Danny's Perdition

Synopsis:

It’s the 24th century and Danny has discovered that his work for the government condemns people to termination by lethal gas. The suspect in front of him has been thoroughly transformed by a branch of his department called Visual Perfection, and now Danny must do his duty. Would traveling across the continent in an antique machine offer a realistic alternative future?

Story:

Danny’s Perdition
by Angela Rasch

Chapter One

The “suspects” were always kind of good-looking to me; Visual Perfection made sure of that. At the Department’s demand, every three months I paged through the Coupler Program Manual and vid, while connected to a Sensorgram. The Coupler Program tested my reactions to various stimuli: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Images of women dressed in a variety of fashions and colors, as well as feminine voices, fabric textures, perfumes, and flavors had been passed before me to gauge my reactions. The person before me looked, smelled, and sounded like the government had gotten it right.

For the last five years, quarterly Sensorgram examinations were a requirement in order to qualify for grade reinstatement. My 7W status allowed for a stylish wardrobe and spacious housing -- just over seven hundred square feet in my apartment -- with a view of the ocean. I loved to stare out into the gray expanses of the Atlantic off the Newport coast. Had I been born a century or two ago, I would have considered making a living as a fisherman. According to our family history, several of my male ancestors had gone to sea. After the ocean’s temperature passed eighty degrees, fish and fishermen had become extinct, or I would have given it a try.

They always assigned a female name to the suspects. “Beatrice” seemed especially lovely, and I did my best to tell her so, despite my prejudice against her kind.

She sat across the open space from me in a large comforter-sitter. My chair had a similar design, but in a more authoritative color. She moved to fold her arms across her chest to shut me out. In doing so the back of her right hand brushed her left nipple. Shock registered in her eyes.

I’d seen that reaction a thousand times. She can’t wait to get someplace private to explore her new body. Normally the suspect would have warmed to me by this time, but Beatrice maintained her glare. I'll wait as long as it takes to compel her to speak first.

Evidently our tastes were quite similar. The Visual Perfection gnomes always performed a class D Sensorgram on the suspects before transformation. Everything about her being perfect could only mean that when they’d reconciled her Sensorgram readings with mine, there had been almost no variance.

No variance. . .except for that one huge disparity that made Beatrice and me exceedingly dissimilar. I desire to see the dresses and smell the perfumes on the women I date; for some screwed-up reason Beatrice evidently wants to wear them.

“Am I here for a reason, or are we simply going to stare at each other?”

Her voice reminded me of Bach’s Italian Concerto, it sparkled with exuberance colored by earthy undertones. She probably hadn’t been informed that the modifications to her voice would become permanent if not reversed within forty-eight hours -- all of the other changes would also become irreversible. Other than external genitalia, she had been altered to have the body of a female. Her internal plumbing had been installed and would be fully functional once the now superfluous exterior parts were eliminated. After very minor additional surgery, she would be capable of conceiving and carrying a child to full-term.

Visual Perfection could just have easily performed a total revision while they were at it, but they hypothesized that the suspects would be traumatized unnecessarily if they woke after preparation and found their bits and pieces missing. At times, everyone unnecessarily walked on eggshells. I had NEVER found the trans suspect to be anything but what the Department “suspected.”

“Danny?” she inquired. “They told me your name is Danny.”

I nodded. “My parents named me Dante.” I smiled and she reciprocated. She isn’t as nervous as I would be if our roles were reversed. “The Department asks that I use ‘Danny’ on the job.”

The Department of Human Dignity overtly worked for the benefit of the individual. My given name unsettled those who were going through re-classification. A few years ago some had written on their comment cards that my unfortunate name made them think that they were being accompanied into hell. DHD had enough PR problems without all that, what with the persistent rumors.

“Well Danny or Dante or whatever you want me to call you --- are you free to tell me why I’m here?”

Free? Beatrice is either being coy or experiencing post-transformation stress. I had no “freedom” to express my thoughts. By law, government workers were to be circumspect at all times.

“You’re here so that your government can help you reach total happiness.” I delivered my line with practiced ease. Our sessions were recorded and monitored for quality control. DHD had recently displayed a vid of me working at my desk. They had mounted it on the wall, above the water dispenser in the employees’ lounge. That honor signified an average score of 82.8, which I had achieved for the last quarter -- the best in all of Newport. “People need to learn that happiness is as simple as asking what your government can do for you.”

“Don’t waste your time on charm, Danny. Your co-worker was extremely charming….”

“Derek.” They all seemed to fall for Derek. He can have them.

“Whatever.” She almost sneered.

“His name is Derek. His job is to help you become oriented when you wake up from elective surgery.”

“Elective — listen I didn’t. . . ." She stopped and appeared to be thinking intently. "Danny, how tall are you?”

“What? I’m about average…7’2”. Why?”

“I was 7’3” two days ago; and today I’m only 6’4”.”

She stared at me. Her tone wasn’t one of accusation, but more like someone simply stating a problem that she would have to overcome. Her overall size and weight had been reduced by fifteen percent -- the standard reduction for her kind. She couldn’t quite be called petite, but she was slightly smaller than average…for a female.

“Beatrice, would you like a glass of liquid? You should have something to drink; it will calm you.”

“Calm me?" She shook her head. "I seriously doubt it. Do you have any idea why they restructured my body, dressed me in this costume, and changed my voice? Has National Safekeeping reinstated Halloween?”

“Oh no.” I laughed. “They’re not about to turn the clock back fifty years to 2250. DHD has a few ideas for you that need testing. There’s nothing to worry about. Didn’t you read the 283R pamphlet?” Suspects were required to read 283R and discuss it. Derek has already gone through everything with her, or I wouldn’t be seeing her.

“I did,” she said, “but it’s just so — so preposterous. My heavens, these are my….” Her hand gestured across her chest.

“Yes, Beatrice, they’re yours.”

“Beatrice, Beatrice, Beatrice. . . . My name is NOT Beatrice!”

Her eyes glistened. I passed her a placater. Rubbing the smooth surface of the stone between their fingers seemed to help the suspects through this stage. I smiled and made reassuring noises.

Two months ago my job hadn’t required so much in the way of acting skills. I had been a cog in the machine, completing the tests I was uniquely qualified to administer. My concerns then had been along the lines of finding a decent place to read a novel over lunch.

If only I wasn’t so good at what I do! Through natural and nurtured ability, I could empathize with my suspects to such a high degree that DHD would know in ninety-eight out of one hundred cases what future to prepare for the suspect I examined. Much to my chagrin, I had been nearly perfect in reading her kind. They were my specialty. When I failed as a screener, it was usually with the macho men I tested for compulsive ambition. The more feminine the subject, the easier I could read their minds.

“Children of the Moon” my immediate superior called them. I never asked or probed his mind; examiners absolutely never touched one another, but I assumed that by referring to them as "Children of the Moon" he meant they were lunatics.

You would have to be crazy not to envy some parts of a woman’s life. Just after the Oil Age had ended, woman had been eliminated from the work force. The government believed in the propriety of the supportive role of women -- in the home. The ladies spent their days working on their beauty - both of body and mind. Their charm and grace added greatly to the overall quality of everyone’s lives.

My usual suspects were reli-subversives. They were the ones who wanted to go back to the old ways, prior to the J-C-M war. I knew what the letters stood for from my studies, but the average person on the street had no idea. In the old days people had organized sects based on specific rules and fables. Those sects had been responsible for most of the wars. The J-C-M War had started over one family trying to get rich by controlling the dwindling oil supply. To hide their greed they manipulated people’s emotions through the sects. Sects based in love and compassion soon grew to make their decisions based on hatred. Dirty bombs were used throughout the world killing off ninety-nine percent of Earth’s population.

Our leaders had shut down the churches a hundred years ago after religions were banned, and then dispatched all of the “faithful” to the wilderness. Identifying the occasional reli-subversive who popped up, so he or she could be deported, had become a big part of my job. I had sent thousands of them into the wilderness with no chance of them ever coming back to Newport. The reli-subversives were sometimes called Yusupovites, in honor of someone who had killed a reli-man in the early part of the Oil Age.

The suspects were brought to my office to allow me to amble through their minds, in most instances those strolls had been extremely pleasant experiences for both of us. During my first year on the job, I often had “too much of a good thing.” We used that code phrase for spontaneous ejaculation when the examiner’s body felt the intense sexual exhilaration many of Beatrice’s kind found in his or her transformation. I would take their hands into mine and concentrate, only to come out of the semi-trance with my underwear filled with my semen.

There were times when my co-examiners would intentionally allow a “wet-screening” to happen. Those examiners who enjoyed “too much of a good thing” often lost efficiency because their senses were dulled until they fully recovered, which could take hours. That kind of unprofessional behavior didn’t appeal to me, so I would do my best to ease into a mental scan before locking in. I didn’t need to become immersed in their rapture for the purposes of my report.

The level of pleasure I derived from her perfume meant that our olfactory e-zones were identical. The transformation specialist at Visual Perfection who had selected her tinted contacts deserves a special recognition; and I so noted on my console touch-pad. The recognition memo circulated within the Department instantaneously.

“I know I’m not the most virile male,” she said, briskly rubbing the placater, “but why on Earth would the Department of Human Dignity do this to me?”

The “before” picture of “him” in her file seemed to indicate an average Joe. Twenty-six years old with no immediate family other than an aunt who had nothing to do with him. I had no living relatives -- and her lack of family caused me to look at Beatrice with more sympathy.

Beatrice had reported to DHD two days ago for a “routine personal audit.” He had been sedated and placed under general anesthesia for transformation. Derek had “briefed” her when she woke, further confusing her with misinformation.

Why had DHD done it? I know why, but my fiduciary duty to my employer had frozen my lips.

“DHD works in mysterious ways,” I said, grinning as I delivered a “safe line.” We used sixty-eight sanctioned “safe lines.” Examiners were awarded four points for each of them they worked into their discussions with suspects. A point was deducted for every sentence or phrase we spoke to suspects that wasn’t a safe line.

She turned her head. The backlighting from the window clearly showed that she wasn’t wearing contacts. I blushed, thinking about the ribbing I would be the butt of in the employees’ lounge over the special recognition memo I had just sent.

Her file noted that her pulse, breathing patterns, pupil variants, and palm moisture index (PMI) were all within acceptable ranges. The intense anxiety the specialist had noted when she woke had been quite normal for someone discovering they had been outed, and then physically transformed to his or her “pleasure” image.

“I’ve been instructed by DHD to work with you.” I’d seen that look a thousand times. He wanted to tell me to fly with the fishes. Sometimes they actually did tell me, in so many words, but most had the good sense to realize that what had happened had been inevitable. “For purposes of this test I need to hold your hands, please. Would that be okay with you?”

There had been times at this point in other examinations that I practically had to pry their hands away from their new breasts. DHD literature stated that the new areolae were hypersensitive for the first few days to assure the suspects would be attracted to them and thus expose their innermost selves for verification of their re-classification.

She shrugged. Her ears turned pink, but she offered her delicate fingers to me. Many of the suspects were slender, like her. The truly disastrous-looking ones were built like sensory deprivation chambers.

Beatrice could easily pass for one of the girls I dated in my pre-employment training days. Marriage and dating had lost their appeal after I discovered the extent of our government’s duplicity. Love and procreation are out of the question in a world so full of hate and deception.

I took her hands into mine. They've done a fantastic job softening her skin. Her nails shimmer like jewels. The chemical that had been used to stimulate instantaneous hair growth proved to be worth what it took to manufacturer at ServcoLab. It had not only encouraged rapid growth of her scalp hair, but at the same time it had also caused all unwanted follicles to fall out. Beatrice’s curls cascaded to just below the collar of her white silk blouse, just the length I found most appealing.

Elongated black spots shot across my vision as our hands touched, signaling a connection. I had no problem getting that far with most people. Some of the other examiners failed with an average of three to five percent. As far as I knew there had been only that one guy, a jerk by the name of John C. Mitchell, who lived in my building, who I couldn’t read - even a little. John demanded that everyone call him “Brick.” All I got from him was the gray mist you’d expect from a “Brick.”

It always amazed me when I could read the suspects’ minds so easily. Our training as screeners included a technique to prevent others from reading ours. Once you went through the training the preventative measures had been etched in your sub-conscious, and kicked in anytime someone tried to get into your brain.

I concentrated on holding her thoughts at bay, at least until I knew what she “had in mind.”

Her humiliation came through. Confusion, shame. . . .

Brilliant white light exploded behind my eyes. I first thought that something had detonated outside our building. Terrorist attacks weren’t an everyday occurrence, but an element of society existed who kept life interesting. I heard someone groan, and then realized it had been me. I let go of her hands and slumped back in my chair.

The residual neurons pulsed total dissatisfaction through my brain. If DHD doesn’t complete the re-classification of this woman almost immediately, she'll self-destruct. Ironically, self-destruction is an option DHD won’t allow.

Five years earlier I had finished my Essential Schooling and had been accepted by Internal Exploration. I had no real idea what the Internal Exploration division of DHD did. I had nothing against government work, and my post-Essential exam had slotted me for a future as a civil servant.

They told me I had a gift for analyzing details, and moved me onto a fast track toward a specialization that would offer rewards beyond my wildest expectations. Judging by the jobs my classmates had landed, I had expected to top out at 4R. That would’ve been okay by me, until I experienced life in the 7W lane.

My Internal Exploration clearance allowed me to read unedited history books. I soon discovered that years ago there had been something called “money” which had been used to obtain things. Evidently the world of that era had sort of revolved around money, and the amassing of it. The world had changed after there had been an epidemic of economic identity thefts. World government decided on the classification system for distributing resources. I could hardly imagine not being able to go into a 7W store and take whatever I needed. People must have been consumed in the old days by the amount of time they spent making choices within their “money” economy.

After nearly three months of training at Internal Exploration my instructions were to take one of those screening aptitude test that are offered all the time on the back of visor cleaner boxes. To my great surprise I had a talent for screening. So few people have screening talent that they don’t even test for it during Essential Schooling.

I went through a week of decompression to eliminate the knowledge I had taken on during my stint in Internal Exploration. Instead of actual decompression, I devoted that week to mostly fooling around with my decompression engineer, Connie. We enjoyed each other so much that she let me out of there without spending any time wiping out job-related memories.

A person under a hypnotic spell can’t be made to commit murder by suggestion, unless they wanted to before being placed in the trance. They won’t go against their value structure. Brain scrubbing is much the same, in that Internal Security had found that you could erase everything but a person’s deep-seated beliefs.

Connie and I had been too busy screwing each other’s brains out for her to clean mine.

The information she left in me, coupled with what I saw because of my ability as an examiner, revealed to me that things were happening within our government that were disgusting.

Those of us at Internal Exploration knew that our department’s business was data-mining. We were damned good at it. The government tracked every citizen through their national ID badge -- the badge everyone used to gain entrance into critical buildings, sign off for acquisitions, and to gain access to the InterVid. We knew what visionmatic books people read, what central vids they watched, what they acquired, who they visited … everything.

By analyzing all the data, the government supposedly stopped crimes before they occurred, prevented horrific accidents, and helped people find individual happiness.

Names were never attached to the digital files that were kept on each citizen, until a need would arise. If a profile stayed in normal ranges, that individual received the total privacy the Constitution of Newport guaranteed him or her.

