What Women Want

heartCopyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

Mira!

You’ve got to admire her.

Sorry, stupid play on words there, but that’s the thing, she brings out the worst in me… always. I tried writing her poetry once, and it had all the subtlety and nuance of a lewd limerick.

But isn’t she perfection? Have you ever beheld a more wonderful, more exquisite example of all that is right in this world?

It’s not physical of course, not entirely. I mean she’s always stunning, but since you don’t know what she’s going to look like from one year to the next, you can’t judge this particular book by the cover. Last year she had a Scandawegian blond thing going, you know pale skin, ice blue eyes? I thought there was no way she’d be able to top it, but this year she decided to experiment with a Eurasian look, with maybe a hint of Cherokee. Jet black hair, straight and so long she has to be careful not to sit on it. Bolder features than you usually find in the Orient, but exquisite, and just the right dusky tan.

It doesn’t matter how she remodels herself though, I always know her. Something about the intensity of her eyes. They say the eyes are the windows of the soul. I don’t know about that, but there’s something about Mira’s. Whether they’re brown or blue or green, I can always see her in them.

She was my first pairing, and I fell in love with her then, even though I was just two years old. Most people I know don’t remember two years old, but I do. ARC told us that for the first two years, we were looked after by machines. Mechanical nurses programmed to anticipate our every need, make sure we’re always clean, always dry, never hungry and never tired. Perfect mothers except that they don’t hold you, don’t talk or sing to you. Babies don’t usually become self-aware until somewhere around their fourth year, often later but only sometimes sooner. In my case it was sooner.

I think there must have been something in me that missed the human contact of those first years, so when Mira came along it meant so much more to me. I can remember the first day she and I were put in the same room. I remember her chubby little face, and those amazing eyes. They were dark brown then – almost black. She had this way of smiling where her left cheek would bunch up first, then her right would follow a second later and you’d get a glimpse of her three teeth; two up, one down.

I have a million memories like that. For two years she was my sole companion (I wanted to say soul then, but that would be wishful thinking), then at age four we were joined by another pair. Jackie and Tom I think, thought I don’t remember them clearly enough to be sure. Then another two years and our four joined another to make eight. We doubled every two years until there were two hundred and fifty six of us, one hundred and twenty eight boys, one hundred and twenty eight girls. I don’t know why they chose that number, but I suspect it makes us easier to divide up when needed.

My only clear memories through the years were of Mira though. As she grew up her eyes lightened to a hazel with flecks of gold, and her hair grew out in gentle auburn waves.

I liked her best like that. Cute little button nose and the reddest Cupid’s bow you have ever seen. It was almost a shame when they gave us access to the Rejuvenator. I hated the thought of never seeing that exquisite face again, but then again we were all excited about having our first go, so I never said anything to her. She probably wouldn’t have listened in any case. Back then, I had buck teeth, a truly impressive figurehead of a nose and ears you could sail with. I spent every spare moment for a month designing the way I wanted to look for Mira, something other than the mouse caricature (I even had mousey hair) I had grown into, something she deserved.

We entered in our original pairings that first time, so Mira and I went together. She gave me a nervous ‘here goes nothing’ sort of smile, which I tried to match while hiding my teeth. I was nervous too, but only because I wanted her to approve.

It’s not painful being rejuved, just very odd. The room fades to utter black and you feel this tingling numbness all over which sinks deeper into your skin until you aren’t there anymore. Your body at least, I mean your mind remains. You’re aware of being, but with no reference, no sight no sound, no smell, nothing. Then the tingling starts again, only the numbness lifts from the inside out. It takes about half an hour then a voice tells you to leave the cubical, just like that. Like rehydrating a food pack; stick it in the FoodMate and press the button. A minute later there’s a ding, or whatever other alert you programmed in, and your meal has been reconstituted.

That first time I chose a good old fashioned ‘boy from the farm next door’ look. An extra six inches in height had me topping six two, broad shoulders with well-defined muscles, a strong jaw, sensuous lips and teeth that fit behind them, dark hair and steely blue eyes. Handsome and rugged, I was sure Mira would love it.

Then she stepped out.

Afro-European on her first remodelling, but then she always was one to take risks. Tall, strong, lithe, athletic, jet black. All part of the Zulu heritage she’d chosen, but with long black hair, a sharper nose and thinner lips portraying the European part of the mix. She looked like the photographic negative ARC showed us once in a history class.

While I was retrieving my jaw from the floor, she gave me a once over and nodded her approval.

“Nice look Shane, but you know it takes more than bulging pecks and a six-pack to win a girl’s heart don’t you?”

“Look who’s talking?” I replied. “Could you look more stunning?”

She laughed. “Flattery is alright so long as you don’t inhale.”

I joined in laughing with her as she wandered off, but I had to look the quote up before I understood it. Mind you that was a long time ago. At eighteen, I was two grades below stupid. Mira was always brilliant.

-oOo-

I wasn’t the only guy who went for the ruggedly handsome athletic look, in fact if you’d lined all one hundred and twenty eight of us up against a wall you’d have had trouble telling us apart after a while. Most of the girls were ok with it, just as we were with the classical beauty looks they put on. Pretty much the only one of us who tried something different that first time was Mira, which then made her the most sought after girl in the group that year. I mean steak and cake can be your favourite foods, but if they’re all you have to eat for a year, you soon start wanting something a little different. I began to see Mira’s point.

