Love & Supernova 3 - Return To Life

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A day in freedom weights more then a million lives in slavery (memories of a priosner).

What is the most important thing in the galaxy? Is it gold? Around 2200, it was. After a few hyperinflation episodes, everything was linked back to gold. But later, when Leo Baroni discovered the huge gold deposits in CN Leonis and started mining them, the value of gold had fallen below that of copper. Is it diamonds? For a while, it was, until the first carbon planet was discovered; from that point, a diamond was sold for a melon. Is there anything that is worth everything?

Along time, prices rise and fall. Money gained and lost value, while new currencies were used. The ISA (Interstellar Agency), starting from 2400, inserted a new currency, called cosmic credit or CC for interstellar transactions. For over 500 years, this was (and still is) the most stable form of money. Each planet and state has its own currency, with a value connected to the CC. The ISA needed something that has not changed value over time and would look stable for the future. Surprisingly, that item is not gold, jewelry or a highly valuable metal. It is not food or something related to real estate. It is tobacco. For over a millennia, people have been smoking and they still do now. No smoking ban and no prohibition period could ever stop this. In the end, world governments and health organizations realized that the only way to handle this is to improve human genetics and make the lung stronger. The ISA fixed its currency at a parity of one CC for 1000 average cigarette packs. We are now in the year 3000 and this still works.

But is tobacco the most important thing in the galaxy? By far, no. Not even the CC, it is just a currency fixed to help interstellar transactions. Then, what is it?

The most important thing of all is the human life, more precisely, the human as a living creature. This is the truth.

Since terraforming became cheaper, mankind entered a new era, of cosmic bloom colonization. New planets are transformed into new Earths, habitable and awaiting settlers. Each is owned by a federation, a space empire, a megacorporation, but still a large part are free states. All are fighting to attract people. On the other hand, in other places, depopulation has reached alarming levels. It looks like every state is doing anything possible to help its population growing.

In these conditions, a new form of slavery has appeared: the body farms. There, people are grown like animals. Women are forced to make children. Then, those children are grown and receive a special type of education, to become the best slaves. In some states, embryos are grown in incubators, to become children. All this is done on an industrial scale. Pirates are the best dealers, connecting body farms with depopulated stellar systems. But, since all slaves are shipped frozen into liquid helium, pirates often attack passenger ships and poor states, to steal people.

What is UV Ceti? It is a binary star, located not far from the Solar System. Both stars blow huge flares, that make terraforming impossible on any of their planets. Soon after the first colonists arrived there, they started to fight for power and they know what else. The system went fast into anarchy, where everyone tries to kill everyone. This is the paradise for pirates and traffickers. Mafia factions gather there, together with paramilitary groups. Mercenaries and fugitives call that place home. The inhabitants have no mercy, no souls and no value for human life.

One warrior from UV Ceti was Victoribus. He was pushed away from his planet there and ran to Proxima Centauri. There, he destroyed the only terraformed planet, Centarina. He killed almost everyone. His greatest pleasure was to slaughter children in front of their crying mothers. It was the worst genocide in the cosmic era.

For the rest of the world, UV Ceti means terror, death and horror.

What is HH Andromedae? It is a dim red star in the constellation of Andromeda. With two terraformed planets, in the 2500's, it attracted settlers and became a free state. However, its economy went wrong. Hyperinflation and poverty followed. Desperate to save the economy, the government gave freedom to industrial corporations, which polluted the planets beyond recovery. Now, HH Andromedae is a poor and depopulated state... and one of the targets for UV Ceti pirates.

And here starts our story.

**********

An University teacher, an old woman, was going to an asteroid with two of her students, a girl, Laisa and a guy, Ivan. They know how hard has became to travel. Space police often looks for bribery, while UV Ceti pirates make deeper and deeper incursions. They were attacked by a lonely pirate. The old woman was tortured and the students raped. Badly injured, the teacher took a knife and cut the pirate's neck, killing him. With their ship damaged, they could only take the pirate's. However, pirates were on their left side and police on their right. They knew that both will attack and kill without asking more questions. The only solution they had was to fly far away, to another star system, beyond 300 light years, where nobody will attack them. But where? It was no time to think. The teacher chosen Betelgeuse, because it was the first thing she had in mind. She managed to set the onboard computer for flying and automated emergency docking, then died.

