farted on him.
"God Damn Mikey," he exclaimed waiving his hand in front of his face, "awwwww, shit that's nasty." Then he said, "Here, this is for you fuck face!" and he let his fist come down on the top of my head like a hammer.
It didn't hurt but I was in no mood to be messed with. "Fuck you! You want to get in there so quickly then move around from behind me and that won't happen again," I replied defensively.
He shoved me from behind gently and in I went. The place was filled with stuff. There were large boxes of glassware stacked up against one wall where we entered the building and other household goods boxed up and stacked all around. Most of the stacks of boxes were too tall to see over. As we walked, our footsteps echoed off the ceiling, walls and boxes in the enormous building and the sound bounced haphazardly back to us.
We walked past racks of men's and women's clothes, high shelves of what appeared to be hover craft parts, liquids, some consumable some not and all sorts of other things. We passed an opened box of women's panties and Gary grabbed one. In the next moment, he had stretched them over my head from behind. I ripped them off, turning around and shooting Gary an angry glance. I could have kicked his ass and he knew I was capable of it. He held up his hands, ginned and said. "Okay, Okay, I'll back off. Just trying to lighten the mood Mikey ole boy, that's all." I threw the panties back at him, turned around and kept marching.
I looked up at the ceiling at one point and noticed long chains on pulleys attached to long tracks that ran the length of the building. They were the booms used for stacking all this stuff so impossibly high!
We stopped and someone suddenly said, "Here, catch!" Something slapped me in the chest and dropped into my cradled arms. It was a clear poly-bag with some black lettering on it; " Genetic Transition Device." Below that was stamped, "Type: Human".
Below that, "XX-178847-CFA18".
Below that, the cellophane had been wrinkled but I could still make out some of what it had said. It read: "Caution! This Devi T e Used ly B er."
My assumption was that it was meant to read "This Device To Be Used Only By Official Personal" or something of that nature. I couldn't make sense of what I guessed was the serial number. The "Type: Human" was easy enough to understand though. At least I wasn't going to end up a horse, a goat or something like that. Nevertheless, the thought that someone had to identify if the skin was human was enough to make a person wonder what those fucks were doing with this technology.
Rod had finished passing out the skins. "Okay gentlemen, now the fun begins. There are offices and restrooms for each of us to change in. No pun intended." No one laughed. "Once one of us has put on a skin, the rest of us have to follow suit. If we don't, this thing," Rod held up what looked like a sophisticated calculator with a number of buttons and a small display screen, "the patch code transmitter, will not activate. That means the poor slobs that have already put their skins on will have to stay in their skins until the transmitter is turned on. Do I make myself clear?"
With that, everyone looked at me. I nodded that I got it. It meant that I now had to talk everyone out of this or I was going to have to do this.
"That's it guys. See you back here in few minutes. Don't forget to wear your name tags when you get back out or no one will recognize you." With that, they all started making their way to various points in the warehouse. I stared down at the package that Rod had just tossed to me, hating the feel of it. There was dread in my heart. All I wanted was to just run away, but I had no real way of stopping the others -- and without me, they'd be stuck, even if they were stuck because they did some dumb thing after I told them I wanted out. It would still be my fault. Therefore, I shuffled off toward the back of the warehouse.
I found an office that was not occupied by one of the others and tested the door. It swung open easily so I went in and closed the door behind me. Opening the package, I pulled the skin out and held it up to examine it in what little light there was coming from the warehouse. It was a gauzy material that felt light and loose in my hands, although I could feel small wires and hard circuitry embedded deep inside the fabric. There were no real features save for a pair of arms, a pair of legs and a head. In addition, there was an opening in the back; at least, it looked like the back. I wondered briefly if I were to put this on backward would I wind up with a nose and eyes on the back of my head?
Out in the warehouse I heard a voice I didn't recognize. It had started. If I put this off too much longer, there would be the devil to pay so I stripped down and stepped into the outfit. There was no zipper, but I had noticed two small, flat metal disks at the base of the neck as I was pulling it over my head. Praying I wasn't making a mistake, I reached back and placed the two disks together.
The reaction was harsh and immediate. The skin contracted around me as if a vacuum had been turned on inside. It cut off all my air. I might have been all right had I thought to take a breath before the disks clipped together, but I hadn't. I fought the skin. I tried to grab it with my hands but it was already too tight. I could feel it getting tighter, compacting me down. The pain was bad but nothing like what was coming.