It’s not really surprising we made the choices we did though. I mean we were all something of a freak show. There were those of us who were too short, too fat, too tall and gangly. Some had one leg shorter than the other, several had six fingers or toes on one hand or foot, one I remember even had an arm the was withered and useless. As for faces, well we all had something going there. I’ve described mine, but there were heavy brows, oversized jaws, misshapen and oversized noses, mismatched eyes and who knows what else. Even Mira had an overbite and a receding chin, but then I’ve already told you, my attraction to her wasn’t physical.

The prospect of redesigning our bodies, becoming as good looking and athletic as the actors we saw in those old films ARC showed us, was just too amazing, too hard to believe. ARC went on to describe the Rejuvenator, what it did, how and why it had been created, but we were all too excited to listen then, and spent the rest of the day sharing ideas on how we were going to rebuild ourselves.

All except Mira. She listened as well as she could through the chaos, then the next day when we’d all calmed down, she asked ARC to repeat the previous day’s teaching as we’d all been too excited by news of the Rejuvenator to pay enough attention. Typical teenagers, we had all groaned at the prospect of losing a free day to the teaching, but when ARC had finished, we were all grateful to Mira for the repeat.

For nearly eighteen years we had lived inside a the habitat. It was our world and the only concept we had something existing beyond its walls came from the films we watched, the stories we read. A few of us thought they were made up fantasies, that the real world really was this small, the rest pretty much hadn’t bothered thinking about it.

Habitat was easily big enough for all of us. We had space to do things together, space to be alone, space where green things grew, space to eat, to sleep, to do just about anything we wanted. We didn’t miss the world outside and finally learning that it was real was a shock to many of us.

Then to learn that it was poisoned and all but dead left us stunned to the core. To find that we had an entire world to play in, then to be told that it was unusable, deadly to us, and the reason being that our own ancestors had made it that way.

ARC droned on into the silence, describing the decades of greed and neglect that had poisoned the oceans, stripped the land bare of trees and vegetation, pumped countless tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere until it was barely breathable.

There had once been billions like us on the planet, then the crops started to fail around the world, the rains became progressively more acid, more toxic, destroying what would grow and rendering the land incapable of sustaining more. Famine took a great many of our kind, disease and poison a great many more. Those that remained fought over what little remained to sustain them; fought and died until there were almost none left.

Amongst the remnant was a group of scientists, provided with the resources of a dying nation to create a hope for the future. They designed the habitats, sealed bubbles where life could be sustained and nurtured apart from the wasteland our world had become. They purified the genes of plants and animals, removing the mutagens and toxins that had been taken into even the seeds and sperm, restoring what had become unwholesome and ugly to something of its former self. Once they had perfected their techniques, they turned them on their own twisted and dying bodies to create us. Finally, knowing that we would be a long way from perfect, and knowing that we would have to survive a long while before things would be anywhere near normal, they developed the Rejuvenator.

The device had a number of purposes, ARC told us. First and foremost was to ensure that we remained young and healthy for as long as necessary, and given the state of the world that could run to thousands of years. The full purification of our genes would take a while, necessitating multiple passes through the Rejuvenator. Each time subtle changes would be made to our brains and our bodies, ensuring that we became better, smarter, stronger with each subsequent pass through the machine. Second was to give us a chance to create ourselves in our chosen image. They were aware from looking at our DNA, even before we were born, that we would be at best ugly, at worst hideously deformed. Allow us direct control over how we looked would direct at least the physical restructuring. Thirdly, although we didn’t learn this until later, the annual rejuves were designed to ensure that we didn’t have children until conditions were considered to be optimal. The girls may have looked and to all physical intents been fully sexually active, but they never ovulated between one rejuve and the next.

-oOo-

I don’t know how many times we went through the process. I could look it up, but more than two hundred would be a fair guess. The renewed bodies were made of completely renewed cells, meaning that we never aged. Not physically in any case. Our minds matured, but in odd ways since the intense hormone levels of puberty remained with us, and we retained many adolescent traits even as out wisdom and experience grew. For my part, each year was another chance to attract Mira’s attention and show her my feelings. I was always awkward, even after a couple of hundred years, and as much as I bumbled about in the background of her life, so she accepted me as part of the scenery without ever acknowledging me in the way I hoped she would.

The first few years I did the same as most of the other guys, modified my body to be stronger, taller, more ruggedly handsome, but she was unimpressed. Then I tried a variety of shapes and sizes. Tall, short, thin, chunky, it didn’t seem to make any difference. Finally I hit upon the idea of introducing imperfections. A lot of the other girls went for it, but not Mira, not even as I grew the oddities out of proportion in an effort to get her to look past the surface to the person I was inside.

Nothing worked. My efforts ranged from pathetically worthy of being ignored all the way down to disastrous monstrosity. Beauty did not have any passion for the beast, and I did not have the first idea why.

So I decided to find out.