All of that sounded rather innocent until a person pieced together other things. “Things” I learned around the pure oxygen pool at our 7W complex. The talents I had developed on the job allowed me to pick information from people’s minds in the instant that it took to shake hands. The other 7Ws all worked for the government. Combining everything each of them knew had given me a fairly complete knowledge of how things worked.

Beatrice had probably acquired a combination of items, read a certain mixture of books, seen the wrong vids, etc. Her lethal combination of life experiences had signaled DHD of her aberration.

It had been almost two months ago when I had shaken the hand of the person from the enforcement squad who had completed the final piece of the puzzle for me.

DHD did have a mission of making people happy, and eliminating strife did help them achieve that goal. The horribly unfortunate things was, if Newport citizens didn’t fit within a neat box, they were shipped beyond our country’s borders, or in the case of those considered totally undesirable, they were terminated.

Several decades ago Newport had ceased shipping people like Beatrice to Shockland, so named for the earthquakes that frequently ran through it. To get to Shockland a person had to travel clear across the continent, through Sigourneya, West Creed, and Brunson. Even to get to Sigourneya from Newport, a traveler had to pass through miles and miles of frontier filled with anarchists.

Hardly anybody ever voluntarily travelled beyond the borders of our country. The world had become so homogenized there were few reasons to travel. The wonders of the world were regularly transported from country to country so you just had to be a little patient for your turn to gaze at the Taj Mahal. So few people travelled that the schools had dropped geography from their curricula. Maps and globes had become contraband.

Only high-ranking government officials had access to public transportation beyond the pneumatic tubes that glided everyone around Newport, at least those with a 4K or higher rank. Those ranked below 4K had no need -- or free time -- to travel. Newport’s population of about twenty million lived in a compact sixty square miles.

DHD quit shipping people like Beatrice to Shockland after the Department decided the Gender Dysfunctional might pose a security risk if their numbers grew too large. Our country has become beautifully simple for those who fit in, and deadly for those who don’t. If I did my job by correctly re-classifying Beatrice, she would be gassed in her sleep within twenty-four hours, and then the word would be circulated that she had “astrayed.” Most who cared would assume that “he” had become an anarchist who decided to live on the frontier.

I knew that Beatrice would not have a future.

“You’re a transvestite,” I lied. Transvestites were merely exported out of the country. My comment was meant for those who might be monitoring our conversation.

“No, you’re wrong,” she said, with a small amount of anger in her voice. “They did this to me. I didn’t want it done; I didn’t ask for it.”

“DHD doesn’t make mistakes,” I said, gaining four more points. “The Constitution guarantees your right to happiness. You will be supplied with everything you need.” That is, if DHD accepts my erroneous report, or if poisonous gas is on Beatrice’s list of essentials.

“There’s been a big mistake,” Beatrice said with a less firm tone.

I hated what would come next and would go slow to prevent her from going into shock. “Beatrice, when you were five you were playing with your cousin, Suzanne. Do you remember Suzanne?”

“Of course…my cousin, Suzanne. She died four years ago. We lived in the same high-apartment building.” Her eyes were open wide, her head tilted slightly to the side.

“On that particular day the two of you were playing house.”

“Do they actually reward you for making up these stories?” Her lower lip curled slightly -- even so, her beauty stunned me.

“No, they pay me to read your mind and tell you what I saw so that the government can help you attain perfect happiness.” Another four points. Her earrings are made of small peridot stones. Supposedly peridot attracts love. They go well with her. . . . GET ON WITH IT. “Your cousin had suggested playing house and you cried until she agreed to let you be the mom.”

Beatrice’s eyes blinked rapidly. She apparently had located that memory and dialed in to what I was about to tell her.

“Your cousin said that you couldn’t be the mom unless you wore a dress.”

She shifted her weight in her chair. Her face told me that the memory had become more vivid. “My cousin must have told. . . .”

I shook my head. It bothered me to no end when I probed peoples’ minds and realized that the vast majority of them thought people like me were charlatans who faked our conclusions. “Your cousin was surprised when you agreed to her demands so she dressed you from the skin out in her favorite party outfit. Do you remember that dress, Beatrice?”

She nodded, and her face softened. She had a small mole on her left cheek that added character to her otherwise perfect face.

“Your cousin’s dress, the one she allowed you to wear, was yellow with small pink roses on a white collar. Can you try to remember?”

Beatrice had made the connection. It hadn’t been at all hard for me to find her memory of that dress.

“When your mother came into the room to take you home she found you wearing your cousin’s clothes. She became furious with you. First she screamed at you, and then she turned you over her knee and pulled down your cousin’s panties. She then slapped your naked behind repeatedly. She kept asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Do you remember all that?”

She winced.

“When her right hand tired she turned you around on her knees and started to spank you with her left hand.”

Beatrice looked totally distressed. She had placed herself in the moment.

“Your mother stood you up, and then shook you. Do you remember what she asked you?”

Beatrice spoke in a whisper so soft that I had to strain to hear her. “She asked me if I knew that I was a boy.”

“Did you answer her?”

She nodded. “I said, ‘I’m a girl, Mommy. I’m a girl, and no matter how many times you hit me I’ll always be a girl.’ ”

“Did you say that because your mother was mad at you, or because you wanted to hurt her?” I knew the answer, but wanted to check Beatrice’s sincerity.

Beatrice shook her head, and then seemed to compose herself. “But that was when I was a small boy. It has nothing to do with how I feel now. The government has no right to. . . .”

I decided not to tell her that I had found that she had dreamed of being girly as a small boy, and had also dreamed of being rewarded for her girlishness.

“Do you remember when you were thirteen and you dressed in your mother’s clothes for the first time?”

She nodded, not fighting that memory at all.

“I could tell you exactly what you were wearing that day,” I said. “Would you like me to describe it for you?”

She shook her head.

I doubt she'll ever forget that day. Her father had come home from work early and found her in full make-up pirouetting around the room with her skirt billowing. Beatrice had tied her longish hair on top of her head with a long bright pink ribbon that offset her mother’s gray silk dress. Although her father lost his temper, he hadn’t struck her with anything but his eyes. The following week she found herself in a military academy. The school administrators knew why her father had sent her to them. Some were kind, others used the threat of exposing her as a means to control her every activity.

“I went through six years of Carville Academy,” she said, “but all of that. . .those feminine feelings were left behind.”

“Is that why four nights ago you went to sleep as you had hundreds of nights before that, wishing with all your heart that you would wake up a woman?”

Her chin fell to her chest and her eyes eased shut. Her exquisite eyes then welled with tears.

My heart rate increased. She needs help. . .my help. “Your future will be wonderful.” Another four points, but I hope it won’t be a lie -- this time.

I took her hands, but didn't allow another painful brain-link.

“Look Beatrice, if you would like, we could leave this building and go out into the sunshine where my psychic powers are at their highest.” Screeners sometimes took a walk with their suspects to convince the naíve. Our abilities had nothing to do with solar power, but it seemed to make the suspects more compliant. I took about four or five walks in the sun a quarter. It was considered the “compassionate” thing to do, and it could get you as many as fifteen points if it convinced the suspect to readily accept their re-classification.

I had seen enough in her mind to know what I had to do. She had the right stuff. She would readily agree to an alternative to…death.

She nodded her acceptance to my invitation to leave the office. They had given her a purse filled with feminine objects, which she grabbed. A small amount of drugs added to her twice-a-week food pellet for the last several months had accomplished amazing things. Those drugs combined with the tapes they had been playing in her sleep compartment for weeks prior to her transformation had feminized her actions.

The workers at Minerals Central, who had added the drugs to her food pellets, thought they were regular supplements that kept her personality within an acceptable range. All of the Newport citizens’ emotions were held in acceptable check through chemical inhibitors.

The technicians who had prepared the tapes had been told that the messages were used for gender therapy to help a struggling teenage girl emerge through her pre-Essential schooling years.

On our way outdoors Beatrice and I chatted quietly about the upcoming Super Bowl. It was like talking about the weather, only safer, as the government created most of the weather and wasn’t pleased by too much griping. I suspected that football was rigged. All of the teams were computer generated by a random program, which allowed for dropped passes and botched kicks. I had learned by shaking hands with a learned historian that football had once been played by actual human beings. Humans had become too big and too fast to suffer the violent collisions. Until that handshake, I had wondered for years about the initials for the football league. MMSL actually stood for the “MM Squared League”. The general public had been told it stood for Morbidly Maniacal Sports League, a name that appealed to most rabid fans.

Beatrice loved football. She told me how she had won a lottery for a ticket to the Super Bowl a few years back and had actually attended the most hallowed hologram game in person.

“If you re-classify me as a transvestite, will I continue to live in the same building?”

Even though we were in an elevator we were under constant surveillance, and I had to be careful what I said. “No, we’ll find a comparable site for you. The only thing is, you won’t be able to see your family again.” I really hate lying to her, but at least this time it doesn’t matter.

As I led her toward the fountain area of the park, I thought of the many times I had shaken hands with people who worked for the Watchful Eye branch of Internal Security. They were under the impression that they were preventing crimes. In reality, while they were preventing some wrongs, but their real work served a more sinister purpose.

I had learned through my mind probes that Watchful Eye didn’t have equipment posted everywhere. There were two spots in the park that were “dead.” When we reached one of those spots I took her hands again.

“Danny, please,” she implored. “Please look deep inside me. I’m not a transvestite. I’m a man who has always wanted to be a woman. I’ve minded my own business and kept my dissatisfaction with my lot in life to myself. I can go on as a man. Please, tell them to change me back to a male.”

Her wonderful eyes couldn’t have been more expressive of her brain’s activity. I needed exacting confirmation of her character. I probed quickly, looking, searching for…there! Strength and resilience. . .loyalty and passion. She would be a worthy partner in what I had planned.

“I know,” I said. “Listen carefully, you’re in big trouble.”

“Trouble? For sure. I don’t want to go through life as a transvestite. It would be even more awful than how I live now. I would be too close to what I want, and can’t have.”

Can’t have? Why doesn’t the government tell people like her that sex-change operations had been plentiful at one time? They keep all that data at the Department of Information, withheld from the public. “Beatrice, have you ever seen a transvestite in public?”

“I don’t think so. DHD must do a wonderful job transforming them.”

She wouldn’t think that if she had seen the person I worked with this morning. They could do only so much, even with modern medicine. DHD could accomplish a maximum reduction in size of twenty percent without damaging bone structure. Eighty percent of huge is still huge.

I had to tell her. I had dreaded this moment for almost two months, but I knew that when the time came I couldn’t sentence another person like her to death. “You won’t be living in this country. You’ll be 'astrayed.’ ”

“Astrayed!” She had obviously heard the rumors. Her eyes rolled back into her head as she collapsed into my arms.

I gently brought her around by rubbing her hands with mine.

As she came to, her mind raced, trying to decide whether or not to trust me. Even though I could read her mind completely, I couldn’t influence how she thought, not even enough to calm her.

Oh my. She likes my eyes as much as I do hers.

I had reached the point in my mind probe that raised serious ethical concerns. She had formed the beginnings of the kind of feelings for me that I could not violate. I broke the connection and would never probe her mind again -- beyond a superficial scan. “Beatrice, you need to understand that what you do and say for the next twenty-four hours will have an impact on whether or not you’ll live.”

She nodded.

"Our government swiftly applies their justice. They'll allow a transvestite to live if they go off into the wilderness with an electronic signal device embedded in their bodies that would alert the government if they return. Those who come back are terminated.

"Men who want to become women are considered even more seditious."

She sighed and shook her head.

"The government simply kills them."

She bit her lip, but said nothing.

"The mind of the person who had 'leaked' that information had told me that people like him believed in the mandatory death sentence not so much because a transsexual’s lifestyle was so hideous, but because they had become too adapt at living a lie. It's the official government position that transwoman can’t give trust, or be trusted." My probe of Beatrice’s mind had reminded me that the government’s sage wisdom wasn’t remotely true. Everything in Beatrice’s mind exemplified trustworthiness.

“Can you falsify the report?” Her eyes were shut as she implored.

“No. That would only buy you a small amount of time. Suspects of your nature are given special handling. If I write a report that says that you aren’t a transsexual, they’ll have someone else examine you. If that person disagrees with me, they’ll call in a third examiner to break the tie.”

“Can you help me?”

Chapter Two

I nodded. Not only could I help Beatrice, but also - if at all possible - I would. I had been planning for some time to leave Newport to make a new life in the wilderness. I knew very little about the world located outside the borders of Newport, but I knew I couldn’t be part of a system that condemned people like Beatrice.

Screener skills are greatly overrated at times. Her smile told me her exact thoughts, without me touching her. She had willingly placed her future in my hands.

“There’s a place,” I said. “You can find what you want in Shockland. They have doctors who will provide the corrective surgery to complete your transformation; if that is what you want.”

Inquisitive statements from examiners led around a logic loop; I obviously already knew that at some point she would want complete transformation. The evidence that a physical transformation could successfully be made stood in front of me, but those people would always be male in the reality of their being.

“What about my friends?” she asked.

“You can’t worry about them now. You either leave Newport, or. . . .”

Her eyes told me that she had no real knowledge of Shockland, but she knew she had to go someplace, and was content to go with me. Her lifetime desire to be female wouldn’t change once her fantasy goal became achievable. I shuddered as I imagined voluntarily cutting off my penis. I had been in Beatrice’s mind, but still couldn’t begin to understand her.

I had prepared a plan to travel across the continent to live in Shockland and had squirreled away provisions for an extended trip. I would find a way to make it work for me there, and leaving Newport represented an obvious positive alternative to death for Beatrice.

Using the transportation I would steal from the exhibit at the Freedom Center, it would take us a week to cross the frontier to Sigourneya, five days in Sigourneya, a week to get through West Creed, and four days to clear Brunson - - - if everything went right.

We would have to live off our wits. Judging from what I’d seen in Beatrice’s brain and her file she had a high aptitude for problem solving, and would be a positive addition to my adventure.

“In just over three weeks,” I said smiling, “we’ll start a new life in Shockland. Not together, of course. I mean, you’ll want to live with your kind -- and I’ll live with mine.”

She frowned, evidently embarrassed to realize that I had intimate knowledge of her personal foibles.

Once we were underway I would find a way to let her know that I wouldn’t let her lifestyle choice impact the success of our journey. “Let’s go to my apartment to discuss details,” I suggested.

We left the park in silence and made our way to my apartment. On the way I communicated to my office by vid box that I would keep Beatrice with me overnight for further examination. Some of the wet-screeners did that with her kind when they wanted more too-much-of-a-good-thing.

Once in my apartment Beatrice and I communicated by notepad.

“I’m scared.” Beatrice wrote in a flowery script.

Had that been her handwriting before her transformation, or had the suggestive tapes and drugs already changed her that much? “Don’t be afraid.” What an ass I’ve quickly become! What right do I have to play the hero? I can barely keep my knees from knocking. “I have a plan.” I wrote and smiled with false bravado.

“Wonderful.” She replied on the notepad. “Although I’ve only just met you — and under such unnerving conditions, I feel I can trust you.” She seemingly didn’t notice that she had dotted the small i’s in “condition” with little hearts.

I wanted desperately to probe her mind to see her process of adaption to her transformation. Her hand moved lightly over the silken fabric of her dress. DHD picked the most feminine end of the spectrum of clothing that fit within the suspect’s Sensorgram scores. The salmon color of Beatrice’s dress complimented her fair skin, brilliant blue eyes, and honey-blonde hair.