I tried to scream for help, but when I did, it invaded my open mouth. Something was terribly wrong; I must have gotten a defective skin. Next, it was stretching down into my throat. That didn't hurt as much as it scared me to death. I was going to choke to death before it squashed me into a small ball of flesh.
However, that was still not the worst. There had been a tightness growing in my waist and crotch. Now it felt as though I was being ripped in half. Something was invading me where there was no substantial hole in my body. Still, I could not scream, I could not see. The gauzy, milky white material of the skin clouded my vision. I was blind; my wind was gone. I could feel myself passing out.
As I went down, my vision started to clear; I wouldn't die blind after all. I remember hitting the ground hard, my head bouncing slightly off the floor. As I passed out, I could smell old spilled coffee on the indoor/outdoor carpet by my head. I could see in the semi-darkness the patterns the coffee had made in the carpet when it landed there. Before me was a puddle of beautiful brown hair that spilled out in front of my face. My last thoughts were "Where the hell did all the pretty hair come from?"
I don't think I was out long, but it was the idea that I had passed out at all that got my eyes open and my brain working again. As though a magical hand had propped me up, I sat bolt upright. The pain in my head and body was exquisite; it made the world swim before my eyes and I had to close them to keep from passing out again. Leaning back against a desk that I had fallen next to, I remember thinking may have even hit with my head on the way down. I stayed there until the fainting spell passed.
There was something flowing over my shoulders. I reached over with one of my hands and grabbed whatever it was and examined it. When I did, my arm brushed something fleshy on my chest. I didn't even pretend not to know what it was. I paused, and then reached to touch the fleshy mound on my chest again without looking at it. It reacted to my touch, becoming just slightly tighter. I could feel the sensation of touch from both points, from the touch of my fingers and from the breast when my hand touched it.
I looked down. Yep, I'd been right, two perfectly shaped breasts with large nipples hanging from my chest. "Oh hell!" The voice was different, higher, lighter and softer. I reached up and clutched at my throat. "Testing one, two, three..."
"Uh oh!" I whispered.
I didn't need further exploration to understand that the skin I'd gotten was female. The package, it was next to me on the floor. It snatched it up and looked again at the lettering. Yep, it said XX all right, female chromosome pattern. I should have seen that for what it was, damn it. The rest of the sequence of the serial number came into focus CFA18 meant of course, Caucasian Female - Age 18. I still couldn't make out the warning.
I reached down just to check to see if by some miracle my penis had been spared. Both penis and scrotum were gone; they had been replaced by a smaller patch pubic hair and the soft folds of female genitalia.
Out in the warehouse I could hear voices, different from the ones that I had come here with. I tried to count the number of distinct voices and quickly came up with five. They were all male voices, which meant I alone had drawn a female skin. Okay, I thought, all bets were off; I didn't come down here to become a girl. All the skins had been put on so that transmitter thing could be activated. I should be able to take this thing off now, so I'm off the hook. I smiled at the thought. In fact, I couldn't have been happier. Since I'd been dead set against this to begin with, the idea that all this was over so quickly was really making my night -- and no one could blame me for ruining it for everyone else.
I reached behind me to undo the buttons that had activated it. Then, I paused for just a moment, wondering if it was going to hurt like it did when it activated, but I figured it was worth it to get out of this mess. My hands worked the back of the suit looking for a lump, a crease or an opening somewhere. They found nothing except smooth, continuous skin. "Skins are imperceptible, even to surgery," a small voice reminded me. It had to be there. How the hell else was I supposed to get it off? If it was gone then that meant...
I shook the thought away before it had a chance to reach its logical conclusion and panic could set in. Still, I was getting concerned so I stood up and searched again. For the first time feeling the strangeness of moving in this body, the sensation of things missing and new things where there shouldn't have been any. All that hair kept getting in my way so I grabbed it and tossed it over one shoulder. Then, I ran both hands flat over the back of my neck again. "Jesus, where is it?" I whispered as I continued to explore the back of my new body. My hand to slide further away from the base of the neck looking for and opening, a way out, but it was one continuous piece of skin.
The skin was smooth and soft -- and quite warm. With that, my heart started to pump harder. I had to get this thing off; I couldn't let anyone see me like this. Panicked, my hands raced faster over the back of my body, searching franticly for a release somewhere else on my body -- my body? I searched my scalp, my face the front of my body between my tits, down over my torso and around my ass -- nothing. The urge to cry grew as I searched the room trying to get an idea. Briefly, I thought about breaking the window to the office and using the shards to cut the thing off me, but I knew that wouldn't work. I had to get this thing off the way I had gotten it on or it wouldn't come off at all.