It was at the end of a long night on the booze with Tom. Several of the guys had researched the manufacture of beer, wine and spirits, and we had a half decent collections of different alcoholic concoctions on tap. Tom and I were long standing friends, probably from early grouping, and would dedicate the occasional evening to getting sauced out of our minds and sharing our deepest, darkest secrets. Mine were never so deep or dark, always covering the same ground, and Tom was perpetually generous to me in allowing me to pour out my misery in the same old words, like some worn out recording he told me from time to time.

“I jus’ don’ unnerstand her,” I slurred out for the who knows how manyth time. “I don’ gedit. What do wimin want?”

“Why don’ you fin’ out?”

He could hardly have been serious, not with that much hooch inside of him, but that didn’t stop me from giving it some careful consideration.

“Wadda ya mean, fin’ out?”

“We gotta rejuve comin’ up. Why don’ you fin’ out wha’s like bein’ a woman?”

“You mean… Wadda ya mean?”

“I mean if you wanna fin’ out what wimin think, you gotta be a woman. ‘Juvenator le’s you design your body the way you want, so why not try bein’ a woman fera change?”

I stared at him in shock and he held my gaze for a few seconds before cracking up. I joined him, cackling away in my own drunken haze, and the conversation drifted on to less interesting topics, which is to say topics other than Mira. We passed out a while later, surrounded by empty bottles, and woke the next morning with birdcage mouth and a painful aversion to light and sound. Most of what we had discussed that night died with the brain cells we sacrificed to Bacchus, but somehow enough of Tom’s big idea stuck with me to set swinging back and forth between excitement and terror.

The weeks passed and Rejuve day came round. I had tried to come up with something new and different in the male line, but Tom’s words kept haunting me and had I found myself drawn more and more to the idea of designing myself a woman’s body. I didn’t go for a complete copy of Mira, that would have been too stalkerish. I did make use of her long, wavy auburn hair, hazel eyes and button nose, but the rest was pure fantasy.

By chance, Mira and I were paired for the rejuve. For some reason I could never fathom, it always dealt with us in twos. I had both my designs with me as I stepped up to the machine, fear coursing through me at even the slightest possibility that I might have the courage to go through with this.

“You alright Shane?” Mira acknowledged me for the first time in what must have been half a century and my insides did backflips.

“Yeah… er just had a different idea on body design and was wondering if I had the guts to go through with it.”

“Carpe diem, Shane,” she smiled at me. “Even if it doesn’t work out, what’s the worst that can happen? You get through the year and try again.”

With that she stepped into her side of the machine leaving me facing my own doorway, my own fears.

The door closed behind me and I undressed before settling into the seat. The only illumination came from the backlit screen in front of me, but my eyes adjusted quickly.

“Please insert your body design.” The Rejuvenator’s voice was calm, peaceful, a pleasant female contralto. I wondered if the girls had a male baritone talking to them. One way to find out I thought, and before I could talk myself out of it, I slipped one of the designs into the machine.

Usually the console accepted the design almost immediately, but this time the delay extended until I started to worry I had broken it. Eventually figures started dancing across the screen and the voice returned.

“Design accepted. Y chromosomes will be retained for future use. Standby for rejuvenation in five, four, three…”

It was too late now. Deep down inside me I started to panic. What was the worst that could happen? I had no idea, this was truly a leap into the unknown. I want to shout out, to stop the transformation, but my throat was too dry. All I managed was a meaningless squeak.

“…two, one, rejuvenation commencing.”

The familiar tingling sensation covered my body and I surrendered my mind to the terror of the unknown. “Too late now,” I told myself, repeating it over and over until it became a mantra, a point of focus to keep me from slipping completely away.

The tingling faded and I lay still in the semi-dark.

“Rejuvenation complete, please exit the machine.”

Was that the first time it had said that? I couldn’t be sure, couldn’t be sure if I had lost consciousness during the procedure. ARC said it monitored vital signs throughout so, no matter how terrified I’d been, I evidently hadn’t been in any danger.

I leaned forward, climbing off the chair, and became aware immediately of some fairly obvious changes. My centre of gravity was off and I found myself leaning back slightly to counter the weight of my new breasts. They seemed to have a mind of their own and wobbled about in disconcertingly random directions. I stood and felt the strangeness of my broader hips immediately. A small part of me wanted to send a questing hand between my legs, but it was overruled by the majority of me which wasn’t ready for that particular revelation just yet. I pulled the robe over me, all too aware of the sensitivity of my nipples against the soft fabric. Something was caught up at my back and I reached behind my neck to free a generous growth of hair from the back of the robe. I had had long hair before now, but never quite like this. The weight of it was unusual, but pleasant. I found myself smiling as I eased the door open.

-oOo-

“About time,” Mira said, “I was beginning to worr… wow, Shane, that is truly radical.”

“Yeah. I think I’m going to need a new name though. I was thinking Sian or Shana to avoid too much confusion.”

“I think you’re going to need a new wardrobe too. That robe isn’t leaving much to the imagination.”

I looked down where she was looking, at two very prominent and erect nipples. Mira grabbed my hand and dragged me off before anyone else got too close a look.

First stop after rejuvenation was usually the auto-mall. The habitat had a limited amount of energy and raw materials, but most things could be recycled, and rejuve usually meant at the very least a change in hair, skin and eye colour, and quite often an extensive body redesign as a current boyfriend might ask for large breasts or longer legs, or a girlfriend look for equivalent changes. Most days credit was limited, but rejuve day was traditionally an amnesty on clothes, allowing entire wardrobes to be swapped out.