Sixty days later, the ship reaches the orbital station of Betelgeuse VII. The students wake-up from cryogenic sleep. They placed her in sleep too, hoping that doctors might resuscitate her, but it is too late. Now, they realize that there is no way they can return home. They are stocked here. The only chance they have is to gain citizenship. So, they go to the planet. Willing to stay together, they say they are married, even if, in fact, there is nothing between them.

After medical and psychological checkout, they gain citizenship and are transported to their new home.

As they are deployed, they see the planet with their own eyes. It is so different from their former home. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, but the light is similar to what their red dwarf star used to produce. Even if it appears at the same size, it is different, with lighter and darker spots and surrounded by a red, crimson haze. Auroras are so strong that they can be seen in the day.

The air is incredibly clean. On their former home, you can hardly breath the air outside and the sky had a yellow color because of all the pollution. People were walking with air masks on the street. Buildings were covered with a thick black layer of ash and dust. Their lungs find it difficult even to breath such a clean and ionized air. They need to sit down.

But down, means on the grass. How amazing. On their former planet, there is almost nothing growing, except for some genetically modified algae, who grow on ground, forming a dark green, dirty goo. They are so amazed to see grass, that they cannot stop touching it with their hands. They even taste a leaf of grass.

It is not silence. They hear birds singing. Real birds? Wow! It is for the first time in their lives to hear and see one. Also, some insects are here, flying in the air. And on the ground, they see ants. What an amazing place!

Amazed, they keep watching and see trees. Real trees, with green leaves, with flowers and fruits at the same time.

"Is this how a tree should look like?" asks Ivan amazed.

"I don't know, but I think so", answers Laisa.

Until now, they only seen dead trees, in the former forests of their homeland. All are dead, most have fallen, but still, some were holding on, remnants of the past. They both try to get there and touch a tree. Amazingly, it is not covered with the black stinky, slimy layer they are used to find on anything. By far no. They touch the brown stem. It is so amazing!

And then, they see a squirrel.

"What is that?" asks Laisa.

"I don't know", answers Ivan. "Some sort of animal, I guess".

On HH Andromedae II, people used to have pets for a while, but since food became more scarce and pollution killed everything, most pets died. People gave up growing animals before the two were born.

Suddenly, a man appears and says with a woman voice:

"Hey, what are you doing on my parcel?"

"We are sorry", answers Ivan fast. "We didn't know this is your land".

Then comes a woman, with a knee-long skirt and says with a male voice:

"Is there any problem, honey?"

"We just arrived here", says Laisa. "We don't know yet our way around".

"So, we are neighbors", says the woman with a male voice. "Welcome to Betelgeuse! When did you arrive?"

"An hour ago, I guess", says Laisa.

The two neighbors invite the students on a table near their house and give them cookies. A new friendship is starting to form. However, it does not last long until the students ask:

"So, you are a man in women's clothes and you are a woman in men's clothes".

"Yes", they answer.

"And you feel comfortable this way?"

"Yes, we do".

"What are the neighbors saying to this?"

"Nothing. Here, this is something natural".

"Wow!" says Laisa. "On our homeland, everyone would laugh to see this".

"Not here", answer some of them. "Betelgeuse VII is a paradise for transgender people and rare sexual minorities".

"You mean, people like you, are common?" asks Ivan surprised.

"Nearly all our neighbors are like this".

So surprised, the two students are left without words for minutes.

**********

Helped by their neighbors, they learn their way around. Then, they return home, to the small metal home that everyone receives when arriving here. Both have learned about so strange people, that they never imagined to exist: sfenists, panophiles, virtualophiles, etherophiles and lots of transgender people. All are living in harmony, each one tolerates the other one. There are not many homosexuals in the area, but by far, this is the strangest place they have ever heard about.

"Getting dressed as a woman is horrible", says Ivan in the end.

"I don't know", says Laisa. "It might be so, but people here are extremely friendly. I have nothing against if they let us live as we are".

"Doesn't it make you throw-up?"

"Me? Yes, a bit".

"But this is our home, now. We have to get used to it".

**********

Then, they decide to go to the town center. There, you can get a job. Not far, there is a factory that produces spare parts for floating cars. After all, they came with no money. The HHC (HH Andromedae credit) is not accepted anywhere here and they did not have a chance to exchange it for CC. The local currency is BC (Betelgeuse credit) which is exchanged at a parity of 1 CC for 100 BC. That would make 1 BC for nearly 10 million HHC, if their money could be accepted.