My lips started to tremble with panic. I was close to the edge of sheer hysteria. Then I saw my reflection in the glass of the window, because the lights were down, it made and excellent mirror. "Oh my God!" I heard myself whisper. "Look at me," whispered as I walked closer to the glass to get a better look. I was considerably shorter, with just longer than shoulder length chestnut brown hair flowing from the top of my head like a brown silk fountain. I reached up to touch it and watched as the beautiful young girl in the window did the same. When I touched my hair, she touched hers. The breasts of the girl in the window were not huge but not small either, with large brown nipples. It was dark but they appeared to be perfectly shaped. I reminded myself that they would be. They were designed to be. Her waist was narrow and hips broad but not fat.
It was perhaps the most surreal moment of my life. I could feel myself walking toward the window, drawn by the image I saw there. I could feel my legs work to move me across the room. At the same time I could see the stranger in the reflection of the glass make the same movements in reverse. As I, or what my consciousness I perceived to be "I," approached the glass, I lifted my hand to touch it. The girl on the other side followed my movements perfectly. When I said "Oh nooooo!" her lips synced my words as if she had practiced her line for hours. Worse was that although she lip-synced the words, it was her voice that I heard. I could not reproduce what I knew as my voice.
"Okay, don't flip out man," I consoled myself in that other person's voice. "It will be alright. Just take it off. That's all you have to do."
"Hey, where's Mikey?"
That snapped me out of my daze and I ducked out of sight. Once again, I started looking for an opening to the suit. I remember I could hear myself whimpering, "Come on! Come on! Come on!" as I tugged on the hair -- hard. "Ouch!" it was real. I spread the tits on my chest apart hard looking for an opening. "Ow, shit!" Those were real too apparently.
"Miiikeeeey, come out, come out, where ever you are." I didn't recognize the voice so I didn't know who was calling me. I couldn't figure out how to get it off. I was stuck! I was going to have to get help. Gathering my clothes, I stretched my tee shirt on over my chest. It no longer fit. The breasts lifted the bottom of my cut-off T-shirt and pushed it away from my belly like tent poles. I was used to feeling the shirt against my skin, but now, below the breasts, it made no contact with my skin at all.
Next, I stepped into my briefs. That was a joke, too tight in the hips, nothing but slack fabric in the front where my genitals would have been and loose at the waist. I didn't have a choice though; I put my jeans on. They hung off my body like my underwear had. These pants clearly weren't cut for this kind of body. The legs of the jeans seemed to stretch for miles, my feet hidden somewhere inside.
After rolling up the legs of my pants as best I could, I grabbed my shoes, slipped them on and made for the door. When I did, I immediately stepped out of them. My feet were too small to hope to wear them. In frustration, I gathered them up with my socks and stuffed them under my arm.
Opening the door, I stuck my head out.
Someone was calling me, "Hey Mike come on out man. Fuck, what an absolute pussy." I could feel my lips thin out as I pressed them together in anger. That had to be Rod. He had done this to me. Now all I wanted was to kick his ass -- but after he got me out of this body. A girl had to prioritize.
"Hey, fuck you Rod! I'll kick your ass!" I shouted out in a distinctly feminine voice. The sound of my voice echoed off the walls of the warehouse for what seemed like forever. I knew I'd just fucked up!
Way to prioritize there, Mikey!
"Who the hell was that?" I heard someone ask.
"Alright, we've got babe-age!" someone shouted.
I lowered my head into my hand and moaned, "Oh man."
"Come on out and let's have a look-see, babe," yelled another unfamiliar voice. I was getting scared. This must be what a cat feels like in kennel full of dogs.
"Yeesss!" I heard someone else cheer.
Then I heard what turned out to be Gary. "Shut up! That you Mike? What's happened? You sound, ah... different."
"Ha! You don't know the half of it," I called back. God that voice was sexy, I hated it!
"Damn! She sounds hot as hell."
"I said to shut the fuck up Rodney, right now! That she is Mike and you'd better remember he's my best friend, asshole!" Gary sounded a little too annoyed to me.
"Fuck off man, I'm just having a little fun! And don't call me Rodney. You know I hate that," and then, "Come on out Mikey. We'll stop. Just come on out so we can get the fuck outta here!"
"A-fuckin'-men to that," I sighed and winced. That voice. I just wasn't going to get used to hearing that voice come out of my head.