I quickly wrote out my seductively simple plan.

Food wouldn’t be a problem. DHD always gave suspects like her a new six-month supply of food pellets while they were in recovery. She had the fourteen-ounce tin with her. I had a similar supply.

We would steal a H1 Alpha from the Freedom Center. It, along with a liquid known as “gasoline,” were a part of an exhibit. The liquid had been used to power the Alpha during the Oil Age. I had gone to the exhibit several times to check on the condition of the machine.

I would be able to manipulate the big “flame red pearl” machine when the time came, or at least I thought I could. Flame red pearl is what the info log called the color of the Alpha. It had been built in 2006 and once or twice a month it was powered around the large exhibit hall carrying as many as five “passers” as they were called at that time. I had been a passer twice and made careful observations.

Some of its functions were a mystery. For instance, it had a “six-disc CD changer,” but even the curators didn’t know what CDs had been, or how they had been changed by the machine.

To learn how to operate the machine I had been playing an antique game called “Grand Theft Auto.” The game came with some of the same machine parts that the Alpha had -- like the steering circle. The name of the game puzzled me. Did they really think that stealing something could be “grand”? It appeared I would find out.

The Alpha looked just like it had when it came off the making-plant floor at a company called “Hummer” — except for one modification. A small part known as a "waste-catcher" had been attached. The waste-catcher allowed the Alpha to move using about 1% of the “gasoline” that it otherwise would have used. The waste-catcher had been invented nearly fifty years before the antique Alpha had been built, but the waste-catcher hadn’t gone into production until 2050, near the very end of the Oil Age. Supposedly an energy company that went bankrupt around the year 2000 had owned its patent. The sketchy information about the fuel-saving device led me to believe that the government of that time suppressed information almost as well as our current Newport government.

By 2000, they already used - to some degree - the technology to harness the immense energy generated by the tides. In 2055 they outlawed internal combustion engine for private use. Various forms of fusion had been tried as well as wind power before realizing that the tides were the most reliable and cheapest. Within a few decades, all other forms of energy became obsolete.

“Where is Shockland?” she wrote. She made a perfect tiny circle under the top part of her question mark, and then filled in the top part with eyes and a mouth. She had already ingested enough pills to fill her body with the maximum amount of feminizing chemicals it would accept.

“Shockland is toward the setting sun. We will point the machine that way on cement strip #64. I have enough food pellets to last me several months.” I wrote on the pad, which was filling fast.

Pellets were cheap to make. The basic ingredients were common dirt and air. Using just a handful of regular Newport dirt and an almost negligible amount of the air that we breathed, they could generate pellets that sustained us and altered our modes so that we all enjoyed a consistent equilibrium of emotions. Because pellets were so cheap, we received a six-month supply at a time. Even the additives put in by ServcoLab to make changes like those going on in Beatrice were dirt and air derivatives. Six month’s worth of pellets fit in a tin box that you could easily carry in your largest pocket.

“Do you have enough clothing?” I asked. “I’m taking three changes in addition to what I’ll be wearing. We can’t be seen carrying a bunch of bags. Everything will have to fit into a backpack.”

Her hands trembled as she held the pad and poised the pen above the surface waiting to formulate an answer. She finally wrote, “I’ll wear my old clothes -- my male clothing.”

I shook my head. She weighed nearly eighty pounds less than she had before her transformation; and her body structure --- was delightfully much different. Although her height had been reduced by only fifteen percent, her weight had been cut by about a fourth.

I took the pad. “We’ll get you something to wear. As a 7W I’m allowed to take items from the store to give to my lady friends. It would be too dangerous, too suspicious, to stop by your apartment for anything to take with. You would attract too much attention in the frontier dressed as a man.”

She nodded, looking down at her breasts.

I continued. “We’ll also need another water container. Pellets, water for a week -- and three changes of clothes are all we can take with us. I’ve got a bag of survival gear assembled that contains a canvas sleeping unit, ropes, knives, and candles. We’ll leave for the exhibit after midnight and plan to be on our way shortly thereafter.”

“Tomorrow is Good Friday,” she wrote.

I smiled. During a big holiday no one would miss us for a few days. Everyone would be celebrating with his or her families with the traditional gall, wine, and cheese. According to legend, Good Friday had once been a religious holiday. No one ever talked about religion as even simply discussing faith issues might make you a suspect as a reli-subversive.

Beatrice nodded her agreement to leave after midnight.

I wanted to give her a hug, but didn’t want to give any false impressions. Even though her beauty enchanted me I knew exactly what aberrations her body possessed and had no interest in long-term friendship. She doesn’t deserve to die, but as soon as we get to Shockland she'll be on her own.

The trip to the 7W clothing store and our subsequent shopping passed without event, other than my amazement at how Beatrice consistently selected clothing that made her look -- attractive. I should’ve realized how closely our tastes were paralleled from my mental examination of her, but seeing it in real life fascinated me.

She picked three pairs of slacks made of soft but durable fabric in simple yet fashionable colors and designs. Her choices in tops matched the slacks. I convinced her to keep the dress she had on for her fourth change of clothing. She argued a bit but gave in to my suggestion that we might run into a situation that would demand that she wear a dress. Her choices in lingerie made me uncomfortable in that she obviously favored style over substance. For some reason she also procured a supply of make-up and several more pairs of shoes than what seemed necessary.

We said little during our shopping trip other than an occasional, “Do you like this?” followed by a shoulder shrug on my part. Needing everything for later that evening, we declined the store’s offer to deliver the items the next day by pneumatic tube. As we walked the commons area with our bags, Beatrice kept within inches of me, often bumping into me with her hip. She laughed lightly at how much body she had in places where no body had been before.

I accepted that as an apology.

***

“We’re ready,” I wrote on the pad once we were safely within my apartment. I underlined “ready” for impact -- and to bolster our nerves.

She smiled. Her hand reached out to pat mine, but I pulled away. She winced as if I had struck her.

A pink glow came from my apartment’s hallway door. I had turned off the audio announcement. “Show me,” I said, and then the door became transparent from my side. It was “Brick.” He still couldn’t see in, unless and until I gave the audio command.

“Danny,” Brick said, after the yellow light on his side told him that I could see him. “I broke a shoelace and need to be on the court in ten minutes. That dweeb from the sixteenth floor is waiting to play me.”

The “dweeb” from the sixteenth floor weighed sixty pounds less than Brick, but thirty pounds more than me.

If I didn’t at least make the door fully transparent, he would become suspicious. I signaled for Beatrice to take all the packages into my bedroom, and to hide there.

“Open,” I said, once she had left the room.

Brick sauntered in. “Shoelaces?”

“No --- Sorry,” I fumbled. “I’m out myself.”

“That’s okay,” Brick said, plopping down on the couch, “I just remembered that I’m not scheduled to beat the little jerk until tomorrow. Want to watch a vid?”

No, I want him to go.

“Oh I get it.” He leered at me. “Either you’re wearing perfume, or you’ve got a girl stashed in your bedroom. Hey, how about introducing me?”

I couldn’t read his mind, and I also couldn’t shut out all the bragging and badge waving that he did to impress girls. I suppose if I had a glamorous job like working for Internal Security I would tell everyone I met. . . .

No. I wouldn’t.

Brick’s gaze traveled around my apartment and came to rest on the notepad Beatrice and I had been using. He got up and walked to it. Much to my relief he flipped it to a new page without looking at what had been written.

I had taken a seat in the chair. His massive forearms made me sweat as he squatted scant inches away on the sofa.

Leaning forward he grinned at me and showed me the two words he had scrawled.

“I know.”

My eyes blinked, but I held my emotions in check and didn’t respond other than to flip my hands palms-up and cock a questioning eyebrow.

“I was on video vigilance detail today, filling in for a friend at Watchful Eye,” he added to his note. He wrote a longer message, and then gave the pad to me to read. “I saw you and that girl in the park. I caught enough of your conversation to become interested. I switched on video surveillance in your apartment and read your notes as the two of you passed them back and forth.”

He pointed toward the ceiling where I could now plainly see a spy-eye.

My skin became icy cold at the thought of my subversion -- a capital offense.

“Honey,” I called, my voice breaking in a futile effort to remain calm, “my friend Brick is here. Come out and meet him.”

Beatrice came around the corner from my bedroom. She had brushed out her hair and also freshened her make-up.

I have to protect her even if I can’t save myself.

She smiled at him, a much brighter smile than she had given to me all day.

My thoughts twisted toward jealousy. Damn his mesomorphic ass! Beatrice had been female for less than twenty-four hours and yet she knew enough to flirt -- and who to flirt with.

Brick stood as she entered. His face spoke entirely of lust. “Wow. The cameras didn’t do you justice. You’re as sexy as your perfume advertised. Not bad for a reli-subversive.”

I would let Brick think what he wanted about Beatrice’s status as a suspect. She gave him a drawn smile that told me she understood that he was in control and that she had to be circumspect. I handed her the notepad, which she quickly read.

At any moment I expected him to kick sand in my face in front of Beatrice, and then haul me off to jail. Instead he took a vid box from his pocket and punched in a few numbers. He pointed it toward the surveillance camera, which closed to an almost invisible spot.

“I’ve shut off the camera and all the microphones,” he said.

Beatrice’s shoulders relaxed. She pointed her breasts at him in thanks.

He looked ready to bargain. . .her body in return for our futures.

The pricks at Internal Security have a reputation for preying on women and soft men. If he thinks I'll make a sandwich in bed with him and Beatrice, he can get that idea right out of his head.

“I’m Beatrice.” She held out her hand to Brick in a graceful and charismatic motion.

“John,” he said, taking her hands and greedily devouring her chest with his eyes, “John Cameron Mitchell. They all call me ‘Brick.’ ”

They either called him “Brick” or he would know the reason why. Holy shit. Once “Brick” files his report, Beatrice will be dead and I will be deader -- in less than twenty-four hours.

“I thought private camera surveillance was against the law,” I pouted. That legal subtlety wouldn’t save me. At the most I could create another day of trial defending myself. Back in the old days they had juries, who could be swayed by such things, but the government had decided that juries complicated the legal system and caused unneeded expense and had done away with them.

Brick blinked at me with disinterest, barely able to tear his eyes away from Beatrice’s never-been-fondled breasts.

“Under the broad powers granted to Internal Security,” he said, “we’re able to use vid once a person has been classified as a suspect. Luckily for us three -- Watchful Eye had just installed the park cameras.”

“Lucky?” Beatrice breathed her questioned through sensual lips. She had already adapted to her new voice and added undertones of raw sex that obviously weren’t going unnoticed by Brick.

“Uh huh,” he said. A bulge in his crotch testified to the power she had gained over him. “You’re both very lucky.”

He rose and adjusted his penis so that it was less conspicuous. His actions had drawn our eyes to its enormous size, which had surely been his intent.

“From what I saw of your notes,” he said, “the three of us are in a position to do something for one another.”

The three of us? Damn, he does want a menage a trois. My idea of a wild sex life is doing it twice in one night with a very willing, but unadventurous, female partner.

Had my circumstances been a little less dire I would have found the whole thing ridiculously funny. Brick obviously had no idea that Beatrice had bits and pieces where she shouldn’t.

“Brick,” Beatrice said. “Danny told me that if I don’t get out of Newport tonight I’ll be killed. He’s trying to help me. It isn’t his fault. He’s just being compassionate.”

“Is that right, Danny-boy?” Brick laughed. “I didn’t think you were the hero kind. I’m impressed by your planning though.” He turned his gaze to Beatrice, a view he obviously found more enjoyable. “The government has been ‘astraying’ more and more people all the time. They blame it on improper drug treatment resulting in aberrations that just shouldn’t happen.”

Beatrice’s eyes closed at the word “aberrations.”

“You Yusupovites aren’t the kind of people that are terminated,” Brick said to Beatrice’s enticing chest. “Danny-boy was trying to impress you, and I can see why. But that’s not really important now. We need to act fast. Maybe the three of us can do something together.”

“What do you want, John?” He could force me to blow him, if that’s what it would take to save Beatrice, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of calling him “Brick”. I stood to prepare myself for a fight.

Brick got up as well so that the two of us were squared off. “You’re really quite beautiful,” he said to Beatrice, looking beyond me, over my shoulder. “I wish that I’d seen you before you fell for Danny-boy.”

I looked at her in the wall mirror.

She blushed prettily -- a deep red -- and turned away.

Omigosh! A wave of queasiness washed over me as I remembered what was between “her” legs. If only she truly was a Yusupovite.

“Maybe. . .,” Brick continued, “. . .maybe during our trip to Shockland I’ll convince you that size does matter.”

“What?” Beatrice and I said together.

Brick moved forward, and then slapped me in the back. “That’s right Danny-boy. I’m coming with you.”

For a reason he hadn’t yet disclosed Brick had been planning to leave Newport for months. His escape preparations were more elaborate than mine. He even had a gun.

“I’ve only fired it a few times,” he said. “I’ve got sixteen rounds of ammunition. It’s capable of dropping a man my size in his tracks.”

I shuddered. Energy Impulse Weapons had replaced guns years ago, but guns were psychologically much more devastating. Brick was never without his impulse weapon. The EIWs had a maximum charge that couldn’t possibly kill anyone or cause any permanent damage. They would temporarily disable criminals, long enough for the law officers to use restraints. Guns were even outlawed in vids and wall games.

“Do you have any money?” Brick asked me.

“Money? For what?” I'm surprised Brick knows about money. Evidently he's a history buff like me.

“You’ll need it once you’re outside of Newport,” he said, with a sneer at my lack of knowledge.

Brick loves to make me feel inadequate. He seems to know a lot about the frontier and the countries beyond it. If only I could read his mind and “borrow” all that knowledge.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ve been taking things from the evidence archive rooms for years. I’ve got a stash of money that will make us almost wealthy in the Outworld.”

“Outworld?” Beatrice asked.

“The frontier and beyond,” Brick replied. “I can’t wait to see the Wild West. Newport’s too tame for a man like me. Besides, I’m in a bit of a jam myself. Internal Security likes younger officers in the soup. When you reach forty they either push you upstairs or out the door. I’m not what you’d call ‘captain material.’ My package has too many stains.”

Beatrice blushed when he said “package”. He had meant his personnel file, but it was obvious how Beatrice had interpreted his statement.

“All I’ve got to look forward to is working for some private security firm tracking down philandering old farts who are breaking their marriage vows.” He paced as he spoke, clearly frustrated with his predicament. “I’ll find a town someplace in Outworld that will appreciate a man like me.”

I checked the rug beneath Brick for testosterone spots, and became engulfed in his immense shadow blocking out the afternoon sun pouring through my viewing window.

“Have you picked a route out of Newport?” he asked.

From the tone of his question I knew I would sound inept. “I just plan to head west.”

“Danny, Danny, Danny. . . .” He shook his head in mock sympathy. “After I read your notes I did some research. The wide walkways are only big enough along three routes to allow the Alpha Hummer to get through. Two of those routs are heavily patrolled by Internal Security hovercraft patrol. There’s really only one rational way out of Newport.”

“Oh,” I said, slightly shaken.

“You would have gotten us out,” Beatrice said to me. She sat too close on the couch next to me, while Brick had taken up residence in my favorite chair.