First thing they notice is that there are no elders here. All settlers are at maximum 50 years old. Also, they see children. The second thing they notice is that a vast part of the population is dressed to the opposite sex. This works even for small children. For adults and teens, you can guess their real gender based on their voice, but for children, it is impossible. For example, they see a little boy playing with other children... but the others call that boy Amanda. So, she is a girl? Another child, which looks like a girl, is named Jerry. Both are playing with some sticks. At some point, Jerry says:

"I can carry more sticks in my skirt, it has many pockets".

"Tomorrow, I will come with my skirt too", answers Amanda.

What a place! You can be a man, tomorrow change to a woman, then again a man! Where in the Universe you can see this? And all is done such in a natural way, like if this is how things should be.

The third thing that amazes them, is that almost everyone is smoking, even small children. Also, all this comes so natural. To see children smoking here is like to see them eating candy or other sweets elsewhere. Adults smoke together with children. In HH Andromedae, the state started a strong campaign against smoking, but allowed on a large scale commerce of light drugs like cannabis.

Finally, they reach to the central square, where they easy find a job. Tomorrow, they will come for a test day at work.

**********

Laisa and Ivan are from a planet that is tidal locked. So, one side of that planet is in eternal day, while the other side is in darkness. People live in the illuminated part. They are used to see the sun in the same place on the sky. Here, on Betelgeuse VII, the sun rises and sets. During the night, they cannot sleep. Amazed, they watch the sky, where huge auroras dance. It is much brighter then all the fireworks combined at a large celebration.

Almost no stars are visible on the sky. From this distance, the Sun should not be visible, but Sirius and Vega should. When the auroras are not glowing that much, there is something else visible: dark red clouds. Like all supergiant stars, Betelgeuse is losing matter, creating giant but slow solar winds. The star is surrounded by clouds of matter, moving away to the interstellar medium. Planets are orbiting right through these clouds. The planet has a small moon, which is too far and small and appears as a bright red star.

Finally, when the day comes, Ivan and Laisa go to work. The factory owner takes them to their places and explains to them what they should do. It doesn't take much until they understand the basics, but they will need much more time to learn all. They are building small parts for hovering cars.

Because of the huge distance, a passenger ship needs 60 days to reach Betelgeuse VII. A cargo ship will require an Earth year. So, interstellar trade is very expensive. Everything needs to be built here.

The economy of Betelgeuse VII is self-sufficient, because it has to. Imports are limited to high-tech products, while exports are also limited to exotic natural products. Because settlers are coming in, they also bring some CC with them. Since population is rapidly growing, there is a higher number of clients for all products, so all factories are growing. Newcomers have a place to work as soon as they get here. They work, earn money, then comes the time when they start a business on their own. Only that, when this happens, they have to go to a new place, to avoid creating large cities, which are not friendly for the environment.

Because the population is increasing, there is an increasing need for money. The total amount of money must grow, or it will produce deflation. So, the state can print money without creating inflation. This money is used to build homes for newcomers. By contrast, in a depopulating state, like HH Andromedae, the amount of money per resident is decreasing, creating inflation. There is less collected to the budget, so the state needs to increase taxes, destroying the economy and forcing more people to go away.

**********

But, let's leave these problems to an economist. Let's return to Laisa and Ivan. They have to work in a team with all the others. After they finish work, they buy something to eat and return home.

"It is so strange", says Ivan. "Bob wanted me to help him fix some wires, but working with a man dressed as a woman, it was very hard".

"But he tried to be very polite to you", says Laisa.

"I know, but to see a man with lipstick and make-up, makes me throw-up".

"You should see Denver".

"Ah, that guy with a short dress? And fake boobs?"

"Yes, that one. I did not know what to say. It made me laugh".

"To see a man dressed like a woman is so pathetic", says Ivan. "I wish we could return somehow or at least to go to some other place".

"Wait. Have you ever seen people so kind like here? Ivan, they are so friendly, like nobody I've ever seen".

"You're right, but... but... I don't know if I will make it here".

"For now, we are stocked here. There is no turning back".

"I know, Laisa. We were the best students. We lost all and we're stocked on this rock. But don't worry. I will work hard and buy you a ticket back".

"To where?"

"To HH Andromedae".

"Ivan, just look around!" says Laisa, surprised of his words. "Just look at all this vegetation! Have we ever seen grass before? Or a flower? Could we even breath air? Can anyone there open a window to let clean air enter? Don't give away this".

"And what do you want? To live here, with mentally degraded people? You heard that woman, Shelia? She is in love with a stone".

"And she is also dressed like a man".