Mira keyed in our identities and requested complete clothing change out for both of us. I felt a pang of regret as I imagined favourite old jackets and shirts disappearing from my closet. It didn’t last long as Mira’s excitement over the shopfest became infectious.

“I didn’t know you wanted to be a girl,” she said, as she dragged me into a measuring booth and stripped her robe off. My shocked expression drew her up short. “Look as long as we’re both girls together, this doesn’t mean anything does it? Unless you’re…”

I shook my head to clear the vision from my mind. She seemed to be consolidating a number of previous ideas in her new form. She still had the lithe athletic shape that she’d kept more or less from her first time, Caucasian features to her face with a slightly bolder nose than I preferred, but this time with a silky smooth, coffee coloured skin and long, straight, shinning black hair. It seemed each year’s redesign had been bringing her closer to perfection on her terms, and here she was, all but there. I averted my eyes as unusual feelings coursed through my body.

“I don’t know what I am at the moment, Mira. This is a… sort of an experiment. Find out what it’s like being a girl for a change. See if it helps me understand you lot better.”

“Well get used to being the centre of attention with a bod like that sweetheart. You’re likely to have both guys and girls chasing after a bit of you. You know, I hope you’re up for this. I know I said seize the day, and what’s the worst that can happen, but you are in for one crazy mad year.”

Is stripped my own robe off and let her look me over, searching for any signs of attraction, dilated pupils, quickening breath, that sort of thing. If she was into girls I would be prepared to stay like this for her. Her expression was purely matter of fact though, the steady gaze of the professional shopaholic, imagining designs and colours that would match my new shape.

“Go on, into the booth with you.” She gave me a playful push and I stepped into one of the form fitting rooms and took up a Vitruvian Man pose, closing my eyes as laser measuring devices bathed me in pencil thin beams of red. The process took about ten minutes in total, involving me moving into various standard poses as indicated on the room’s screen. It seemed that women had to fill a wider variety of poses but, as different bits of me changed shape and position as I stretched about, it seemed appropriate.

Mira had been busy while I was being sized up, and as we swapped places, the first of many outfits she’d chosen for me slid down a long rail.

“You chose dresses for me?” I shouted through the door at her.

“It would be a shame to hide legs like yours under trousers,” she yelled back. “Give them a try. Put on some underwear and a pair of tights first. I’ll be out in a minute, my shape hasn’t changed much in a few years so these measuring exercises don’t take much time for me.”

I found a hanger with a lacy bra and panties and slipped them on. Neither presented much difficulty as I was considerably more supple than I had ever been as a man. The material was soft and comfortable, sending shivers down my spine, but they were nothing to the feel of the tights as I unrolled them onto my long and slender legs.

The dress came last. Long sleeves, but with a swooping neckline and a hem that reached only to mid-thigh. Soft and silky in a rich teal. The feel of everything overwhelmed my senses and a felt a warm, moist glow spread through me. I turned to the mirror and let out an involuntary gasp. Until that moment I hadn’t really taken in the way I looked, and to see myself for the first time with sheer, nylon clad legs and that gorgeous dress was almost too much. Had my heart not already been utterly Mira’s, I might have fallen in love with myself; Narcissus reborn.

Mira reappeared at that moment and flashed a brilliant smile over my shoulder. “Wait till you see yourself with shoes and accessories, and maybe a little makeup.” She’d not only put together a selection for me to try, but somehow she’d done the same for herself. I had a more pressing question on my mind.

“Mira, why are you helping me? I mean all these years you haven’t done much more than smiled at me in passing, and here you are treating me like we’re the best of friends.”

“You don’t want me to help you?”

“No, no, it’s not that. I’m really grateful for your help, and you company. I’m just a little confused is all.”

“You’ll work it out. For now though, what do you think, navy blue or burgundy?” She held up two dresses and I found myself preferring the burgundy one. I pointed at it and she dropped the other one smiling as she slipped it on and nodding her approval as she straightened it in the mirror.

It took us hours to work through all the clothes that were presented. When I threw up my hands at the sheer volume of stuff that kept coming, Mira laughed and told me that the AI was choosing everything based on a fairly broad set of parameters related to skin colour, body shape and preference. I did end up with a few pairs of trousers, but they were either so tight they looked like paint, or so loose they might as well have been a skirt.

Shoes-wise, Mira took pity on me and allowed me to escape with two inch heels for my first day, although most everything else that went into my new wardrobe was three inches or higher.

“I’m not that short,” I protested.

“No, but most of the guys are a lot taller than you might think. Besides they are going to make your legs and rear end look absolutely fantastic.”

“And that’s a good thing is it?”

“You wanted the women’s experience, I just want to make sure you get it in spades.”

By the time we were done, my new selection of clothes took up twice the volume of anything I’d had as a guy, which was all the more impressive considering that my body was considerably smaller and any given outfit covered less of it. I reverted back to the teal dress for my first public outing, the two inch heels matching the colour, as did the small shoulder bag that went with it. My stomach was beginning to suggest activities other than shopping, but Mira had other ideas.