“Wow! You really are in love with our Danny-boy. Don’t let your rose-colored glasses get in the way of your judgment. I’m taking charge of this operation, for the good of us all. My bag is already packed and is sitting outside Danny’s door. I also got my hands on some pretty good maps that will take us all the way to Shockland.”

Maps would be nice. Although the gas in the Alpha will take us over five thousand miles and Shockland is supposedly about three thousand miles a way, I don’t want to get lost too often.

“Danny should be in charge,” Beatrice said. “I’m comfortable putting my faith in him.”

“You Yusupovites make me sick with all your talk about faith,” Brick said. “The only positive thing religion ever did was to help prevent over-population. Famine, Pestilence, Disease, War, and Religion.”

Beatrice and I nodded. It still seemed the right thing to let Brick think that Beatrice was a reli-subversive.

“It’s okay, Beatrice,” I said, “Brick can be in charge, whatever that means.”

“That means Bea-body and Danny-boy, that whenever we have a big decision to make, I’ll make it.”

“No,” Beatrice said. “When we have a big decision facing us we’ll talk it through and vote.”

“Bullshit,” Brick said. “I’m as big as the two of you put together and I have the gun and the maps.”

“Let’s worry about the pecking order later,” I said. “Once we’re in the Frontier we’ll have days on end to debate things like that."

“There’s only one answer possible,” Brick said, “but I can wait a few hours to explain it all to both of you.”

After his obvious threat he gave us a moment to think. He could turn us in at any time, if we didn’t do what he wanted. Even after we stole the Alpha and left Newport he would have plausible denial based on his years of service with Internal Security.

“I’ve got schematic drawings of the exhibition hall,” Brick said. “I also have the hall’s guards’ schedules and the location of the security devices. It should be easy.”

It had taken weeks of illegal late-night observation and sleep-deprivation for me to watch the guards to learn what Brick had obtained with a few clicks of his vid box. “My plan is to go through the Esther Street maintenance door at 12:15,” I said.

“Danny-boy,” Brick smiled, “that’s exactly what I was going to tell you to do.”

***

The clock on the board of the Alpha read 1:03. We had successfully pulled off our theft and were about ten minutes away from the exhibition hall. In another twenty minutes we would be out of Newport. We were traveling along at about the same speed a fast man could run.

“Can’t you make this thing move along quicker?” Brick asked.

“Not likely,” I said. I was having some trouble with the controls and following the route that Brick called out. All of the lights and dials seem to confuse much more than what they helped. If only the Alpha had been equipped with an automatic-run feature.

“What’s that smell,” Beatrice asked.

“Fumes from the engine,” Brick said. “Can you imagine how bad it smelled back in the Oil Age when there were thousands of these things running around? My nose is centered on your perfume, Beatrice, as is my. . . .”

An electronic wail interrupted Brick’s mating dance.

I turned my head full around and saw two hovercrafts about five football fields behind us.

The Alpha lurched to the right as my hands inadvertently followed my body’s twist.

“Keep your eyes on the road,” Brick growled. “Do you want to run us into a building, you moron. Use those mirrors if you need to look behind you. What the hell did you think they’re for?”

In truth I had thought the people of the 21st century must have been quite vain about their personal appearance.

I urged a little more speed out of the Alpha. We now were going about double the speed of a fast runner. I had no idea how fast I could take corners without tipping over.

“The hovercraft aren’t much faster than us,” Brick said. “My vid box is equipped with an impulse blast shield. It will withstand about twenty-five direct hits.” He flicked the impulse shield on. “You watch your driving, and I’ll keep an eye on the boys behind us.”

“What if they shut down the border?” Beatrice asked.

“Not likely,” Brick said. “Newport’s borders are set up to keep people out -- not to stop anyone from leaving.”

“There are two more behind us,” Beatrice said. “They’re closer than the other two.”

“Take a right at the next corner,” Brick said, looking at his map, “then go four blocks and take a left. Damn those other two are about close enough to. . . .”

We were rocked when an impulse blast hit our shield.

Beatrice squealed as if she had sat on a block of ice.

“Elimination!” Brick shouted, “Can’t you work this machine any better? You should be able to outrun those hovercraft easily.”

Our machine jolted. We had been struck again by even more of a direct hit. Beatrice let out a much quieter whimper.

“How far to the border?” she asked. She slid back and forth across the back seat every time I turned the driving circle. Brick and I were in the front and were hooked in by fabric straps. The lights from the buildings and the impulse beams were blending together to make a sickly purple.

“About eight or nine minutes,” Brick replied, after checking his map.

The steering circle pulled hard to the left, and then slightly less hard to the right. Two more hits. One had been just a graze.

The buildings to our right and left whizzed by. A person could visualize what we saw by panning the horizon and quickly turning his head. A loud electronic noise came from the board. It had been coming from there ever since we started the Alpha. Brick looked over the dials and buttons, and then punched something that stopped the sound.

“That was the music and weather box,” Brick said. “Nobody sends music on those frequencies anymore because the ultra frequencies are much better carriers of sound waves.” Brick looked strangely calm for someone being shot at. Years of Internal Security work must have made him immune to fear.

My hands ached from the death grip I had on the steering circle.

Each time we cornered we had a short respite from being hit, but every time we had an extended straightaway we were rocked. All four hovercraft were in range and blasting away at us. At times it seemed like they could have been shooting more, but I couldn't really keep an eye on them and run the machine.

“If they catch us we can’t overpower them,” Brick said. “Hovercraft riders are big bastards. They’re probably at least eight foot tall and well over five hundred pounds each.”

I nodded. Whenever I had seen one of them up close I had been intimidated. There had been a lot of court cases against them before they got immunity from civil action for bodily harm they’d caused during an arrest. We would be executed within twenty-four hours for any one of a dozen violations we had committed during the past few hours. We were violating curfew, just to name one that was punishable by death.

“By my count,” Brick said, “my shield will last for three more hits. We’re still four or five minutes from the border.”

“I can’t go any faster,” I said. “With the holes in the walkways and the planting boxes I have to go around, I’m having problems.” As if to emphasize what I had just said the right side of the Alpha bounced when I ran Brick’s shield into the side of a building.

“Two more hits are all we can take now, moron,” Brick said, not giving me any credit for successfully negotiating the twist and turns to that point. “I’m going to slow those guys down.”

He reached into his armored vest and pulled out a cylinder about five inches long. “Take a left at the next corner. Do it as fast as you can, I need a moment once I take down the force shield.”

Take down the force shield? What is he thinking of?

When we were nearly at the corner he yanked something away from the cylinder and started counting. “One — two — three. . . .” We went around the corner and the tires made that awful noise as if they were pealing away from the machine. Brick punched a button on his vid box and the force shield melted away. “seven . . . eight. . . .” He tossed the cylinder out his side air-opening into the path of the oncoming hovercraft. He then punched his vid box again and the force shield came up.

The force shield cracked; it could take no more blasts.

Something exploded behind us sending brilliantly arcs of light in every direction.

“The flash-bang I threw at them will temporarily reverse the polarity on their energy storage units . . . their hovercraft will slowly come to a halt."

Wild shots from the Internal Security officers struck the building to either side of us as the men chased us on foot. They now were too far behind to shoot accurately. I forced the Alpha through one more high-speed corner leaving us clear.

Up ahead I could see the border station. A lone sentry who appeared to be unarmed flagged us to stop. Damn!

He raised an impulse weapon and pointed it in our direction.

Thonk. Brick had leaned out the window with his own impulse weapon and had got off a shot. The guard fell to the ground stunned, and then we smashed through the two by four, wooden, crossing arm that had to have been more for show than purpose. Brick had been right. Obviously, people weren’t trying to break out of Newport with any regularity.

I wanted to get out and inspect the tires. According to what I had read, they were designed to last a long, long time under normal conditions. What did the manufacturer mean by "normal conditions"? I flexed my hands to get blood to rush back to my fingertips.

“That was incredible,” Beatrice said.

“Thank you,” Brick said. “I’ve spent my share of time on the range perfecting. . . .”

“Not you,” Beatrice said dismissively. “You only did what you’ve been trained to do. Danny, you were incredible. Really impressive. Omigosh! I think I had an orga. . . .” Beatrice’s hands shot to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. It’s all so. . . .”

An old weatherworn sign next to the concrete ribbon stated “64”. Next to it someone had erected a crudely lettered billboard that stated, “ABANDON ALL HOPE, YOU WHO ENTER HERE.”

We were on our way.

Chapter Three

The clock on the machine's front board said 3:46. We had been traveling almost due west beyond the borders of Newport for nearly three hours when Beatrice asked me to pull over.

“I think I need a break,” she said. “I’m not used to. . . .”

Brick had been snoring for quite some time, and Beatrice and I were still maintaining our secret about her. . .ahhh. . .problem.

“It’s eerie,” I said, as I slowed the Alpha to a stop. “I haven’t seen any signs of life since we left Newport.” In truth, operating the machine put me into a kind of trance that seemed soothing after the events of the past twelve hours. I could see why so many people in the Oil Age wanted to own a driving machine.

“I haven’t seen any life either,” Beatrice said, and then lowered her voice. “To be honest, Danny, I’ve been hallucinating since we left Newport. I could have sworn I saw a lion, and a leopard and a wolf, but we all know that those animals are extinct.”

“I’ve heard rumors,” I said. “I’d also read minds of naturalist who had seen carcasses of many of the animals on the government’s extinct list."

Her face showed concern. “I really think. . .I’ll just go over there behind a bush and. . . .”

I could see tears glistening on Beatrice’s cheeks in the bright moonlight. She would be relieving herself for the first time as a woman. Even though they’d left her penis intact, it no longer connected to her urinary tract. As part of the process all of this had been explained to her in the recovery room. Given our small intake of liquids and food pellets our bodies eliminated liquids about every thirty-six hours and solids only once a week.

Where will I find fiber-food for my weekly sit down?

She opened the machine’s door and stepped down to the concrete. “I’ll be. . .”

“I’ll come with you,” Brick said, startling both Beatrice and me. “I’ve seen people in the bushes all along. I’ll bet there are five or ten people who can hear us talking right now.”

Beatrice gasped. “But, I don’t want. . . .”

“I won’t look.”

As Brick mocked her with his laugh, Beatrice walked with a purpose toward a bush about forty feet away.

“Owww,” she yelped. “Something stung me. It must’ve been a bee.”

“It was a hornet, you ninny,” a man's voice boomed from behind a large oak tree. “Aren’t you wearing boots?”

“Well…no,” Beatrice answered. “Ow. . . . What are those things?”

“Hornets,” another voice said, this time a female from off to the right. “If you’re not wearing boots you’d better get back in the contraption you came in -- before the worms get ya.”

“Worms?” I asked. I looked out my window and saw that the ground seemed to be alive with wriggling creatures about four inches long and as big around as my little finger.

A man rushed toward Beatrice and picked her up before she could offer a defense.

“Put her down,” Brick boomed.

“I can’t,” the man said. “Don’t you people know anything? Them worms and hornets work together. The hornets live in the short grass. If you stay on the concrete you’re safe. If you meander into the grass at all after dark, they sting you, and then the blood-sucking worms cover you and suck your blood through the holes the hornets made. Once they get started they can leave your body dry as dust in no time.”

“Elimination!” Brick shouted. “Put her down, or I’ll kick your ass.”

“You’re mighty stupid,” the man said, with little malice, as he seemed only to be stating fact.

“Not stupid enough to notice that you haven’t been stung,” Brick said. He stood on the concrete, seemingly unable to decide what action to take.

The man carrying Beatrice kept walking toward us. “Onions,” he said without any conviction, as he set Beatrice down on the concrete. “Some of us eat onions this time of year. The hornets seem to hate them onions and will leave well enough alone. Others swear that raw carrots do the trick; I’m not sure I care.” The muscles around his eyes appeared to be atrophied so that he looked somnolent.

“Thank you,” Beatrice said, rubbing her ankle where she had twice been bitten. Her eyes caught sight of the worms just off the concrete and she flinched.

“You’re from Newport, ain’t ya,” the man said. “Where did you get that old machine?”

His question had been posed in such a way as to suggest he would have been just as happy if we didn’t answer.

Bricks hand rested on his impulse weapon. He seemed content to talk, even with the man that close, although the man’s passive posture didn’t appear unfriendly.

“Beatrice,” I asked. “Why don’t you get in the machine and I’ll try to find an appropriate spot for you to. . . .”

“It’s probably none of our business,” the woman said, “but.” She stared at us, probably trying to decide if we were worthy of her opinion. “The thing is. About this time of night, shortly before dawn, the worms get all agitated. Soon that strip of hard-sand that you’re on will be covered with two to three inches of worms and they’ll make it really, really slippery.” Her jaw went slack as she fought a yawn. She continued with a flat and almost cadaverous tone. “Some people stay inside this time of night, just to be sure.”

“But you’re outside,” Brick observed.

“We have our boots on,” the man offered. “After midnight is the best time to hunt cats.”

“Hunt cats?” I asked, afraid that I might get an answer.

“Sure enough,” the man said. “Them cats seem to be in love with the moon or something. You can’t even get close to them during the day, but on a night like this with lots of moonlight, they come running to you and rub up against your legs. Cats purr like crazy when you pick them up. They push their little heads into your palms, so it’s easy to grab’em. One twist and you break their necks. We got a sack full of them tonight. Hot dawwwg! Cat stew tomorrow.”

My stomach convulsed. No one I knew had ever seen a live cat. Pets were considered unhealthy and had been banned in Newport, but some of the classic literature I’d read from the old days had described cats in a way that made them seem like nice animals.

“We were just fixing to head in when we saw the lights from your machine a’coming down the hard-sand,” a woman with an attractive, dimpled face said. “My name is Candy. You’d be welcome to stay with us tonight. We got things turned around and will be resting during most of the morning to make up our missed sleep. I’d sure enough like a woman in my bed for a little bit. It’s just me and Ed and Ed’s Papa and our two almost-grown boys.”

“That’s awfully nice of you,” I said, mindful of the worms that were slithering onto the concrete. A few hours of sleep would make it easier to concentrate on what I needed to do to operate the Alpha. I had to stay alert to miss all the buckled concrete and tore up parts of the path. It seemed odd the way she had said “bed” instead of “home” when she extended the invitation to stay with them. I thought I saw an intense blush on her face before she turned toward the darkness.

“Willy! Stu! Come on out here.”

Two lanky, older boys with glassy eyes, one of them carrying what appeared to be a heavy, almost full burlap bag, responded to their mother’s call by moving toward them with all the enthusiasm of a hot, humid summer afternoon. As they came closer I could see they were as handsome as their mother was pretty.

We followed them a short distance to an unadorned wood house built on stilts eight feet above the ground. The worms were now almost a half a foot deep on the ground. They made a disgusting squishy noise as the Alpha rolled over them.

“Just leave your things in your machine,” Candy said. “We got everything inside you could possibly want.” She smiled amorously at Beatrice.

“I don’t have any idea how to make this machine secure,” I said. I had searched in vain for a way to activate voice commands.

“Ain’t no one going to steal your machine,” Ed said. “There’s no fuel for it around here. Soon as it was out of what it needs to run, it'd be good for nothin’ but to plant flowers in.”

What he’d said made sense. Nothing much else we had would be valuable to them. We tiptoed through worms the twenty meters or so to the stairs that led up to their home.