"You see? People here are crazy. This is insane!"

In the end, they go to sleep. People might think that they are a couple, but in fact, they stay in bed like a brother and a sister.

**********

The next day, it is the same at work. All coworkers are friendly with them and willing to help. Still, the two are shocked to see even more. One worker invites them to a bar after work. There, they watch surprised the way people behave. Two girls are kissing, but in fact one is a girl and one is a boy. Two guys are hugging each other, but one of them is actually a girl.

The same continues in the following days. Well, finally, Sunday comes and they go to the church. There, people come, also dressed as they like.

"Oh mine!" says Ivan while living the church. "I don't believe that they behave in the same way here too".

"I don't know for you, but I am started to get used to them. After all, people in here are so friendly!"

"Isn't it a sin?"

"What? Cross dressing?"

"Yes, it is a sin, Laisa. But people seem here not to bother".

"I'll tell you what a sin is: to steal, to hurt, to kill, to lie. In HH Andromedae, thieves are on all the roads. Remember? You need to keep everything in interior pockets. Here, we don't lock the house".

More days pass. All new residents stay 10 days to chose if they want to stay or if they want to return for free. An automated flying vehicle comes to their house. A robotic voice asks the two, to chose what they want.

"I want to remain", says Laisa, sharp.

"I don't know", says Ivan.

He would want to return, but Laisa insists. She holds her arm and begs him to stay. So, he answers:

"I will stay here".

What actually made him stay, is the fact that in HH Andromedae, he has no future. After graduating the University, his only chances would be to emigrate. But how could he get back to school? He should be considered dead by now. How could he be accepted back? There are so many state employees that need to be bribed. It is impossible. So, he is stocked here, with or without his will.

**********

At work, Laisa became friend with Sheila. They use to spend some time together. Close to the town, there is a reservoir surrounded by stones. There, teens use to come and hangout.

"Have you adapted to our world?" asks Sheila, lighting a cigarette.

"I think yes. But still, I need time to get used to all the people here".

"You know, when I came here, I felt like jumping from purgatory to paradise".

"You talk about the landscapes, Shelia?"

"No, my friend. I talk about the freedom of this place. You know, at first, I didn't dress as a man. I do this now because most people do so. It is a sign of respect for the people here".

"You ran here because you are a panophile", says Laisa.

"Yes, but not quite because of that. I came here because people hated me. They rejected me because I am different. Just like everyone else. If people would have understood me, I wouldn't be here".

"But me? I am not different from where I came. I am very different from you".

"People here will not bother. Just try to feel happy the way you are".

"Thank you".

"Laisa, Betelgeuse VII is built as a paradise of freedom. Here, you can be whatever you are. Just like I am a woman and I dress as a man".

"I've seen that. But still, there is a limit. I've read about transgender people that they take hormones, have implants or surgery. But here, no. Here, all is limited to cross-dressing. And about sexual minorities, all I knew is about gay people. Never imagined that people like you do exist at all. Where I come from, people against gay communities because they use obscene clothes or make obscene gestures in public".

"No, Laisa. Betelgeuse VII is not the place for that. We are humans, like you are. If you talk about cross dressing, there is a point of no return. Once you cross that barrier, some things will never be the same. If you want to go to extreme body transformations, you have to submit a request and wait five Earth years. This is to make sure that you do understand the consequences. As a man, you can wear fake breasts. If you want to stop, you just take them down. As a woman, you can glue a mustache, which can be removed at anytime. But once you go to the doctor, things change. If you were a woman, you won't be able to have children. If you were a man, you won't be able to produce healthy sperm. So, there is no children. This is the idea, that there is no turning back. This is why, using hormones or surgery, before request, is punished with a fee of 10 thousand BC".

"I get the point".

"And about what you said about obscene gestures and behavior, you must know that many people don't like to behave like that. I personally don't like what is obscene. A kiss is a kiss, but beyond a certain limit, things must be done behind closed doors".

"You are right about that too".

"You know that public nudity or public sex are punished".

"I know, Shelia".

"But still, remember that this is a place of freedom. Maybe, there are things you were not allowed in your world, but here you can do them".

"What do you mean?"

"For example, maybe you wanted to wear some clothes that in your world would look too provocative. Or maybe you wanted... I don't know. Something else. I know a guy who was never allowed to smoke on the planet he came, so he started smoking here".

"I don't know", answers Laisa. "I wanted to be dressed somehow different. I was one of the best students. I am sick of wearing a uniform all time".