“You have to learn to make a few sacrifices my dear. While the amnesty is on we need to get you everything you need. Shop now, eat later. It won’t be the last time you’re hungry this year.”

And so the next stop was a beauty salon where we had the works. Auto-facial with instructions on how to achieve similar results and all the goop and goo necessary to keep our skin healthy and looking good. The manicure and pedicure were hardly necessary given that we were both so recently remade, but the colour and sparkle on the nails made it worth doing. Hair was washed, dried and shaped, both of us preferring the natural look rather than perming or styling in any other way, but we left looking and feeling better than we had when we entered.

“One last detour before we eat,” Mira chirped in response to my growling stomach, then promptly dragged me over to a jewellery store. “The shinies come out of your allowance, but the piercings are included in the shopping spree.”

I’d always expected piercings to hurt, but a swab with a mixture antiseptic and what turned out to be local anaesthetic, followed by a couple of gentle prods, and I was the proud possessor of two tiny silver studs. I spent some of my spare credits on a multi-hued titanium butterfly pendant and a smaller, more delicate looking watch, both of which I wore out of the shop, and we headed off in search of nourishment.

-oOo-

All of the mall food courts were heaving with bodies, but Mira waved at a table of girls I didn’t recognise – hardly surprising given that pretty much everyone would have been rejuved by now – and they shuffled to make space for us. I felt hungry enough to eat a moderately sized hippo, but retained enough self-control and common sense to copy Mira in ordering a simple chicken salad and a glass of orange juice, then did my best to associate names with faces as everyone introduced themselves. Mira wasn’t going to let me get away with just giving my name and pounced as soon as it came to be my turn to speak.

“Girls this is Shana, formerly known as Shane.”

There was a mixed chorus of “no way’s” and “get out’s” and suddenly I was centre stage with a spotlight pinning me to my seat. I expected ridicule, suspicion, even hatred, but none of it came. They were all fascinated, friendly, above all accepting. I could hardly believe that this group of girls, who for over two hundred years had ignored me as studiously as I had ignored them, wanted to talk to me.

“Wow, that’s amazing.”

“I think you’re really brave.”

“What’s it like?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’s it like?’ You’ve been a girl all your life, I’d have thought you’d know by now.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it.”

“This must be so weird for you.”

“Are you enjoying being a girl?”

“Of course she is. Who wouldn’t right?”

“You know I think this is really hot. You should look me up next year.”

“Hey, why wait? I’m up for a bit of girl on girl action if you are.”

The questions and comments tumbled out in a riot of good natured banter. They were an invitation of sorts and I found myself responding, accepting. It felt so good to belong, I barely noticed Mira sitting back with a sort of self-satisfied but vaguely speculative smirk playing about her lips.

“Well hello ladies.”

A giggle chased across the table, rippling through us like wind in grass. I was surprised to find myself joining in. The girls closed ranks around me, presenting a united front against the swaggering group of guys as they approached. Predators and prey. I felt a tingle of excitement as my body went all weak and soft in the presence of so many broad shoulders and handsome faces.

Mira leaned across and whispered, “Tough it out girl, that’s just your body talking.”

It was true. In all my years I’d never felt attracted to another guy, yet here I was, just a few hours into girlhood and I was literally swooning over the first hunk of maleness that comes along. Somewhere at the back of my mind, something of the real me prodded the lump of jelly I had become and reminded me that I hated the swagger that took self-confidence beyond virtue into self-obsession. The memories of a the man in me knew this was false bravado, an attempt to come across as bold and in control at a time when you felt anything but, and I found myself sympathising with these guys, while at the same time hating the falseness of it all.

The alpha introduced himself as John and suggested he and his gang should join us. Again I found myself joining in with the girls as we looked around at our already crowded table and the lack of space around us.

“Where would you suggest?” Katie or, no, Kirsty I think it was, asked. So many names and faces, I’d never get them all straight.

“Well it doesn’t have to be here. We could all go for a walk in the park together.”

“I don’t think so.”

Kirsty turned back into our group and picked up a thread of one of the many conversations that had been floating around. It seemed rude to blank the guy like that, but I was new to this so I kept my peace.

“Hey, no big deal,” John said. “You’re the ones who’re missing out.” With that he gestured to his followers and they sauntered off in search of easier quarry.

“Can you believe those guys?” This was Gemma, Kirsty’s friend, or so it seemed from the closeness and body language. I felt a residual need to stand up for my (former) gender.

“You shouldn’t be so hard on them. They’re scared out of their wits coming up here like that.”

“And what would you know about it?” Gemma leaned into my personal space. “Were you a man in a previous life.”

The table managed a couple of seconds of silence before everyone broke down in giggles. Kirsty whispered in Gemma’s ear and she reddened to her roots. Mira leaned over again to whisper in my ear.

“Natural blonde. I remember her from before the first rejuve.”

Gemma attempted a recovery. “So would you go with any of them Shana? Or are you still a man under that pretty skin of yours.”

Nothing silences a group of giggling girls like the promise of a good cat fight. I felt something in me rise to the challenge. Time to test my mettle.

“I don’t know, John was kind of cute, and it took a lot of guts to come over like that. Rejection’s a big deal for guys.”