“We sometimes eat the doggone worms,” Ed said. “They’re good cooked in beer batter over a hot stove, but you can only eat so much worm before you feel like you’re becoming one.” The frontier people all laughed. Evidently his remark passed for local sage wit.

“We already ate,” Candy said, “but I could fix you something if’n you’re hungry.”

“No thanks,” Beatrice said. “I ate just three days ago.”

Brick and I both also declined Candy’s offer.

Candy stood about three feet from me, the combination of the smell of her halitosis and body odor almost overpowered me. Judging by her white teeth it appeared her bad breath hadn’t been caused by poor dental hygiene. If they actually ate cats and weren’t kidding about all that, the stench might have been caused by the food they ingested.

The walls of their main room were decorated with stuffed animal heads. I didn’t know the names of all the species, but many of them were extinct, or at least that is what we had been told by our government. Brick walked from head to head inspecting them with the care of an expert in dead things.

“How about some wine?” Ed asked with a grin. He produced glasses and a small cask, which he set on the table. We all pulled up chairs and sat down around him. It had become obvious that Candy wasn’t the only one who smelled badly in their family.

As we were sitting down a wizened old man came in from another room.

“What in hell is going on out here,” he snarled. He had to be almost seventy years old. I hadn’t seen anyone quite as old as him in years.

“We were about to have some of your wine, Pop,” Ed said. “Dad has been keeping a vineyard most of his life. This here batch has a bit of a kick to it.”

Their “wine” was an ancient libation. All potent drinks had been outlawed in Newport years ago. It would have been inhospitable not to take a small amount, but anything more than a thimbleful would be sure trouble.

Ed poured each of us a half glass and lifted his in the air. “I've drunk to your health in company, I've drunk to your health alone. I've drunk to your health so many times, I've darn near ruined my own! Here's to me.” The frontier people clinked their glasses together and looked expectantly to us. Beatrice, Brick, and I hastily picked up our glasses and touched them to each of theirs. They smiled and laughed -- but a little emotionlessly.

I barely touched my lips with the liquid, as did Beatrice. It was a huge social faux pas in Newport to intake liquid beyond what a person really needed. Brick seemed eager to be one with the frontier people and had followed their example and drained his glass in one gulp. His bladder would be distended in a few minutes.

“Are you’ns political?” the old man asked in an off-handed way.

“Politics,” Candy said with disgust. “I guess that means it time for us women-folk to head off to bed.”

The two boys giggled behind their wine glasses.

“I ahh,” Beatrice replied. “Would you have something I could wear to bed?”

“I normally sleep buck-naked,” Candy proudly announced.

The thought of Candy “buck-naked” in bed with me was enticing, despite her poor hygiene.

Brick also leered at her with interest.

“I don’t think that would be comfortable for me.” Beatrice answered -- apparently thinking fast. A naked Beatrice would be too revealing.

“You’re a strange one,” Candy said, “putting on clothes just to take them off. I suppose, if'n you must, you could borrow a nightshirt.”

That headed off into another room. As we continued our conversation you could hear the two getting ready for bed.

“I’m not real sure if I’m a gonna vote this time or not,” the grandfather said in an effort to start a conversation.

I had refused a refill and had only wet my lips. Brick seemed determined to match them drink for drink.

“Delmore talks a lot of sense,” Ed said, taking a long pull on yet another glass of wine. “He’s got a point about needing a ‘paint name’ law. Can you believe some people are still calling white paint ‘ivory’ even after all the editorials and hoopla?”

“But it’s Gregory who has keyed in on what counts,” the grandfather said. “He’s got his finger on the pulse of the ‘flap up/flap down’ deee-limma.”

“Flap up?” Brick asked. His eyes were already looking stuporous.

“Which way a decent person installs his toilet paper, of course,” Ed said. “We’ve been ‘flap down’ people for as long as I can remember. Always will and always will be, unless someone comes along with a better idea. I’m for the politician with the least ideas, generally.” He stared off, contemplating a speck on the ceiling. “I’ll follow anyone who hoists a blank banner.”

Willy and Stu hadn’t said a great deal. They sat with their chairs shoved close together. It startled me when Stu broke the silence. “Me and Willy are getting married.”

“That’s great. You both found girls at the same time?” Brick asked.

“Huh?” Willy asked, looking slightly less lethargic than normal. “Oh hell no. Willy and I are getting married. Willy gave me this here ring.” He held out his enormous hand to show off what appeared to be a diamond. “I got him one in return.”

Stu obligingly held out his paw displaying a similar ring.

“Which of you is the female?” Brick's slack face gave evidence that he definitely felt the wine's kick.

“What do you mean?” Willy’s question couldn’t have been less friendly.

Not one to be easily set back, Brick continued down a bleak path. “Which of you is going to wear the pants and which of you is going to wear a dress for the wedding?”

Both Willy and Stu backed away from Brick as if he were a poisonous viper.

“We hate men who wear dresses,” Willy said. “We’d kill any man who tried something like that around us.” His face contorted in disgust.

“We don’t take kind to sissy-boys,” Ed said. “Anyone within a hundred miles of here would slice that kind of person in two.” He pulled an extended index finger across his own throat and hung out his tongue to one side. Will, Stu, and his Pop all grunted their agreement.

“I know what you mean,” I said. “The very idea of changing your sex or pretending you’re one sex when you’re really the other makes me want to puke.”

“What the fuck?” Brick said with tongue and lips barely able to form words. “I haven’t been screwed in four days. I haven’t gone six days without a good fucking since I was fourteen. I’d screw a knothole, if I wouldn’t get slivers in my pecker. Anything in a dress would work for me. . .man, woman, or even one of them dead pussies you got in that sack.”

The frontier people looked at one another, and than let loose with a huge guffaw when they evidently decided to believe Brick was putting them on.

A piercing shriek came from the room that Beatrice had gone into with Candy.

“Nooooo. What the hell is going on here?”

I feared the worst as Beatrice raced into the room followed by Candy.

“What’s wrong, Bea?” Candy pleaded.

“Wrong?” Beatrice said. Her anger was punctuated by the way that she yanked at her belt as she fastened it around her waist. “You kissed me.”

“Of course Candy kissed you,” Ed said. “It wouldn’t be neighborly of her not to, now would it?”

Brick’s eyes went from clouded to totally spellbound. Evidently the thought of lesbian love appealed to him.

“Mom always makes love to our lady visitors,” Willy said. “Some of them say she’s the best in these parts.”

“Let’s go,” Beatrice hissed. “I’m sorry, but your ways aren’t my ways. Really Candy, I’m sorry.”

They stared at us with a look reserved for the truly pitiful.

“Newport isn’t the world,” Ed said. “You’ve got strange ideas in your head that you need to git rid of…sooner — not later.”

“Not today,” Beatrice said quietly. “It’s light out. I assume all the worms have gone underground. Danny. Brick. Let’s get moving.”

I made several apologies as we went down to the Alpha.

I gently shook Candy’s hand as Beatrice looked in the Alpha.

She turned toward me with dismay. “Someone’s been in our things.”

Beatrice and I quickly went through our belongings and those of Brick. The only things missing were our food pellets.

While shaking Candy’s hand I had checked her mind. She held no thoughts about stealing anything from us. None of our hosts had left the room where we had been, but Candy, and that had been when she was with Beatrice.

Brick walked around in small circles muttering about his gun and what he would do to the “fucking thieves.” All of a sudden he bent at the waist and regurgitated all the wine he had consumed.

Ed kicked the ground with his foot. “Damned Newporters. You get your butts kicked out a Newport for being less than their idea of perfect. The next thing we know you’re here holding your noses at us. Some of you are okay and some aren’t. Some of our friends are okay and some aren’t. That’s life, but Bea didn’t have to be so mean to poor Candy.”

We left, going down the concrete path with all the windows wide-open drawing fresh air to blow away the stench that was Brick, who was out cold in the backseat. Our confidence in how we would cope with the world outside of Newport had been dented.

Without our food pellets our personalities would be allowed to stray away from the chemically induced norms. We had a general idea of where we were going, but didn’t know who we would be when we got there. Like Ed said -- some of what we would become would be good and some would not. We lived in a world of duality.

“You know what, Danny,” Beatrice said, about an hour later. We had stopped. Brick had gone off by himself in the bushes, still nauseated. “I shouldn’t have screamed. Candy touched my breast, and my screech just came out. All she wanted was to be my friend. It’s their custom. I feel horrible, but I couldn’t…I just couldn’t.

“They’re not civilized in the same way that we are.” My trip through Candy’s brain had shown me that she was a nice person who had offered nothing more than “normal” hospitality to Bea.

“Civilized? I heard what was said when you ‘men-folk’ were drinking wine.”

“And?”

“And,” she replied, “I’m pretty sure I prefer Brick’s lustful acceptance of what I am to your pity.”

“Pity?”

“Yes,” she said with contempt. “You think of me as some hateful thing to be pitied. Brick at least thinks of me as a sex object.”

I reeled under her favorable comparison of the loathsome Brick to me. “He thinks you’re a reli-subversive. Brick doesn’t know what you really are.”

“He doesn’t know ‘what I really am?’ ” Tears filled her eyes as she turned from me. “That makes Brick and me even.”

Chapter Four

We saw very few other people during that day as we drove on. Every once in a while a solar-powered machine would be sitting incapacitated by the side of the road. As it turned dark again Brick got in the back seat, switching places with Bea, and immediately fell asleep.

I became lost in my own thoughts, concentrating on the road ahead, until I heard a small sniffle come from Bea. I looked over, stunned by the tears streaming down her face.

“I’m sorry Bea,” I said. “I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I was just trying to fit in with the guys and wasn’t thinking about my words.”

“Oh,” she sighed and wiped the side of her face with the back of her hand, “I’m over that. I cry so easily, lately.”

It’s the hormones they’ve been giving her. I thought.

“A little while ago,” Bea said, “I was crying at the beautiful sunset. Isn’t that silly?”

Definitely the hormones.

“My grandmother told me,” she said. “Be careful what you wish for.” Her laugh as dry as a day without liquid. “I didn’t know how right she was.”

I didn’t understand what she was talking about and shrugged.

“You’ve been in my brain. You know how much I’ve ached to be a woman.” She looked down at herself, and than she pushed an errant strand of hair behind her ear. “And now. . .all this has happened and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a total catastrophe.”

I need to be sure I don’t say anything stupid -- again.

“There are some things I really like about my new body,” she said, after apparently realizing I wasn’t going to say anything. “I definitely like my hips.”

“Your hips?”

Her smile lit up the night. “They’re womanly aren’t they?”

I didn’t need to look over at her to picture them in my mind. They were the kind of hips that men called "childbearing" — when the men weren’t within earshot of women. Again, I was lost. Since Beatrice is really a man does protocol allow me to make that kind of crude remark?

“Oh,” she said, “you don’t have to say anything. I can tell by the way that you and Brick look at my hips that they’re womanly.”

“Has Brick been staring at you?” I'll have strong words with him in the morning.

“Of course he has. As a man I had a fairly low amount of testosterone running around in my body, but even I would’ve stared at a body like I have now.”

She had a point. I had told her that the changes were going to be permanent, which didn’t faze her as much as it would have me.

“I also like my breasts.”

I don’t think I can ever be comfortable discussing that with her.

“It’s not how they look so much,” she said. “I like the way they move. They constantly remind me of what I am. At first I couldn’t believe that I could stand up straight with them hanging there, but really, I’m not having any problems at all like that. Bras are pretty amazing.”

She flipped down the thing over her side of the front window and looked at herself in the lighted mirror. Her purse appeared in her hands and she produced a brush. I didn’t count, but she probably ran it through her hair nearly one hundred times. Then she took a tube of lipstick and brightened the red on her lips. She did that lip-rolling thing and smiled at the mirror in satisfaction.

She turned toward me again. “Danny, would you answer a personal question?”

What can be “personal” between us after what has transpired?

“Danny,” she said softly, “The Newport government was going to kill me.”

I nodded in agreement.

“I had no choice but to leave,” she added.

I kept nodding.

“I think we can agree that Brick has --- issues,” she said.

Once more I nodded. “Issues” could be Brick’s middle name.

“But you, Danny. Why would someone like you take such a huge risk? You could have easily died leaving Newport. Why did you want out so badly?”

We drove on in silence as she patiently waited for my answer. The hard rubber tires made a humming noise whenever the concrete path smoothed for a length of time and we could maintain speed. Rubber was seldom seen around Newport accept for in museums and expansion joints.

I started twice to answer her — opening my mouth and stopping -- before words came out. Finally I said, “I’ve only known about what the government does to people like you for a few weeks. I couldn’t be a part of that. --- But even more, I was scared out of my mind.”

“Scared?” she asked, raising one eyebrow. When she did that, her face displayed the symmetry of a Greek goddess.

“Scared 'eliminationless' — to borrow one of Brick’s expletives.”

“Why would someone with a 7W classification be scared? You had everything anyone could want.”

There were lights up ahead indicating some sort of small town. It was time for me to tell Bea more of what I knew. “The government didn’t need to make the physical changes in your body that they did.”

She frowned and knitted her brow. “They told me that they did it so that you could properly test me. They said the results of my examination by you would be much more accurate if I looked like this.”

“Only marginally,” I said. “In fact, many have argued that the physical changes they make actually skew the results.” Those willing to write papers that questioned government procedures were few and far between. Doing so was a mistake you only made once.

“Then why. . . ?” Her face had the look of someone consumed by a thirst for comprehension.

“They did it because they could, Bea — simply because they could. That scared the hell out of me. In a society in which we have surrendered most of our civil rights, it scared me to find out that the people at the helm are on a power trip.”

“Oh.” She sat in silence for a while. A tear trickled down her cheek “The worse part…no one will miss me.”

“Sure they will.” I said it even though I knew exactly the position she was in. There wasn’t anyone in Newport who was going to waste much time wondering where Ol’ Beatrice had gone . . . or Ol’ Danny.

“No, Danny, by this time next week it will be like I never existed. My boss will have someone trained-in to do my job and the world will just roll on. I guess it’s okay not having anyone love you, until you realize just how awful it is.”

We drove on toward the lights, each of us alone with our thoughts.

I slowed the machine and pulled in, in front of a one-story wooden building with a sign that said, “EATS” in bold letters. We wouldn’t experience hunger pangs for another day or so, but our bodies were already consuming our stored energy and soon would be totally reliant on new fuel.

Brick roused himself and joined us as we entered the food shop. The air reeked of something burning. We found a table covered with a form of antique ceramic that looked like faux granite.

A woman dressed in a shiny black dress covered by a white garment that could’ve been something a Pilgrim wore came to our table holding a notepad.

“What can I get ya?” she asked. Her hair had been randomly stacked on top her head and held in place by some sort of adhesive, or something she had sprayed into it.

“Food,” I answered brightly. We had to start training our bodies sooner or later.

She looked out the window at the Alpha and sneered. “Newport refugees?”

Bea and I nodded.

Brick’s hand touched the butt of his gun. That seemed to be his patented response to almost everything.

“Do you have money?” she asked skeptically.

Brick reached in one of his larger pants pockets and pulled out a roll of currency.

The brightly colored money seemed to influence the waitress to hold us in much higher esteem. “We get a lot of Newport people in here that seem to think they own the place,” she said. “Have you folks eaten much real food yet?”

“Nope,” I said. “We had a little wine.”

“Wine?” She grimaced. “My stomach doesn’t even like wine very much. That should’ve been interesting.”