"That should be your starting point. Try to be yourself. Try to look at want you never had and you can have here".

"Yes. For an example, more different clothes. But I don't have the money yet. I need to wait for my next salary".

"I have some money, if this helps".

"And I still don't know how to shop here".

"No problem. Just come with me".

Shelia takes Laisa to the town center. There are a few online panels, touch screens specially made for this kind of work. There, you can order many products and pay for them in advance. All goods will be shipped by train in a few days. The two girls look at a brand variety of clothes and other items. Shelia insists each time, trying to open Laisa's mind. It doesn't take much until she choses the stuff she wanted. All goods will be delivered in four days, just when she will receive her salary.

**********

Just when Laisa's salary comes, her new clothes are here. On Betelgeuse VII, things are different. A global railway network of automated trains ships goods throughout the planet. Money don't exist as plastic banknotes, but only as a virtual currency. Each resident has an identity card that also holds money on. All transactions are done with the help of online panels and terminals, which automatically divert 0.4% as the state tax. She pays Shelia back the money, then goes home.

Ivan is not there yet. He uses to go to the forest, to watch nature. So, Laisa has plenty of time. She opens the boxes and watches the new clothes and make-up. First, she undresses completely, knowing that nobody will bother her. She shaves her feet, then paints her nails in black. Until now, at best, she could have her nails in a light pink or white color. When they dry-up, she puts on black pants and a black bra. Then she takes demi-opaque pantyhose, with a shiny, metallic color. "Wow!" she whispers, admiring her feet. "I never worn colored pantyhose in my whole life! From a book grinder and a library mouse, now I became a bitch. Well, this is how people would think about me at school". Then, she takes on a blouse made of the same material, elastic, translucent and shiny.

All this time, she worn flat shoes. She never worn boots. Now, it is time to put on thigh boots with high heels. So smooth! She feels her feet warm and comfortable, as they vanish inside the long, dark boots. She takes off the school dress uniform that she had been wearing all this time and replaces it with a knee-long, shiny, metallic dress. Red rays of light from Betelgeuse reflect in the new dress. She watches and realizes how amazing she must be. Then, she puts on long, dark gloves, that are as long as her arms, reaching nearly to her shoulders. She never worn gloves in her life. Her hands feel warm and start to sweat, but she likes it. "It was considered a lack of respect to wear gloves at school", she whispers. "Here, behaving like that is considered a lack of respect". Finally, she puts on a shiny, metallic jacket, with sleeves that reach her elbows and lets the stomach uncovered, exposing the dress. She admires her breasts, as they are seen hidden behind the jacket. She has no large mirror in the house to see herself, but she realizes her new look is amazing.

Next, she needs to take off the jacket and the gloves. Time to paint her hair. It is the first time in her life to do this. The color she chosen is also shiny, metallic. Carefully, she prepares the paint in a bowl and applies it on her long hair. "Goodbye, curls", she whispers. "I am no longer a student at all". Then, she carefully applies some make-up. Not too much, not too little. She then applies a shiny, metal lipstick on her lips. Then, with the same lipstick, she draws a heart on her right chick and on the left chick, an exclamation and a question sign. She removes her small earrings and replaces them with the new, big, black and metallic ones. Also, she adds black sun glasses.

Then comes the last part of her new outfit: horns. She glues them at the top, left and right corners of her forehead. Both horns are black, about five cm long and look like those of a calf. "On HH Andromedae, people will say that I worship the devil. Here, people will not say anything. I can even enter the church with this", she whispers.

Waiting for her hair to get dried, she puts on her jacket and gloves, takes a chair and goes outside. Now, it is time for the last piece of her new outfit. She takes a pack of cigarettes and lights one. It is the first time in her life that she smokes. Her virgin lungs refuse the smoke and she coughs badly. "Come on, Laisa! You can do it!" she whispers and tries again, resulting in another nasty cough. She tries for the third time, but coughs again and feels dizzy, but her ambition is great. She takes small drags, trying to get used to get used to it.

Finishing her cigarette, she returns to the house and starts preparing food. Ivan will come soon.

And just as she finishes cooking, the door opens.

"Hi", he says, but remains with his mouth opened. "Laisa?"

"Yes", she answers. "You were in the forest?"

"What in the galaxy is this?"

"My new outfit".

Ivan looks at her, shocked. He never seen her like this.

"Wow! What happened to you?"

"Ivan, since we are stocked on this planet, shouldn't we try to behave like the inhabitants?"