I came out from around a stack of boxes that blocked the view of the office I had changed in. As I entered, my circle of friend's faces, that I could not have ever recognized, met me. We were all Caucasian by birth and I still was, but here stood two black men in their early twenties, one oriental man, perhaps in his early teens, and a really handsome Native American that stood nearly six and a half feet tall. He was perhaps twenty or twenty-one. There was one more Caucasian man in the corner sipping some clear liquid from a glass bottle.
I was blushing; I could feel it. I can't say why, except it was a little embarrassing listing to all those compliments, but I have to be honest, a little part of me deep down inside really enjoyed it.
"I think introductions are in order," I said, "I guess you all know who I am."
"Yeah, you must be Michelle." That got a giggle out of everyone but the Indian and me. I deduced that the Indian must be Gary. I walked over to him and looked up at his face. He looked back down and smiled.
I hadn't realized how much my change had affected my height, but it was clear that I was now the shortest one of the lot. Before, I had been the second tallest in our group, Frank had been taller than me by about an inch, but this guy was tall. It hurt my neck to look up at him.
Looking down at me the large Native American asked, "Waaassss Up?" in a very deep voice.
That was my pal. I really can't express it in words, but it was good to see a friendly face, even if I didn't recognize it as my friend's face. It gave me just the sort of comfort I was desperately in need of right at that moment. "It looks like you are."
This time everybody laughed. The tension was broken for the time being.
Gary said, "You look great, Mike! That body suits you. You really look gorgeous!"
"Yeah well, don't get used to it. This," I gestured at myself with my hands, "isn't what I signed on for." I looked inquisitively at the other faces and asked "Rod?"
All the faces were staring at me slack jawed, but none were responding. That irritated me. "Hello, Rod? One of you is Rod, right?"
Each one was undressing me with his eyes. If the shoe had been on the other foot I would have been doing it too, but I have to say, it felt really awkward to think that the people that you thought were your friends were now trying to imagine what you looked like naked. I wondered briefly if real females felt this way around their male friends.
The oriental youth broke his trance and spoke up. "Uh yeah! That's me Michel -- ah, Mike -- sorry."
"Yeah. Okay, how do I get this off?" I bent my head down and started searching the back of my neck again. "I tried getting it off back there in the office after I realized there had been a mistake, but I couldn't seen to find the catch to this thing. You said that if the transmitter was activated I could remove it, so there must a trick to it." I lifted my eyes to watch their faces and didn't like what I was seeing. They all started looking at the ground and shuffling their feet. "Aw God, this isn't happening," I groaned. "You do know how to remove these things don't you? I really need to get out of this costume. I can't leave here like this."
"Uh, Yeah, I can get it off you, don't worry about that Mikey. Just not... not right now."
I felt my heart skip a beat. I took a deep breath, forced myself to calm down and asked, "When?"
"Mmm... Uh... uh..." he stuttered.
Gary walked up to me and put an arm around my shoulder to try to calm me down. It was no different than the thousands of times he had done it before, but it repulsed me for some reason and I quickly shrugged it off.
"When Rod, when! What the hell did you do Rodney?"
Gary held up a long black box that looked a lot like an old time TV remote. You know the ones, like you see in antique shops. It had what looked like a digital timer on it and it was running backward. The time was 47:33:22. I could feel my stomach turn into a small hard stone.
"There's a forty-eight hour reset time lockout." It was Gary.
"What the hell does that mean?" I was starting to shake and was badly scared.
"Well, it means that no way, no how can we get these things to disengage for the next two days," said Gary.
"What! No fucking way I'm staying like this for the next two days. Fuck this, fuck that and most importantly, fuck you!" I was fuming. "No jokes, Okay. I'm serious!"
"Look. I can understand that you're upset," Gary said, trying to get me to calm down.
"Upset!" I turned on him screaming. "I didn't want to do this in the first place, but if you whine and moan long enough or make a good enough excuse, ol' Mike will cave in -- so I come along. I was almost killed by that fucking thing I put on back there," I screamed, pointing back at the bank of offices I had just come from. "I black out and when I come to I've just had a fucking sex change operation! Then you tell me, 'Oh well, sorry Mikey, you'd better get used to it cause you're stuck for the next two days.' You want to trade places with me? Lets see just how fucking upset you get. I have to say it again, 'Fuck you!' Find a way to get this off of me now!"
"Mike!" Gary shouted. It was enough to shock me back into some semblance of sanity. Gary continued in a slightly softer tone of voice, "We can't! Get it under control before someone hears you shouting. You never had to come along. Yes, I bribed you. I did it to sweeten the pot a bit. We needed you to come along. It wouldn't have worked with just five. Shit Mikey, I wanted you come with us, just once. I thought it'd it be fun too. I was wrong. I'm sorry about all that -- especially now -- but you never had to accept. You could have always just ducked out."