“Yeah, well I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”

That stung a bit, but I wasn’t going to show it. “Yeah, I guess I would. What I could never figure out was why some girls could be so bitchy. Now I see it comes naturally to some.”

She flinched and her eyes visibly moistened. Who was being the bitch now? I softened my tone.

“Maybe it’s built into all of us. Makes us want to lash out whenever we feel threatened. I’m sorry Gemma, I’m kind of new to this, I didn’t mean to be unkind.”

I reached out a hand to cover hers and she forced a smile. The tension eased and conversations picked up around the table. Kirsty offered her friend a tissue and Mira leaned in to whisper into my ear one more time.

“Wow. Out-bitched the bitch queen, then went all empathic on us all. You are a natural.”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I mean ok, it was obviously meant to be a complement, but underneath it all I wasn’t sure just how successful a woman I wanted to be, not when the woman I wanted to be with was sitting right next to me. Not when the woman I most wanted to fall in love with the man in me was busy appreciating me as a woman.

-oOo-

We finished our lunch and Mira made our excuses and guided me away from the group. I don’t know if it was chance or intent, but before long we were walking through the park together. Like I said, the habitat was big, and the central part, where the outer skin was highest above us, had been cultivated into a large, open area filled with grass and trees and flowers. Gentle rises here, crystal clear lakes there, all was designed to be restful. A place for lovers to grow into each other. I wasn’t sure I was interpreting the signals right and it was making me nervous.

“Mira, can I ask you a very personal question?”

When had I become so bold? The old me would never have had the guts to ask a question like that. Mira’s eyes shone and she smiled across at me, making intuitive leaps as she went.

“No, I’m not into girls. Have you ever seen me with another girl?”

In a way it was a relief. It felt so weird, but my body wasn’t into girls either.

“I haven’t seen you with anyone really.”

“No, I guess not. I’m waiting… I have been waiting for the right person.”

“Well if he’s not among the one hundred and twenty eight – I guess one hundred and twenty seven for now – guys under this dome, then you have a long wait ahead of you.”

“It’s not like that, Shana. Everyone around us right now, everyone we know. They’re not the same now as they were ten years, a hundred years, two hundred years ago. We all change – our experiences change us. A lot of us get into a rut, going over the same old ground, doing the same old thing, making us more the same every year, and I guess that’s alright for those of us who are in relationships. People who adapt to each other can become kind of samey in a way where each complements the other. Me I’m waiting, hoping that somehow, somewhere, someone will grow out of who they are to become the sort of person that I’m looking for.”

“And that’s why you’re being so nice to me? Because I’ve done something radically different it’s like I’m looking for ways to change, to grow. You’re hoping that I’ll…”

“Let’s just say I’m invested in helping people change. You want to experience things from a girly point of view, I’m all for helping you get the most out of it that you can. Just don’t make this about me though, eh? This year, or however long you decide to go with it, has to be about you. Your self-discovery, your growth. Become the person you want to be, don’t look for the person you think I want you to be.”

Some of the intuition must be in the X gene or the hormones it produces. I could feel the rightness in what she was saying, even if I didn’t quite understand yet.

She pointed over to the lake, at a solitary figure sitting beside it, head bowed.

“I don’t know if you were just messing with Gemma earlier, but you could do a lot worse than John. Underneath the puffed up exterior there’s something genuine about him that I’ve always kind of liked.”

I looked at her uncomprehendingly. Was she suggesting…?

“Look this is your girl experience, Shana. We’ve already established that neither of us is interested in other girls as anything other than friends. I don’t mind being a friend to you as long as you stay like this, and I sure as eggs don’t mind if you experiment with any guy you find interesting.

“Just one word of advice. Be honest. I’m afraid telling the girls back there might not have been the wisest thing I’ve done in my life. I suspect that everyone in the hab is going to know about you by the end of the day.”

I looked over a John. He was handsome and rugged and made me melt a little inside. I mean obviously he was handsome, the Rejuvenator meant nobody had to be otherwise, and only the few oddballs like myself chose to put any imperfections in the mix. There was something else about him though. He looked lost and lonely. I had felt like that for so much of my life, I felt my heart going out to him. I glanced back at Mira, looking for… I don’t know, some sort of approval or permission or something. She smiled encouragingly and it was enough. I turned back to the lake.

“Hi John.”

I found a place to stand where my shadow fell on his face. It was kind of the natural thing to do.

He looked up at me and I could see him marshalling his courage, assembling his mask. He stretched a grin across his face.

“Hey, this day is definitely improving. Pull up a piece of grass and join me.”

I felt a pang of disappointment at the reappearance of the mask. My feelings withdrew like the fronds of an anemone. I wanted to talk to the real John, not this two dimensional construct. I decided to give him a chance anyway and settled onto the grass, short skirt tucked under me, legs together, one over the other and bent away from him, forcing me to lean a little towards him. I reached for the person inside.

“I’m sorry about Kirsty, she can be a bit of a hag sometimes.”

He brushed it off as though it were nothing. We both knew differently, but he wasn’t prepared to admit it. Not to me, probably not to himself either.

“I didn’t catch your name earlier.”

He didn’t catch any of our names, since none of us had shared them.

“Shana. I’m Shana.”

“It’s a pretty name. I don’t remember anyone called Shana though.”