He looks again. Where is her uniform? Now, she wears shiny metallic dress and jacket. He looks at her feet, that usually were covered with smooth pantyhose, now are covered by these long boots that seem to not end. Then, he looks at her face. His face turns from shocked to anger, looking at her painted hair and the signs on her cheeks. Wow!

"And what are those on your forehead?"

"Horns", answers Laisa with a small smile.

"Horns? Have you lost your mind?"

"No, by far not".

"Laisa, not even the worst delinquents were wearing horns. What's wrong with you? You were the most polite girl in school... and now, look at you. I cannot believe that you sit here like that. Think about your parents. What would they say?"

"My parents think I am dead. Your parents think the same. And tell me, Ivan, is there any way we could return to HH Andromedae? The answer is no. Even if we could afford to pay for a flight back, sure you realize that we are both considered dead. There is no way to go back to school. And where can you find a job there? More even, there is no way you can immigrate to Sirius, to Barnard's Star, to Epsilon Eridani or any other rich system as we are now. You need a passport to go there. And how can you gain a passport if you are dead?"

"I know, but you did not have to do all this", he says with a sad voice.

"Yes, I didn't have to, but why not? Do you think that what you do is better? You behave like a hermit, finish work and go to forest. Everyone is so friendly here, but you seem to avoid everyone and hide yourself. I try to integrate to their society. Isn't it better what I do? Sooner or later, you will realize that there is no turning back for both of us".

"Perhaps you are right".

"Ivan, do you remember Mrs. Evangelista?"

"Yes, how could I not remember her? She killed that pirate. She sacrificed her life to save ours. May she rest in peace".

"There must be a reason why she chosen Betelgeuse and not another system. Just think about it. Why did she do it?"

Ivan has no answer to that question. He looks down, where he sees his shoes and her boots with high heels. He knows Mrs. Evangelista very well. She was a good teacher, very intelligent and most important a teacher that appreciates good students. She took them to an asteroid to learn about things they will find in practice, after finishing school. From all students, she chosen them... and she sacrificed her life for them. Now, as her dead body have reached Betelgeuse, she was buried here, on the planet. All this time, he never went to her tomb. Such a lack of respect from him. He hugs Laisa and says:

"You know what you have to do. You are smart, you were in the elite. But I cannot walk the same path you do. At least not now. I need time. Anyway, people will not consider me weird in here".

**********

The next day, when Laisa goes to work in her new outfit, people are impressed.

"Hi, Laisa!"

"Nice clothes you have!"

"Oh, you look so good!"

"Your hair color is assorted with your clothes! Wow, you even have horns! So cute".

They like the way she dresses. They appreciate her. Not the same can be said about Ivan. At least, he no longer has a repulsion to work with a man dressed as a woman, as he had in the first days. Laisa is very communicative and friendly to anyone, while Ivan is quiet. He works, talks only on rare occasions and when work is done goes to the forest, to meditate.

After a few days, at the church, they both sit in their places. Laisa is dressed in her new uniform, while Ivan is in his school uniforms. After praying, Laisa goes home and he remains in the chapel. He kneels in front of an icon and prays for a few minutes. The priest comes to him and puts his hand on his shoulder.

"What is wrong, Ivan?" he asks.

"I was praying for Mrs. Evangelista, the teacher who saved our lives".

"I remember, she killed that pirate from UV Ceti".

"She sacrificed her life to save ours. Since that time, I was thinking over and over. Why here? Why Betelgeuse?"

"I think she had a reason, son. She sent you here for a reason. Believe me, all people I see here are rejected from their worlds. They all come here for freedom".

"I've seen that, father, but I am not like them. I am not a transgender and I don't belong to a sexual minority".

"Let me tell you something, son. Saint Paul, the Apostle, anywhere he went, he dressed like the people he encountered, he cut his hair as they did, he talked like the people he found. He tried to be like them, not to force them be like him. He was a Jew, but he ate what people used to eat. You know, Jews don't eat any type of meat, but he did".

"But isn't it a sin what people do here?"

"The church, not only this one, but every church, has adapted to each planet and each place. No planet has the same year length as Earth, no planet has the same day length as Earth. Still, the church has chosen to use a different calendar to each planet, fixing different days for saints and holidays. Each planet has its own Christmas day and its own Easter day. And this works everywhere. Even before the space age. On the old Earth, people of Siberia, a frozen land, ate almost only meat, since no crops grow there. You know that the Orthodox Church requires fasting before Christmas and Easter. But there, in Siberia, people had no vegetables. So, they ate meat, a thing that in other places would be considered a sin. Rules are made for people, not people are made for the rules. Remember what Jesus said to the bigoted Jews? That the Saturday was made for mankind, not the mankind was made for Saturday. This is how things actually are".