Brick turned green, obviously thinking about the sweet-tasting libation he had regurgitated.

“I’ll bring you three of the Newport Specials,” she said. “Then I’ll fix you up with some carryout so that you can eat a little bit every hour or so until you can eat a real meal.” She smiled. “Bodies are really amazing. In only a day or two, you’ll be ready for hamburgers and fries.”

My mind spun trying to think what kind of delicacy a “ham burgher” might be. From my study of history I knew that ham was a kind of meat made from a boar and burghers were low-level politicians. “Fries” baffled me. The word sounded more like a verb than a noun.

In just under five minutes she returned with three bowls full of something that looked like wet, lumpy cement.

“It’s called oatmeal,” she said. “Each of you needs to eat three or four spoonfuls every hour or so for the next couple of days.” She leaned close in. “You’ll need to stop by the side of the road every now and again ‘cuz it tends to run right through ya.” She leaned back and winked. “It’s the only way.”

Brick asked her how much we owed.

She pointed toward a list of different foods and numbers. It said, “Special Including Oatmeal Kits $25 Each”.

“Could you count that out for us?” Brick asked.

She giggled. “You’re not quite as bright as you are handsome, now are you?”

“You look like you can be trusted,” Brick snorted.

“Sure, buddy,” she said, “and you look like I ought to marry you, just like my first four husbands looked -- before they ran out on me.”

She counted out seventy-five dollars. “And you need to leave a tip of somewhere between eleven and fifteen dollars.”

“A tip?” Bea asked.

“Sure,” she said. “Ain’t you never done any waitressing?”

Bea shook her head.

“You should, honey,” she said. “With your looks you’d make a bundle.”

“Do we decide whether or not we think you’re pretty and pay you a ‘tip' according to how pretty we think you are?” I asked.

“That’s the way most men do it,” she said, smiling like she thought I was the nicest person in the world.

Bea frowned. “I don’t understand. Is it like a game for money?”

“No, honey,” she said, “when the men want to pay you money to play with them, that’s called something entirely different.” A few of the locals who had been listening to our conversation roared at what she said.

“Evidently you’re having fun with us,” I said, glancing around the room. “Perhaps you should pay us a tip.”

She giggled. “That, honey, will never happen.”

Brick gave her the roll of bills and told her to give herself the tip she deserved.

She took off two bills. “Fifteen dollars even,” she said, returning the rest. She brought us a box of “take-out”. She had also included three bottles of water and told us to take a sip or two every time we ate a little oatmeal.

We were into the "elimination" round of our journey.

Chapter Five

After two days of emergency stops along the concrete strip, things began to solidify.

During one of our stops a man working with the dirt in an open area shook his head at us, and said we were suffering from something called “Denny’s Revenge”. At first I thought he somehow almost guessed my name, but our illness apparently had been named for a purveyor of food who had caused a dysentery plague.

Brick had been struck with a worse case than either Bea or me. I tried hard to convince him to eat smaller portions, but Brick kept saying a man his size needed to eat more than someone like me. He never missed a chance to belittle me in front of Bea.

The first-aid kit I had brought along had minor pain pills, which helped a little, but the only time Brick seemed somewhat comfortable was when Bea got in the back and held his head across her lap. She pressed a cold cloth onto his forehead and talked to him in soothing tones.

“Danny,” Bea said, once Brick had gone to sleep, “Do you ever wonder about the numbers Brick has tattooed on his arm? 64 - 81 - 75 - 64 - 70 - 15 - 80? What do you suppose they mean?”

“They’re probably code for the people he’s killed,” I replied.

“Danny,” Bea chided, “that was mean. Brick’s just a big boy. I think he’s sort of cute, in a way.”

“I think we should leave him alongside the road with a roll of paper.” The waitress had given us four rolls of what turned out to be very handy paper. We were down to our last roll, but were no longer using it as quickly.

Bea seemed to like holding Brick like she did. She had a peaceful look on her face as she sang soft songs and wiped the hair away from his face. I thought he looked and smelled terrible, but she had evidently found something in him to nurture.

Brick suddenly woke and insisted that we stop again. He ran to the bushes in what I hoped was one last elimination dash. Bea saw some wildflowers in the ditch so she and I went to take a closer look at them. She bent over the flowers, and something furry ran over her feet.

“EEEEEEEK,” she screeched and jumped into my arms.

She was as light as a Panuvian eggshell. I would have expected her weight to rip my arms out of their socket.

“Danny,” she said panicking, “Don’t put me down. Please, don’t put me down.”

I couldn’t have put her down had I wanted to. She had a death grip around my neck and buried her face into my shoulder hiding her eyes.

Brick came running toward us with his pants half down brandishing his gun. “What did you do to her?” he screamed.

“It was huge mouse,” I said calmly, trying to bring a little peace back into our world.

“Where is it?” Brick asked. “I’ll kill it.”

“It’s long gone,” I said. “Look the crisis is over. Why don’t you go back over behind the bush and finish your business. We can manage here.”

Brick looked menacingly at me holding Bea. Then a look crossed his face that trumped his lust; he turned and sprinted back across the open field to the bush.

I carried Bea over to the machine and sat down on the seat with my feet still on the ground and Bea on my lap. I took a clean rag and dampened it with water from a bottle.

“It’s okay now, Bea,” I cooed, as I pressed the rag gently into the back of her neck. “Everything’s okay.”

“No, it’s not,” Bea said. Her face came away from my shoulder, tears had been flowing freely leaving my shirt drenched. “I’m a freak.”

“Shhhhh. None of that. You’re Bea, and you do wonderful things, and you’ll do more wonderful things.”

“I want to be loved,” Bea said quietly. “All my life something has felt wrong and I stayed away from ever thinking about love, but I know now that I want to be loved. Is that too much to ask?”

It’s those hormones, again. I thought. “No Bea, it’s not too much to want to be loved.” I stroked her beautiful face. I could love her in a second if she were only real. “Shhhh now Bea. Relax and let things settle down a bit.”

“I want to live life to the fullest,” she whispered as if making a vow. “Danny, would you think it awful if I said that I was very, very curious about what sex will feel like in my new body?”

I rocked gently, unable to put together words to answer her.

By the time Brick got back, Bea slept soundly with her face burrowed into the spot she had made damp with her tears.

“We’ll get going again in fifteen minutes,” I whispered to Brick, so as not to disturb her. “She needs a catnap.”

“I can hold her if your arms are tired,” Brick offered.

“No, she’s perfect right like she is.”

***

Underway again, it became apparent that we had crossed the border into Sigourneya. We had been driving non-stop for the last three hours; a very good sign that our gastronomical ailments were behind us.

“Why are we slowing down,” Brick asked. His head rested on Bea’s lap again.

Now that the color's come back to his face, Bea shouldn’t be holding him like that, but I didn’t raise my objection. “There’s a man ahead waving his arms at us,” I said.

“Don’t stop,” Brick warned. “He could be trouble.”

“Nonsense,” Bea said. “Look at him. He’s barely twenty.”

I pulled the alpha to a complete halt next to the boy and opened a widow.

“Thanks for stopping,” the boy said. “I’ve been standing here for half the day trying to get a ride into town. It’s twenty-five miles from here and I need to get there for Grandmom’s birthday party. Can I get a lift?”

“No,” Brick said.

“Definitely,” Bea said, clearly put out by Brick’s lack of manners.

“Okay,” I said, only to agree with Bea. Had I had my choice, we wouldn’t have offered a ride.

“Great,” the boy said as he bounded around the Alpha to sit in the right front seat. “This car is cool.”

“Car?” I asked.

“Your car…Alpha,” the boy said.

“Ohhhh.”

“So, it’s your grandfather’s birthday?” Brick asked, seemingly trying to trip-up the boy.

“Grandmom’s. She’s seventy-five today.”

“Seventy-five?” Brick scoffed. “Kid, you’re full of elimination.”

The boy stared, and then smiled. “You’re just out of Newport aren’t you.”

“Sure are,” Bea said. “How’d you know? By the way, I’m Bea, That’s Brick, and the fellow running the machine is Danny.”

“Hi,” the boy said, “I’m Virgil.” He shook hands all around. His hand felt rough to the touch. “When people come here from Newport they’re shocked by all the people who live to be ninety and even one hundred.”

“Life after fifty is pointless,” Brick sniffed.

“That’s what you’re taught in Newport, evidently,” Virgil said. “We have a saying that ‘life begins at fifty.’ ”

“Only those ranked five or six or above live past their late forties,” Bea said. “Most of them who are ranked four or less are happy to die.”

“Those ranked seven and above can choose to die whenever they want,” Brick said. “Most of the sevens chose right around sixty-five when their sex life goes to hell.”

“That’s funny,” Virgil said, “during Grandmother’s last birthday party she said her sex life was better than ever.”

“Not much chance of that,” Brick snickered.

“My dad is a historian,” Virgil said. “He said that about a hundred years ago the people of Newport decided that they couldn’t afford to keep people alive indefinitely. Instead they concentrated their science on making everyone’s life wonderful until they got to be fifty.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Brick asked. He seemingly had already decided the boy was an idiot.

“Nothing,” Virgil answered. “unless you realize that everyone can have perfect health until their eighties.”

“No one eighty-years old is healthy,” Brick stated.

“Wait until you meet my grandfather, Spike,” Virgil said, “but I gotta warn ya. If you curl your lip at him like you did at me, he’ll wipe up the floor with you.”

Brick fumed as Bea and I laughed. The idea of an eighty-year old man giving Brick a physical beating seemed hilarious.

“We’ve found out things about life,” Virgil said. “One of the big things you’re going to see is the way we eat food. You’re going to love chocolate.”

“Wait a second,” I said. “I’m a bit of a history buff. Chocolate is bad for you; it’ll clog your arteries with all that fat.”

“That’s what people thought a hundred years ago,” Virgil said, “but we found that chocolate makes you smile, which actually breaks down fat cells, resulting in longer life.”

“I’ll give chocolate a try,” Bea said. “I don’t know what it is, but it sounds yummy.”

“Take a right at the next corner,” Virgil said. “We have to take the Ad Interim Detour. My grandmother lives by Status Quo Park.” Virgil then directed them around Redux Circle, left on Locus Place, and another left on Ave Avenue.

“We’re almost there,” Virgil said. “We have to go beyond In Media Res Street to Quid Pro Quo Exchange.

“What’s with all the Latin?” Brick asked.

“The people around here call themselves the Literati,” the boy said. “This is where people from Newport stay if they consider themselves to be smart. They really overdo it. The men’s rooms in town are called “Rex” and the women’s rooms are called “Regina”. Who needs it?”

“What do people do around here for fun?” Bea asked.

“There’s the games every Wednesday night,” the boy said. “If anyone catches a merchant charging more than a forty percent mark-up on what they sell, they have to take part in the boulder challenge.”

“Boulder challenge,” Brick questioned, “what’s that?”

“The merchants that screw up have to run at each other with these big rocks until one of them is knocked unconscious. No one stands a chance against Rupert Farinati. He’s awesome.”

“Is this Rupert Farinati a big guy with real heavy eyebrows?” I asked.

“He sure is,” Virgil replied. “Do you know him?”

“I met him once.” I had examined him about a year ago. He was a transvestite who had been deported after I made my report. When I had been in his mind I had seen considerable evidence of greed.

“Every other Tuesday there’s the mud-wrestling contest,” Virgil said. “If you don’t smile enough you could be forced to take part. Some of the participants have choked to death -- so most people around here smile all the time.”

“Ohhh,” Beatrice gasped. “I’m sorry, but that sounds horrible.”

“That’s not so bad,” Virgil said. “What you don’t want to do is try to commit suicide and fail. They plant those people in the ground up to their waist every Thursday morning. They can’t go anyplace so people sit in the chairs around them and ask them why they did it. It’s pretty good fun to hear some of their stories after they’ve had to tell them over and over for a few hours.”

“Omigosh, is that the worst of it?” Despite everything Virgil had told us, I smiled thinking about Farinati and the boulders. If ever any one person deserved to be in boulder battles, Farinati was the one, from what I had seen in his mind.

“Yeah, pretty much. There’s the winter games, where they freeze people into the lake who betrayed their friends.”

Beatrice made a whimpering noise, but otherwise we remained quiet.

After we dropped the boy at his grandmother’s and declined his invite to joing them, we stopped at a public park. We would sleep for a few hours before driving on. As we sat around a campfire eating the oatmeal we had heated over an open fire, I decided to try reading Brick’s mind again. “Brick, you don’t look so good these last few days.”

“What are you getting at, Danny,” he said with a low growl.

“You’re looking a little puny,” I said.

“Compared to who, you little pipsqueak.”

“I’m just saying,” I said. “I’ll bet I could beat you at arm-wrestling.” He pointedly ignored me, so I added, “Don’t you think I could beat Brick at arm-wrestling, Bea?”

She looked at me with a funny expression and shrugged her shoulders.

The slight challenge to his manhood got a rise out of Brick. “Okay. Let’s get it done.” He arranged a park bench so that we could use it for a surface to rest our elbows on as we fought each other. “On the count of three I’m going to slam your arm down,” Brick snarled. We had clasped hands and were waiting to start the match.

I tried desperately to get into his mind. On “three” I relaxed and allowed him to pin my hand. I had already determined I would have no luck reading his thoughts.

“Well, I guess there’s no doubt who the weakling is around here,” Brick sneered.

Bea shrugged again. It seemed like she had figured out what I had been trying to do.

Two hours later Brick left to visit the men’s room.

“Brick’s been asking about you,” Bea said. “He asked me who I thought you would be meeting in Shockland, and what you were going to do to earn a living when you got there.”

“He. . . .”

“What’s going on here?” Brick shouted over Bea's shoulder. “I don’t like it when you two talk about me behind my back.”

“It was nothing,” Bea said quietly.

“Nothing, huh,” Brick said. “Oh, I get it. Don’t you think I know you two are going to try to leave me behind as quickly as you can?”

“No,” Bea argued. “That’s not at all true.”

“Well,” Brick said. “I’ll tell you why you won’t.” He pulled his maps from his pocket and threw them in the fire. “I got those maps memorized. If you want to get to Shockland you’ll keep me with you.”

“You’re certifiable,” I said -- watching in dismay as the fire consumed the maps. “No one is out to get anyone.”

“Then there’s no problem,” Brick smiled.

“Brick,” Bea sighed. “you’re like one of those half-man / half-animal creatures. I like that about you.”

Chapter Six

The three of us had been cross with one another ever since we passed the West Creed border. Churches and wind filled the wide-open spaces.

“There are more churches here than there are stores,” Brick said. Brick still hadn’t taken a turn at running the machine, although he managed to criticize every move I made.

“Be an angel, Brick,” Bea said with a graceful wave of her hand, “and open your window a bit. When I open mine it musses my hair so much I can’t control it.”

Brick smiled like a knight in shining armor while doing his small raison d’étre for Bea.

Bea's been much friendlier toward Brick lately. Several times I had seen her staring at him. Small wonder. She's become increasingly more feminine every day as her natural urges had taken over and probably had normal female urges. Brick isn’t bad-looking if you like muscle-bound fascists. Somehow he's atoned for every bad thing he did or said to her, while I keep making her angry without the benefit of penance.

“Just look at those billboards,” Brick snorted. “They’ve got a sin for every day of the year and punishment for doing it.”