All I could do was blink at him blank faced. I was stuck! I remember thinking that it couldn't get any worse that this. I was going to spend the next two days of my life as a female. I was stuck! Somewhere off in the distance Gary was still talking but I couldn't make out what he was saying. I was stuck! I kept playing that phrase over and over in my head. The sounds in the room seemed to get smaller and smaller like I was hearing them at the end of a deep tunnel. After a few seconds, I fainted.
I didn't hit the floor this time. Someone caught me and eased me down to the floor. I don't know who it was. When I came to, everyone was standing around me looking down at me. Except Rod, who was standing at my feet, bent over slightly with his head cocked sideways.
For a minute, I didn't know what he was doing.
"What the hell are looking at?" I asked. I had surprised him; he hadn't seen I'd come around, as his attention was someplace else. His head popped up and he started to blush.
"Were you trying to look me up? You were trying to look at my tits while I was out cold, weren't you? You're a real shit, you know that Rodney. A Class-A cow turd." It felt strange to have a guy, looking at you with sexual intent. That made feel sick and, dare I say it, violated! That made me mad all over again. I reached down and tried to pull my shirt down further. I was becoming very self-conscious around these guys. Suddenly, I didn't trust them any more. "That's real nice language for a lady to use," he retorted.
"Lady?" I shot back. "I'm no lady, God damn it!"
He could see that he'd punched one of my buttons. "You'd better check again little girl! The world just became a very different place for you and you'd do well to remember that."
"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?" I asked him harshly. "You gonna try to rape me? Maybe try to beat me up big man?
That last one just popped out. I was sorry the minute I said it but it was too late to pull it back and I knew I was going to have to backup anything I said from this point forward. I was still playing the man's game and I couldn't back down now or I'd pay an even greater price, yet my mouth still kept writing checks my body couldn't cash. "I'll kick your ass any day you decide you want a piece of me. Even like this, I'm more of a man than you'll ever be and you'd do well to remember that, dick head!" I screamed at him.
Before anyone could react, he was on me. His new body was very nimble. He had a hold of my hair and was spinning around me to get a better purchase on me. I pushed with all my might to gain some advantage, but he was too big and strong. I began to feel sick. He was really going to hurt me and I couldn't do anything to stop him. He was rearing back to rearrange my new face when Gary, Frank and Kit grabbed him from behind and hoisted both him and I up until his purchase on me was broken and he was off me.
"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Gary shouted at him. I guess Gary couldn't resist the temptation to punch him just once in stomach. That was all it took to remove the wind from his sails and Rod was quiet again. "You do that often Rodney, beat up girls?" Gary slammed him down on a stack of boxes and put his face nose to nose with Rod's. "You just sit there and behave. We aren't going to start fighting among ourselves."
Rod said nothing.
"You guys watch him, keep him calm," Gary instructed Frank and Kit. "He may be strung out from the effects of being changed. We really don't know how much these damn things have really changed us."
Rod seemed to be okay now. I, on the other hand was shaking badly. That whole scene had been bad for me. I had been quickly overpowered by a short little guy maybe eighteen years old and I suspected that if Rod had unloaded on me, my injuries would have been much worse than they would have been in my male persona. I began to understand that in this body the skin was more delicate, the bones somewhat more fragile. I had heard that women can handle pain better than most men though. I had also heard that it was a byproduct of hundreds of thousands of years of child bearing, and quite possibly a byproduct of being beaten up by hundreds of thousands of men over the centuries.
Gary came over to where I was standing and asked, "You okay, buddy?"
Buddy! Man, I had needed to hear that. I had two impulses at that moment. My first impulse was to hug him. My second was, Yuck! Why the hell would I want to hug him?
"Yeah, I think so. I just can't stop shaking." I held out one tremor-convulsed hand to show him. Looking up at his concerned face, I asked him directly, "Gary, what the hell and I supposed to do now?"
Rod must have heard me because he shouted, "Learn to piss sitting down."
Gary flashed an angry look at Rod and Rod shut his pie hole. Gary then put his arm around my shoulders again and this time I let it stay there. It seemed to help the shakes.
Well it was out there now. The smallest of them could get an advantage over me very quickly. I would have to watch my step. I didn't know how much else had been changed by these suits. I wasn't sure I wanted to find out. Rod was right, for me the world had indeed become a very different place. The thought scared me deeply.