"I see..." says Ivan, with a sad voice, realizing that the priest will not give him the answer he expected.

"Now, Ivan, tell me how your life would have looked like if you were not kidnapped?"

"I would have finished school. Then, since HH Andromedae is a poor state, I would have tried to immigrate to Sirius or Barnard. There, I would have gained a job. That's all".

"So, you would have become a piece of the system and nothing else. Alone?"

"Yes, father. Alone. With who else?"

"You had no plans to make a family?"

"No. Just to sustain myself and that's all".

"No, son. That is not good. You see, God made Adam and Eve. They made people both male and female. And as I know you, you would never have accepted to commit a sin, like having sex with a girl before marriage. No girl would accept that".

"I know, that's why I said that I've seen my life alone".

"I think there is something else in this. You say you don't belong to a sexual minority, but in fact you do. You are an asexual. People would have rejected you. Had you any girlfriends at school?"

"Only once, but she left me for a rich guy".

"I can tell you that Laisa is also an asexual. I've never seen her looking for someone. Even more, she loves you. Yes, she does, but she doesn't say it. Just think. Why did she accept to stay in the same house with you and even in the same bed? You did not have money when you came, but now, you have. She could have her own house by now".

Ivan looks amazed to this. "You mean she loves me?"

"Yes, but not a sensual love. It is a spiritual love, like the one found among asexuals and sfenists".

For the first time in his life, Ivan realizes that a girl loves him. This never happened. Blood rushes to his face. Could this be possible? Looking in the priest's eyes, he realizes that he is serious.

"What should I do?" he asks.

"Just accept her as she is and appreciate her. And let her transform yourself".

**********

From church, Ivan returns home. He walks on the concrete streets, looking at everyone. "Why should I look at them like this? After all, what would my life have looked like? Back in HH Andromedae, people were wearing air masks on the street. People were laughing at me sometimes. I was attacked by thieves at least twenty times. Once, in a train, they came with a knife and took my air mask... I could hardly breath all the way to home... and nobody gave me a mouth of oxygen. I could die, surrounded by 'normal' people. But here, if you ask for a glass of water, everyone will give you". He is no longer looking at them as before. He looks at a man with a long dress and says:

"Hi, Alex!"

"Hi, Ivan!" answers that man.

They are all polite. nobody has laughed at him ever. Even at work, when he was in fact nervous to work with men looking like women, they always were polite to him. Nobody said something like "Hey, newcomer, if you don't like us, go back home". Nobody.

He stops and buys flowers, then he slowly returns home, thinking about what to say. The small, single room, metal house, is waiting him, near the road, surrounded by grass and vegetation. He opens the door.

"Hi, Laisa!" he says, with much happiness in his voice.

"Welcome, Ivan! You stayed at the church until now?"

"I both you these flowers", he says. "I want to say you two things. First, that I am sorry for judging you. And second, that you look amazing in this outfit".

Laisa looks at him surprised, then curious, then smiling.

"Judging me for what?"

"For your new outfit. For the fact that you try to integrate in their society".

"We have no choice, Ivan", she says, with a big smile on her face. "We cannot return. And even if we could, we cannot have what we have here".

"I know. And for now on, I am no longer opposing you. Even more, I think that you should try to transform me too".

Laisa looks even more surprised then before.

"Why? What changed your mind?"

"Mrs. Evangelista. She had a reason to send us here. She wanted us out from the Old World. So, if her desire was to bring us here, she meant that we must live here. So, I am going to fulfill her last wish. We are to remain here for the rest of our lives. And since that is clear, I have to change myself and become like the other people around us".

Laisa is so amazed to hear this, that she rolls her skirt up, until she reaches the top of her thigh boots. She takes the pack of cigarettes and lights one. Ivan had no idea that she started to smoke. He watches amazed how she puts the cigarette between her shiny lips and lights it. She inhales. As she takes the cigarette out of her mouth, a little smoke gets out too. Then, she inhales more air, keeps the smoke in her body and exhales a powerful jet of smoke. It doesn't take much and she moves the cigarette back to her mouth and inhales again. This time, it is not that powerful, but a much softer exhale, with some smoke getting out of her nostrils too.