“Thievery is punishable by death in a pit of vipers,” a billboard screamed at us.

“I guess they don’t go for taking each others’ property,” Bea said. “Do you really think they would throw someone into a hole filled with snakes?”

“Sounds like justice to me,” Brick said. “Some people would be a whole lot better if they feared a snaky lick.” He stuck out his extraordinarily long tongue and wriggled it at Bea.

Thankfully she turned away in disgust.

“Hypocrites will be made to walk in circles wearing lead robes,” the next billboard said.

“I’m not so sure that’s a bad idea,” I said, thinking of how the Newport government spoke out of both sides of its mouth.

“That’s inhuman,” Bea sighed. “What kind of people go to all these churches, and then support those laws?”

The next billboard was black with red lettering. “Lawyers who accept bribes will be tarred and feathered, and then torn asunder.”

“Oh my,” Bea gasped.

“Why didn’t I think of that?” Brick laughed. “I would have loved to have seen my wife’s divorce attorney ‘torn asunder.’ ”

“You were married?” Bea asked with too much interest.

“Uh huh. She sued for divorce claiming infidelity.”

“Women usually don’t like it when their husbands go ‘peter dunkin,’ ” I quipped.

Bea fired a look at me that indicated I had stepped over the line with my so-called humor.

“Nope,” Brick said. “What she called ‘infidelity’ was my devotion to my job. Carmen wanted me at home when I needed to be working. She could be totally unreasonable. That witch thought I should be there for every anniversary or birthday. I loved her with all my heart, but who can live with those rules.”

“You sound like my father,” Bea said.

“Do you mean that?” Brick smiled with glee.

“Yes, unfortunately I do,” Bea said. “My dad would tell everyone how much he loved us, but was never around.”

“Falsifiers will be inflicted with plague and disease,” the next billboard said, with a timely message.

“They don’t mess around,” Brick said. “I guess I’ll have to watch what I tell the ladies.”

As if to comment on Brick’s remark a hissing sound came from the front of the machine accompanied by a cloud of steam. Upon investigation after we stopped, we found a pinprick hole in a rubber hose.

“That’s not a problem,” Brick said. He brought out his bag and produced a roll of silver tape. “A man shouldn’t go anywhere without duct-tape.”

We all marveled at how useful duct-tape could be. Of the many inventions of 23rd century science, duct-tape has to be up there as one of the best.

“We probably need a more permanent fix,” I said, trying to regain some of my male dignity. “There’s a house and barn over there. Let’s see if they know where we can find help.”

The duct-fix seemed to hold as we drove to the buildings. As we came to a halt a large dog ran up to our car and barked at us. His teeth looked enormous.

“Don’t be scared,” a man with arms like tree trunks said, as he walked toward us wiping his hands on a rag. “You must be new around here. Dogs are man’s friends. When a dog’s tail is wagging that means he isn’t going to attack you. This here dog isn’t going to attack anyone, other than to lick them to death.” The man grinned showing huge white teeth that looked a lot less menacing than his pet’s. “A man is known by the company he keeps and mostly my company is my dog.”

His dog closely inspected each of us after we got out of the car.

Bea jumped a little when the furry beast stuck his nose in the area of her secrets.

“So which of you gentlemen is the husband?” the man asked a bit too zealously.

“Ben,” a young, very pregnant woman called from the front of their house, “ask them to come in. You can wait a minute or two before getting all official-like.” She added an explanation for us. “Ben’s on the town’s vigilante committee. Ever since West Creed made it illegal for an unmarried woman to be with unmarried males who aren’t relatives -- without a chaperone -- he’s been waiting to arrest his first sex-offenders.”

“Bea is my wife,” Brick said, evidently remembering the punishments the billboards had promised and some of the things Virgil had told them.

The punishment for being “sex-offenders” most likely is ghastly. It had been a blessing that Brick thought so quickly, but why had Brick claimed to be the husband?

Bea sidled up next to Brick, and leaned her head against him to affirm his statement. “My Brick and I have been married for six years now. We’ve been trying to have a baby ever since, but it seems like my little Bricky is shooting blanks. It’s enough to turn one to celibacy.”

Brick sputtered, and I did my best not to burst out laughing. Evidently Bea didn’t like him putting her in a faux marriage with him anymore than I did.

“Oh I know, Sweetie, but you have to keep the faith,” the woman said, “I’m Charon and you’ve already met my husband, Ben. Usually he’s an angel who doesn’t bite if I keep him well-fed. That’s Charon, C-H-A-R-O-N. We pronounce it ‘care-in’ while other folks say ‘shar-own.’ ”

Bea and Charon went off together as if they’d been in each other’s potluck all their lives. They looked to be about the same age, each as beautiful as the other, so they had that "women thing" going for them.

“Are you out of Newport?” Ben asked.

“Uh huh.”

Neither Brick nor I would respond beyond that, so we had that macho thing working against us.

***

Ben found a shade tree mechanic who could fix our machine. It would take the mechanic almost a week to fashion a new part. All that time Bea and Charon talked non-stop.

One afternoon I heard the two of them on the porch.

“Charon,” Bea said, “I grew up with five brothers. I was the worse little tomboy you ever saw. Sometimes I find it hard to express myself the way I would like to.”

“Express yourself?” Charon asked.

“To be all the woman I can be. I’m not very good with doing my hair and things.”

“You landed in the right part of West Creed,” Charon said. “All you need are a few girl lessons. I had three sisters who played 'wedding day' and 'beauty queen' with me every day for nearly fifteen years. You’ve got all the raw material and great instincts; we’ll polish off a few rough edges, and then you’ll be a gem.”

Every time I saw Bea after that she had changed her hair or make-up.

Since she and Charon were about the same size, Bea eventually tried on every garment that Charon owned. Apparently Charon liked to dress a bit on the risqué side when she wasn’t with child. Bea smiled brightly when she paraded the revealing garments for our inspection. She took each outfit and added a little something to it that made it uniquely hers. Bea relished the center of attention, whenever the spotlight hit her.

“If sensuality were happiness,” Ben said as we prepared to eat toward the end of our day, “beasts would be happier than men; but human felicity is lodged in the soul, not in the flesh.”

“Don’t mind Ben,” Charon whispered. “His mouth moves faster than his brain.

“Kind words and few are a woman’s ornaments,” Ben said, obviously possessing good ears.

Bea and Charon chattered incessantly about food preparation and housekeeping; Bea seemed to be a sponge absorbing huge quantities of information. By the end of the second day she had adopted a new scent that smelled like a blend of jasmine and citrus.

I didn’t know exactly when it started, but it seemed like Bea could read my mind simply by studying my body language. Her smiles and frowns clearly indicated to me which of my behaviors were acceptable to her.

On the third day, Ben gave Charon a set of compressed pastel chalk and drawing paper.

Bea astonished us all again by sketching landscapes that we had seen days before on our journey. Bea’s brain had operated like a vider, capturing everything she saw and holding it until her fingers could commit those images to paper. She passed on some of her artistic talent to Charon with just a few lessons, although Charon’s pictures never came up to the quality and sensuality of Bea’s.

The two of them became as close as only two seductive women can be.

As the week went by Charon started to look more and more ripe. It would be a race to see which came first, the part we needed -- or the baby.

The stork won by a nose.

“There’s trouble,” the midwife said, who had been brought in to assist with the birth. “If only I could do a C-section.”

“It ain’t our way,” Ben said fiercely, with tears flowing freely. “He does not believe who does not live according to his belief.”

“Since I can’t bring the baby out by C-section, your wife is going to die.”

“It ain’t our. . . .” was all Ben could get out.

“Do it anyway,” I said. “It’s common practice in Newport.”

“If I do,” the midwife said with resignation. “I could be prosecuted and the penalty is to have the flesh on my feet burned off while I’m hung upside down in a Baptismal font.”

Even Brick gasped.

“What they don’t know. . . .” I said, wondering what sort of cult we had fallen into.

“You don’t know Ben very well,” the midwife said. “He could have you arrested for even suggesting such a thing. Ben is a true believer and it would be an impiety for him to… well. . .he would never, ever look the other way.”

“Can you save the baby?” I asked, realizing that Charon was beyond our help.

“I can, but we’ll need to find a surrogate to breast feed. Babies aren’t allowed to have any nourishment other than mother’s milk for the first six weeks. That’s the law.”

Within four hours it was all over. One had died and one had entered the world screaming his grief.

***

“That poor little fellow,” Bea said the next morning, tears running down her face. “He’s so hungry.”

“We looked into a wet-nurse a few days before you people showed up.” Ben said, his sorrow etched in his face. “Charon wasn’t sure she wanted to be tied to that regimen. There’s a law to prevent epidemics that demands only one baby per wet nurse; and the nursing woman has to be cleared by a doctor. We couldn’t find a nurse any place that wasn’t already committed for the next four months. I wish we could, but wishes never filled the bag.”

“Can’t you wink at the law and feed your baby goat’s milk?” Brick asked.

We all knew what the answer would be to that one. Charon died because of their weird entanglement in the West Creed law. The baby would soon die as well.

The little guy screamed in agony, waiting to be fed, and demanding to be treated with respect.

“Bea?” Brick asked, pointing at her breasts. “Did you spill something on yourself?”

Circles of moisture on Bea’s dress surrounded her breasts.

“Oh my,” Bea wailed. “I’m leaking. . .ah. . .lactating. Ohhh. My body must be responding to the baby’s cry.”

“You certainly are,” Ben said, with enthusiasm. “Bea, would you be willing to feed my boy?”

“Of course,” Bea said. It was obvious from her set jaw that she couldn’t allow him to die, if there was anything she could do.

Two hours later the doctor arrived and performed a blood check to certify Bea as a registered wet-nurse.

“You’re a very healthy person,” the doctor said, looking at his notes. “I checked for levels of prolactin and oxytocin and you’re off the charts. Your baby will never be hungry.”

“Is she clear?” Ben asked with some trepidation.

“Clear? Yes, she’s clear. But I’m getting some strange readings and need your indulgence to make a few more tests.”

“Anything serious,” Brick asked, concern written all over his face.

“No, not really. . .just my old curiosity.” He smiled. “Congratulations, it’s official. Under the La Leche Amendment to the West Creed constitution, you two are now proud parents. Normally we need the curate to sign off, but the midwife can be his proxy and has already documented the entire transaction.”

“What?” Brick gasped, barely finding his voice.

“Didn’t Ben tell you? Our laws demand that the baby have a true family. In most instances like this the wet nurse marries the father, but since Bea is already married to you, the two of you have, by common law, adopted the baby.”

“Ben?” Bea looked to him for an explanation.

“I thought you guys knew about that law,” he replied, still clearly unnerved by the corpse in the next room. “Don’t you want my boy? You’d be a great mother. What is learned in the cradle lasts until the grave.”

Clearly, Ben hadn’t intended to mislead anyone. If there was any way he could keep his son alive, he would, even if it meant giving him up for adoption.

“But we’re not really. . . .” Brick started.

I stomped on his foot under the table. “No one’s ever really ready to start a family. Congratulations you old son-of-a-gun.”

Bea sat off to the side of the room offering her breasts to the baby. He needed little prompting, moving his head from side to side with his little mouth hanging open until he found her nipple. Nature had taken its course.

The doctor went on instructing Bea about the breast pump he had given to her and feeding schedules. He also gave her a pamphlet about nursing and a squeeze on the shoulder. “I’ll just go in the other room,” he said. “When you’re done, you come in and strip so I can finish my examination.”

Bea’s face went from the serene look of a mother at peace with the world to a woman in complete panic mode.

What will the punishment be for having extra organs?

Bea looked up at the doctor. “Bwak lalia?”

The doctor looked to Ben, who shrugged.

“Does Bea speak a foreigner language?” Ben asked Brick and me.

“Nope,” Brick vowed, evidently already understanding Bea’s ruse. “Isn’t that right Danny, Bea only speaks good old English.”

“Uh huh,” I said, responding to his unnecessaryly sharp nod.

“Walllia domieee walliaaa.” Bea said. “Glossolalia himal.”

“Glossolalia,” Ben repeated, clearly excited by that strange word. “She’s speaking in tongues. I’ve heard of it, but I’ve never seen it before.”

“Really,” Brick said. “She’s been speaking in tongues for years. Bea was birthed-once-more. . .well it was way before we got married. You know she’s such a kidder. That stuff about me shooting blanks, she. . . .”

“Mewowwe malumba saaaa,” Bea ranted. “Kluamba howiac drouuuum!”

“Bea said that we need to make our exodus as long as the car has been fixed,” I said. “We’re on a mission from God.” I looked to the heavens with religious ecstasy, and Brick and Bea did the same.

“Well. . .uhmmmm,” the doctor stammered. “I see. Well I guess I have all the tests that are really necessary. I was just. . . .”

“Cowabunga!”

“Okay, Bea,” Brick said, “we get it. She uses such colorful mantras”

Ben hustled around the house getting together as much of Charon’s personal belongings: clothes, jewelry, make-up, and other feminine items, as Bea would allow him to give to her. We had to hook a trailer to the back of the Alpha to haul the additional things we needed for Bea and the baby.

“We’ll send photos and letters are often as possible,” Bea said to a tearful Ben. We knew that he would have wanted us to stay through the funeral, but we couldn’t chance a curious doctor finding out that "everything" wasn’t quite how it seemed.

We waved at them in the rearview mirror vowing not to stop until we had left West Creed.

Chapter Seven

The last sign as we rolled out of West Creed declared, “Gluttony — Will earn you a week lying in mud, filth, and excrement.”

Having read about sins of the flesh for the last ten miles, Brick finally made the connection, “We’re going into Brunson. They cater to the sinful. You’re going to see everything you’ve been reading about on the West Creed road signs and more, right out in the streets.”

“I feel so bad for Charon,” Bea said, looking up from nursing Joshua. “She was thrown out of Newport as a teenager after Ben’s brother raped her. Ben’s brother had the political power to have her deported when she filed a criminal complaint. All the charges against him were dropped, but Ben believed Charon, and he left Newport with her. Now Ben’s totally by himself, and she’s dead.”

“Is Joshua the son of. . .?” Brick indelicately asked. His raspy voice matched the hot desert sand around us. Luckily, the Alpha had a great personal environment modifier.

“No,” Beatrice cut him off. “The rape occurred several years ago. Joshua is Ben’s son. Can’t you tell just by looking at Joshie’s eyes?”

I hadn’t noticed, and I was sure Brick was totally whenever Beatrice nursed Joshua.

“Ben’s obviously a reli-subversive,” Brick said. “He wouldn’t last in Newport.”

“He has no interest in going back,” Bea said, shaking her head.

When we pulled into the capital of Brunson we were accosted by sign after sign extolling the poker playing abilities of Doyle Brunson. He evidently was the best there ever had been at Texas hold’em.

“I like playing Texas hold’em,” Bea said.

“So do I,” Brick said. “It’s really a man’s game though. It takes a pair of nuts to do what has to be done when the money’s on the line.”

We checked into a casino/hotel with big signs that said, “What’s done in Brunson, stays in Brunson.”

“You guys get situated in the room,” Brick said, separating with us at the desk. “I’m going to check out the casino. Go ahead and use all the room service you want. I’m buying enough chips so everything’s comped.”

Brick didn’t wait for an answer. He stomped off toward the casino like a man with a purpose.