Honesty Mira had said. This wasn’t going to be pretty.

“Shane didn’t seem to fit anymore so I changed it slightly.”

“Shane?” He looked confused for a second then the penny dropped. He jumped to his feet and backed a few steps towards the lake. “What the…. Holy… ho-o-o. Shane? You’re a dude?”

“Well obviously not anymore. The Rejuvenator put my Y chromosome in storage. I’m all girl, except for my memories.”

He took another step backwards.

“What kind of weird, messed up…”

“I would stop backing away if I were you.”

“Why? Why shouldn’t I want to get away from a freak?”

He took another step. It was one too many and he went flailing backwards into the water. Some of the spray reached me, but not enough to bother me too much. I looked at him struggling in the water. It wasn’t deep enough to cause him any danger and since I had neither body mass nor the inclination to want to help him, I stood, brushed the grass from my dress and turned back the way I had come.

-oOo-

Mira was still waiting. She offered me a sympathetic smile as I approached.

“I thought he was better than that, I’m sorry.”

“No it’s ok. He’s alright underneath it all, and I guess I did give him a bit of a shock. Still I’m not sure I take too kindly to being called a freak.”

“Well, if he’s so far up his rear end that he can’t see how great a woman you make, it’s his loss.” She hooked her arm around mine and pulled me away from the bedraggled form emerging from the lake. “Come on, it’s for moments such as these that chocolate was invented.”

Some women say it’s better than sex. My own limited experience didn’t qualify me to make the comparison, but it was pretty amazing. I blew steam off the top of the mug and sipped more of the sugary silk from between gaps in the raft of marshmallows. I hadn’t realised how much the incident with John had affected me until the hot chocolate restored me to myself. Mira sat opposite me in a pensive mood.

“Well it’s well and truly out now. I guess the best bet is going to be for you to make a public announcement at the party tonight and see how much of the male population is still standing nearby when the dust settles. It’ll give you an opportunity to explain why you’re doing this, and to present yourself as the girl you are. At least for now.”

“You don’t think I’m a freak then?”

“No, and neither do you. I think this is the gutsiest thing you’ve done in all the years I’ve known you, and I think you won’t be the only one to try it once everyone gets used to the idea.”

“What if it was one of the girls? What if say Maddie or Jen, or Jackie stepped out of that machine looking like Superman with extra bulge in his tights? Would you think they were freaky for wanting to be a man?”

She faltered. I guess we all have double standards over different things.

“I don’t know. It would seem a bit weird I suppose.”

“You’d see them as girls still wouldn’t you? Girls who’d put on guy costumes for the year. You’d have this feeling that getting into a relationship with one of them would be sort of like trying out lesbianism wouldn’t you?”

“I don’t know. I guess there would be something of that in there.”

“This is a mess, I wish I’d never done it.”

“Hey, stop that. Look you’re ahead of the rest of us with this thing. Everyone else in the hab is too used to thinking conventionally here. You’re the one who’s blazing the trail into the unknown, and you’re going to have to give the rest of us a chance to catch up with what we think or feel about it.

“You have a choice here Shana. Stand up and help us understand what you’re thinking and feeling, help us to know how to relate to you, or crawl into a hole for a year. Your choice. Either way there’s going to be some unpleasantness, but only one of them has any potential for positiveness.”

I felt the self-pity recede, bullied into submission by her arguments. I took in a deep breath and sat straight. Mira smile encouragingly.

“That’s the spirit, now what are you going to wear to the party tonight?”

-oOo-

It ended up being a backless, white dress with a long pleated skirt and a halter neck, three inch sling backs and small clutch purse to match. The white complemented the dusky tones of my skin and, with my meagre and somewhat simple selection of jewellery, gave me an air of elegance and sophistication that no amount of opulence and finery could match.

Mira had offered to accompany me to the party, but this was something I needed to do alone. I arrived late, not so much to be fashionable as to ensure that everyone would be there for my entrance and announcement. The hall fell silent as I walked in. Not unexpected, but unnerving for all that. I walked across the dance floor to the stage, accompanied only by the echoing of my footsteps, ringing overly loud in the quiet. Two hundred and fifty five pairs of eyes followed my slow walk to the stage, expressions mixed between disdain, curiosity and encouragement. I took courage where I could find it and stepped up to the microphone.

“Hi guys.” I was too close to the microphone and my voice boomed out across the room. I took a small step back and continued. “You all know me. I am, or at least until this morning I was, Shane. I thought I’d try something a little different this time round.” That earned me a smattering of laughter from some corners of the room. Enough encouragement to strengthen my failing legs. “A few months back, I realised that despite all my years of living here with you guys, I don’t understand women. Then one very drunk evening, one of my friends suggested that if I wanted to understand, I should try the experience. I doubt he was serious, but the idea stuck with me, so much so that I decided to give it a go.

“This isn’t some kinky, perverted wish fulfilment that, from some of your expressions, I see a few of you think it is. It’s more a journey of discovery, and I would like to share it with as many of you as are willing and able to come along. This year I am physically, genetically, emotionally a girl and I would like as many of you as feel able to treat me as such. Whatever my origins, whatever my past, whatever my memories, the person standing in front of you right now is all girl.