"You smoke?" asks Ivan. "This is amazing".

"Thank you. I thought you would kill me if you find out".

"When did you started?"

"When I changed my outfit. At that day, Laisa the schoolgirl has died and a new woman was born in her body".

"Help me change too".

Laisa takes another inhale. Smoke from her cigarette dance in the air between them. She lets her smoke out gently, through her smiling mouth, through her teeth. Ivan watches all this amazed, like hypnotized. It is like Laisa is the most lovely girl he ever seen.

"What would you like your new outfit to be?" she asks.

"Well, I don't know. What do you think?"

"If you ask me, I know you hate men in women's clothes. I would like to transform you in a woman".

Ivan remains still. Laisa takes another drag and blows the smoke in his face.

"Ivan?" she asks with another smile on her face.

"I let myself in your hands. Do with me what you think. I will be your woman from now!"

Amazed by his words, Laisa gives him a kiss. He feels the touch of her lips and a smell of smoke. But this is too much for the moment. His body moves a bit back.

"Why did you do that?" he asks.

"I don't know. Why were you watching me like hypnotized?"

"I don't know".

Laisa takes another inhale, then stands up and goes to the back of the room, blowing a cloud of smoke on the way. She searches for her former school uniform and brings them to Ivan.

"I never kissed a guy until now", she says, giving him her old clothes.

Well, it is not easy to do this. Her dress is too tight and he hardly manages to put it on. Then, they realize that his feet are a mess. Too hairy. Ivan has to shave his feet. Then, she insists that he needs to paint his nails. Add a pair of pantyhose and her flats and he looks like a woman from half down.

**********

The next day, they go to the online panel and command women clothes for him, which arrive in a few days. Laisa helps him get dressed in this new way.

First, she glues him fake breasts. Then, he puts on pantyhose and an elastic blouse, both demi-opaque and with the same color as hers: shiny metallic. Then, he puts on a black, shiny skirt, with a short black jacket. He has shoes with high heels and short gloves, both black. Laisa paints his hair in shiny metallic, then applies the same metallic lipstick she has. She also glues him horns, the same kind she wears. With the lipstick, she paints him a heart on his left chick and a flower on his right one. Finally, Ivan takes on black sun glasses.

When everything is done, Laisa lights a cigarette and examines him.

"You look great. I never imagined that you will agree this".

"I guess so", he answers.

The next day, the both go to work dressed like this. People are very happy to see them this way:

"Hi, Ivan! You look amazing".

"What a change!"

"You two look very good together!"

"Yes, they are in love".

For Ivan, it was a nightmare to walk in high heels, but he will get used to. He felt disoriented and without confidence in himself at first, but, thinking that this makes Laisa happy is more important then everything. He is very happy. Now, he has nothing against his coworkers which were dressed as women. It is the opposite, he feels better around them.

Still, one of them, after work, takes him apart and says:

"Well done, buddy! you took the right step. If not, Laisa would have abandoned you. She was very patient with you".

Finally, they return home. They are both very happy and they enjoy how the red rays of light from Betelgeuse reflect on their shiny clothes. Laisa lights a cigarette on the way. Ivan asks her to stop on a bench near an intersection.

"There is one thing that I need to do", he says.

"What?"

"Give me a cigarette. This is the last thing I need to make my transformation complete".

It doesn't take much and both become chain smokers. Their love grow stronger by the day. Their former lives in HH Andromedae seem far, far away, like the memories of another person.

**********

Betelgeuse shines on the sky, surrounded by its haze of ejected gasses. Down, on the planet, Ivan and Laisa found love and a happy life. They sit down on the grass, smoking each one a cigarette which creates around a haze of ejected smoke. They are happy and in paradise. Only that, at some point, any cigarette finishes its own fuel and dies. Since mankind realized that a red supergiant is a star near the end of its life, Betelgeuse was suspected to die at anytime. Since the 2000's, many suggested that its explosion is imminent... but the star remained there, shining on the sky. It did not die. Now, humans have reached this star and are living on one of its planets.

Ivan and Laisa lean on their back, on grass, looking at the giant star. It appears on the sky nearly at the same size and color as HH Andromedae from their former planet, only that Betelgeuse is far more complex, with bright and dark areas. They both look up and smoke, just as Betelgeuse is ejecting plumes of gas all around. The star struggles to survive, to produce energy and not collapse. It is like the star itself is trying to tell them: "Get out of here, I won't hold for much longer"... only that nobody hears its cry...

...at least for now.



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