Bea and I settled in separate rooms with an adjoining door which we left open. She bathed and nursed Joshua and then put him down for a nap. She and I went to our individual bathrooms and washed the last couple of weeks off our bodies.

I sent down for a set of clothing.

Bea picked something nice from her extensive wardrobe and took extra care with her make-up and hair.

She looked absolutely stunning when she joined me two hours later in the main room for something called “hors d’oeuvres” and soft drinks.

“That’s a pretty dress, Bea.”

She twirled and its short hem flew revealing matching panties. “They call this a jersey, halter top babydoll,” she said.

“It’s. . . . You’re beautiful in it.”

She blushed. “Thank you. I think coral might just be my color.”

I couldn’t imagine anything, or anyone, more gorgeous. Fear rose from my stomach. “What if Brick wins a ton of money and decides to stay here?” I asked. He obviously fits in with the Brunson lifestyle.

“No big deal,” Bea said. “I figured out that tattoo of his. 64 81 75 64 70 15 80. It’s a list of the concrete paths that we need to follow to get to Shockland.” She stopped and giggled. “Or, we could stop and ask people along the way — did you ever think of that?”

Strangely, asking for directions hadn’t occurred to me, but I had bigger concerns.

“No, Bea. I’m wondering if Joshua and you will stay with him or go on to Shockland with me. . . . If he decides to stay in Brunson.”

“What a foolish question,” Bea replied, sliding across the couch to a spot right next to me. She took one of my hands into hers. “It was nice at first to have Brick interested in me. I do like feeling sexy and attractive, but he couldn’t be a suitable father for Joshua.”

“No, I suppose not,” I said, suddenly feeling anxious. “What about me? I could be a pretty good dad. I could. . . .”

Her beautiful eyes shot wide. “You would be a great dad, Danny!”

“But is that enough?” I asked, fearing her answer.

She sighed. “I want it all. I want a true soul mate who sees me for who I am.”

“Bea — I could be a soul mate," I said eagerly, "if you would show me how.”

“You are my soul mate! Don’t you know I love you? I know how you feel about people like me and it’s tearing me apart, but as long as there is any chance I want to be right there, waiting for you.”

“Any chance?” My mind spun. I had been such a complete idiot in allowing foolish Newport prejudices to cloud my feelings. “I would crawl across a mile of crushed glass just to watch you nuzzle Joshua’s little neck. I love you so much I can’t express it.” I want her as a wife, a lover, and the mother of our child.

“Me too,” she said with wondrous simplicity, apparently responding as much to my thoughts as to what I’d said.

I pulled her to me for a long passionate kiss that ended only when someone pounded on the door to our suite.

A gentleman with an oversized head that appeared frozen to his shoulders and a face that looked quite familiar stood in the doorway. Somewhere along the line he had injured his neck or back and had to swivel his entire body to change the path of his vision.

“You must be 'Bea',” he said. Bea extended her hand, which he shook lightly. He then turned to me. “And you have to be 'Danny.' ” He gripped my hand with the firm greeting of a man of his stature.

I had finally recognized him as Doyle Brunson, the man whose face graced all the billboards.

He walked across the room to Joshua’s bassinette and lowered his voice. “He’s a beautiful boy.”

“Thank you,” Bea said. Her tone was gracious, but I sensed she feared having him in close proximity to her child.

Doyle walked back the several paces to us, and then indicated that we should all sit down. Bea and I sat together on a loveseat with Doyle taking its adjoining large chair.

“We’ve got ourselves a bit of a situation,” Doyle said. “Your travelling companion played a little fast and loose with us. He sat down at a big stakes table and quickly ran through a hefty line of credit -- that he can’t cover.”

Bea gasped. For some reason the news was almost expected. Ever since the personality-dulling drugs in our food pills had worn off, Brick had been on full tilt.

“I suppose,” Doyle said, “I half understand how he feels about you, now that I meet you in person.”

“What?” Bea asked.

“That donkey bet everything he had so he could make enough of a fortune to ask you to marry him.”

“Ohhh,” Bea exclaimed. Her eyes closed and pain shot across her face.

“We’ve been having a friendly chat with him,” Doyle said, after waiting a moment for Bea to compose herself. “He’s quite the guy. For instance, he tried to sell Danny to me. He said that he’s been travelling with you as part of his Newport law enforcement duties. Evidently I could receive a big cash reward if I helped him escort the two of you back to Newport.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Bea countered. “He helped us get away from there.”

“Your ‘escape’ was a set-up,” Doyle explained. “He told us all about it. His job was to tag along with you and Danny -- to determine if you two were part of a larger conspiracy. Once he foiund out what he needed, his orders to kill all both of you.”

Bea started to move toward Joshua to protect him with her life, but Doyle waved her back to her chair.

“Are you going to alert Newport and get the reward?” I asked.

“Danny, I am Newport. I’m also Sigourneya, West Creed, and Shockland. I don’t pay me to do anything.”

I closed my eyes. It was painfully obvious that Doyle wasn’t overstating his political influence.

“But you people and me have a problem,” Doyle said. “The amount of money he’s lost to us is enough so I have to do something about it. We push money through here like water through a hydro-dam. We can’t have anyone thinking that we don’t take these things seriously.”

My hands began to shake a bit. I can see where this is going.

He continued. “In situations like this we look for assets.”

“You can have our Alpha,” I offered. We would find a way to get to Shockland without it.

“We thought about that, but it has minimal value to anyone without adequate fuel available.”

He's right. Once the gas tank's empty, we have no idea where we'll get more.

“It appears your only real assets are your bodies.” He went to the mini-bar and poured himself a drink, cordially offering us refreshments he knew we were in no mood to accept. “Brick has agreed to work off his debt as a pay-for-hire stud for all the blue-haired ladies who play the nickel slots downstairs and the male high-rollers with certain tastes. He’s not going to like it too much, but we have our ways of keeping disgruntled employees in line. We don’t allow unions in Brunson.” He chuckled.

Brick had said that he wanted to find a place where he could be appreciated, but becoming gigolo couldn’t have been what he had in mind.

“My boys didn’t mess up his face and the bruises on his body will heal quickly. Even so, it will be decades before he earns enough to scratch the surface on his debt.”

Brick had to have been crazy to fool with the casinos, and now we're going to suffer for his idiocy.

“That’s where you people come in.”

“Us?” I asked, knowing what we would hear wasn’t going to be good.

“Danny, there are two things there's very little market for in Brunson: people who can read your minds and babies.”

I felt relief go through my body until Doyle’s face centered on Bea.

His leer said it all.

He wants her.

“Here’s the deal,” he said, looking directly at Bea. “We don’t get many like you here. There’s no way I can let you go. I’ll take good care of you. If you and I hit it off like I think we can, you can be exclusively mine. If not, you’ll only service the few high rollers who can afford the very best — those who'll enjoy the special talents you possess.”

My eyes were glued on Brick’s travel bag, the one that held his gun.

“I’m not the person you think I am,” Bea said, staring at the floor. I felt humiliated by the shame she felt, which was part my doing -- given my role as part of the Newport government.

“Oh, you mean your male organs,” Doyle said. “You don’t seem to understand. To me, and others like me, that’s the best part.”

Bea looked stricken. “Brick knew about me?” she asked.

“Uh huh,” Doyle replied. “He told us all about how smart you are Bea, and how resourceful you’ve been on this trip. I think you'll find life in Brunson fascinating.

“I want you to think kindly of me,” Doyle continued, staring at Bea. “I’m willing to make a deal that I think you’ll all find satisfactory.”

“Why should we trust you?” she asked. “So far I haven’t seen much that points to you being a Boy Scout.”

Doyle smiled. “You’ll trust me because you don’t really have any other choice. Do things my way and Danny and the baby can go on to Shockland . . . leaving you to a life of wealth and pleasure. Make the wrong move and you all could end up in a bad way.”

“I couldn’t bear to live without my baby, or Danny.”

“You’ll learn,” Doyle said, with a surprisingly compassionate tone. “Look, I couldn’t take their competition for your affection. I have to do something to abide by the code of the casino-owners. I’m offering you the best deal I can. Cross me after they leave, and I will reach out for them.”

I looked out our window at the miles and miles of desert. He had the power. Doyle could dump our bodies anywhere. The local police weren't going to arrest a casino owner. I started to calculate the odds of shooting my way out of Brunson.

“I’ve arranged for Danny to have a great job when he gets to Shockland,” Doyle said. “The Doyle Foundation needs people like Danny to help the Gambleholics. By reading their minds, we’ve been able to help thousands of them recover. You’ll find the work rewarding -- financially and spiritually. The only thing is, Danny, you have to agree to never come back or contact Bea.”

“On one hand you create the problem,” I said, “and then you set up a foundation to help those afflicted?” My head hurt trying to understand the man in front of me.

“I don’t create the problem,” he said. “I exploit the frail condition of humanity. Most of those who become addicted are Newport escapees like Brick. Coming off the drugs in those fool food pellets, they’re not prepared to exercise self-control.”

“Doyle,” Beatrice said, showing him an amount of respect that I couldn’t muster, “ever since we arrived all we’ve heard about is how great a gambler you are. Why don’t you prove it?”

“Gambler?” Doyle asked, but he clearly was intrigued.

“I’m willing to be your mistress and will devote my life to making you happy in return for letting my baby and Danny live, but I would hold you in much higher regard if you would grant me one game of chance for my freedom and theirs.”

“You want to gamble with me?” He sneered. “What do you want to play? Craps? Rolette? Blackjack?”

“No,” Beatrice smiled, “let’s play your game, Texas hold’em — no limit.”

He laughed.

“I’m serious, Doyle,” she said. “We’ll each start out with five hundred chips. The one who wins all the other player’s chips is the winner. If it’s you, you'll let them go, and I’ll be the kind of mistress any man would love to have. I’ll always know that you’re a compassionate man who gave me a fighting chance, and I'll make every effort to find it in my heart to love you. If I win, you back off and let Danny, Joshua, and me leave town with everything we came in with.”

“Deal,” Doyle said with all the eagerness of a shark. “The other casino-owners will back me, should lightning strike and I lose. They love this kind of justice.”

Bea smiled at me with a serenity that suggested she knew what she was doing.

Doyle flicked a button on his palm communicator; within seconds a dealer had set up a table and chips in our room.

After four hands Doyle and Bea each had won twice. Beatrice had managed to gain a short lead. She had $544 in chips while Doyle held the short stack with $456.

I sat behind Beatrice and watched as she looked at the two hole cards she had been dealt for the fifth hand — a six of diamonds and a five of clubs. Unsuited connectors. Good, but not great.

“Check,” Beatrice said. Doyle had the advantage on that hand of being the dealer. He could wait to see what Beatrice would do each time before betting.

“Check,” Doyle droned, like he’d said it a million times before.

The flop included the ace of spades, six of clubs, and jack of spades. The only thing that gave Beatrice any help was the six, which paired her six of diamonds, but with two over cards on the board, the ace and the jack, her pair of sixes looked tiny.

Beatrice checked.

“Let’s gamble some,” Doyle drawled. “I’ll bet $25?”

“Call.” Beatrice’s twenty-five dollars in chips joined Doyle’s in the pot. I was surprised; going with the odds she should have folded.

The turn is the five of spades. Beatrice now has two pair. With an ace and jack on the board, including three spades, and Doyle having made a bet, two small pairs aren’t all that much to brag about.

“Fifty,” Doyle said, doubling his previous bet.

That's the biggest bet Doyle has made yet. With those three spades, Doyle could have two spades in the hole and be holding a flush. A flush is a lot better hand than two pair.

“Raise to one hundred,” Beatrice said.

She had checked and come back over the top of his bet — the equivalent of slapping him in the face.

A bold move, but why? Hasn’t she seen what's on the board? Does she really think she can bluff the best player in Brunson.

“All in.” Doyle pushed his entire stack of chips into the middle of the table as a grin shot from one ear to the other on his weathered face. He laughed as only a man riding a winner could manage. The only sensible thing to do would be for Beatrice to fold and lose the $125 in chips she had placed in the pot.

“Call.” Beatrice said without hesitation, moving all but $88 in chips into the middle.

Call? If she losse this hand her chance of coming back against a player like him are minimal. Doyle Brunson. The named the whole territory after him. He has to have a flush. We're doomed.

Since they were “all in” there was nothing to do but flip over their hole cards. Doyle had the queen and four of spades completing the ace-high, spade, nut flush. There were four cards out of the forty-four left in the deck that could save us. Our odds were one out of eleven to pick up a full house, which would beat his flush.

The last card hit the table. The river. It took a moment to focus at --- the six of diamonds.

Beatrice had picked up an incredible full boat and had managed to beat the best at his own game.

“Danny,” Bea said to me, the words spilling from her mouth, “I had to take a chance on a quick win. Doyle is much better at this game than I am. I changed it from a match of skill to one of simple luck, because that’s all I have going for me." She took a deep breath, and then continued. “Ever since I met you I’ve had nothing but great luck. You saved my life and made me feel like a complete person for the first time in my life. I have a baby and. . . .”

I nodded, knowing exactly what she meant. We were both on a roll. It was impossible for our luck to have failed us when we needed it the most. “But,” I whispered as I held her close, vowing never to leave her side, “what if you had lost.”

“I’d already won, Danny. When you told me that you loved me I was set for life. All I ever wanted was to be held just one time — and you did more than that. Had the poker game gone against me -- I would have gone on smiling. Even if you had to leave, I would have been forever thrilled that I had found you.”

We hugged and kissed again.

“Nice hand, little lady,” Doyle said, coughing to remind us he was in the room. Apparently he hadn’t been fazed by the bad beat he had taken. “You won fair and square. I’ll tell the boys to provide safe passage to Shockland. Although it wasn’t part of the bet, I’m going to give you and Danny a small part of the Shockland cash Brick was carrying. It’ll get you started. Think if it as a belated wedding present. Danny, will you consider a job with my foundation?”

I nodded. We would take a look around, but his job offer did sound great.

“You’re a gracious man,” Bea said. “If I wasn’t so in love with Danny. . . .” Her voice carried to my soul.

“You two are married, aren’t you,” Doyle asked. “That was one thing we didn’t ask your buddy, Brick.”

I shook my head. “We’ll take care of that in Shockland.” I looked toward Bea and she nodded her affirmation.

“No way, Jose,” Doyle exclaimed. “You’re in the marriage capital of the world. It’s on me. By four this afternoon I’ll have you properly hitched. Bea, we have shops on premises that will make you the loveliest bride imaginable. Not that you need all that much help.”

Bea frowned. “Doyle, I appreciate the offer but. . . I have a problem that needs to be. . . . I can’t expect Danny to marry me when. . . .”

“Omigosh, Bea,” I shouted whike shaking my head. “I love you just the way you are. What you do or don’t do once we get to Shockland is absolutely not important to me.”

She smiled, as I had never seen her smile before. All the glitz and glitter around us in our opulent suite faded to look threadbare in comparison. Joshua cooed in his bassinet reminding me that I’m the luckiest person alive.

The End

Thank you to Jenny Walker and Erin for your editing help and friendship.

If you enjoyed this story you may want to purchase one of several stories and novels I’ve donated to Big Closet for sale on Doppler Press -- Miss Recudes, Shannon's Course, The Ninth Fold, Leigh Wilde, Peaches, and Sky. Some are available free to Hatbox subscribers. The proceeds go to the maintenance of this site. Thank you.

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