“I didn’t expect to feel this way. In fact, if truth be told, I didn’t really have any expectations when I started this. I find that I’m not attracted to girls at the moment, but rather have an eye for some of you gents out there. Yet again, this has come as a surprise to me. However odd it may seem, I have decided to embrace these new feelings and explore as deeply as I am able, what it means to be a woman. If you can handle that, I invite you to treat me as you would any of your other female friends. If you can’t handle it, habitat is big enough that we should be able to keep out of each other’s way.

“Whatever your feelings towards me, I hope that we can all retain at least amicable relations. I don’t mean to trick anyone, or persuade anyone to act towards me in ways that would make them feel uncomfortable. As far as I’m concerned, until further notice, and at least until the next rejuve, I’m just one of the girls, and I’m open to any of you guys asking me for a dance.”

I stepped down to a smattering of laughter and applause. There were still some ugly faces in the crowd, but most of the curious had sided with the supportive and encouraging.

“Well done, Shana.”

“Good for you.”

“You go girl.”

The comments came in a constant stream as I made my way to the bar and asked for a white wine spritzer. No sense in getting drunk tonight. Mira caught my eye and raised her glass to me, approval was written all over her face, but somehow it didn’t fill me with the same delight as it would have done had I still been Shane. Oddly that felt like a release. She still filled my thoughts constantly, I mean after two hundred plus years such things become habit, but she was no longer the object of my desire.

I felt a light tap on my shoulder and turned to see John smiling at me.

-oOo-

It wasn’t his usual mask, but a true representation of his feelings. There was contriteness there, nervousness and something else…

“I’d like to ask you to dance, but first I owe you the mother of all apologies. I was a jerk today, and I would be most grateful for an opportunity to start over.”

The wall I had built at first recognising him crumbled and fell. I put my glass down without looking and held out my hand.

“Hi John. My name’s Shana.”

He took my hand and kissed it gently. I know it’s such a cliché, but the delicate touch of his lips on the back of my hand send shivers through me.

“Enchanté ma’mselle. Would you care for a spin?”

He waved at the dance floor. The music was a little racy and I suddenly felt very nervous.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t danced much, and never from this side, and never in heels.”

“Then let me be the first to introduce you to a new experience. I promise not to crush your toes.”

The confidence was back in his eyes, but this time it was genuine, not fabricated out of bluff and bluster. He wouldn’t take no for an answer and before I had a chance to struggle, I was out on the dance floor, being whirled around. It was amazing, to be so totally out of control, but to feel so safe. John was an amazing dancer and had me twirling and swirling until I was dizzy and breathless. There’s something to be said for dancing in a dress as well, the way it moves , brushes against your skin, flares out to let unexpected eddies of air chase around your legs.

Somehow I managed to maintain balance despite my shoes, and half an hour later I begged John for a rest and allowed him to lead me back to the bar where my drink was still waiting, if no longer cold.

“Let me get you a fresh one,” John said tapping in an order onto the glass surface.

When it came it was sparkling wine, and a little better fortified than my earlier spritza. I accepted it gratefully in any case. It was chilled to perfection and slid down my grateful throat, bringing relief to the drought that had so recently set in there.

“Would you like to go outside for some air?”

I nodded and leaned on his shoulder as he led me out onto the balcony. A clear starry sky had been projected onto the inside of the dome. If you looked closely, you could see some of the structure, but who looks that closely from the inside of a dream? John let go my hand and stepped ahead of me to the railing and bowed his head.

“I said some unkind things earlier today. I acted like a real jerk.”

I stepped forward and placed a hand on his shoulder. One of my breasts brushed against his arm sending shivers down my spine. I left it there.

“I thought you wanted to start over.”

He turned to me, took hold of my hands and looked deep into my eyes.

“I did. I do. It’s just that… I don’t know, I have to explain things.”

I waited. Part of me understood his need. I waited for him to find the words.

“You took me by surprise down by the lake this afternoon. I mean you know, after two hundred plus years, you don’t expect something like this to come out of the blue. I guess I felt threatened, and I reacted badly.”

“It’s ok.” The words were barely a breath. “I’m not sure how I would have reacted had the situations been reversed.”

He looked at me strangely for a moment as if suddenly remembering that I used to be a guy, then he shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter though. I mean it’s like you said, whatever your origins, you’re all woman now. At least I hope…”

I couldn’t help laughing, but I controlled it quickly when I saw him redden.

“The change is complete, John. I don’t have any nasty surprises hiding under my skirts. I am a complete girl down to the tiniest detail. XX chromosomes, vagina, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, all there. My man genes are being kept on ice pending any future changes I might make.”

“Do you want to change back?”

“Give me a break, I haven’t been doing this for more than a day. I mean with some of the reactions I’ve had, yes I have had cause to wonder, to regret even, but the way I feel right now, I wouldn’t want to be anyone or anything other than I am.”

It was a kissing opportunity and I raised my face to his in anticipation. His eyes shone down at me, reflecting the artificial starlight. He reached forward and I closed my eyes as his lips met mine. I reached up into the kiss, freeing a hand to slide up behind his neck, standing on tip toe even more than the heels were forcing me to do already and, because it felt natural, raised one foot off the ground, brushing calf against calf, feeling a moistness between my legs.

-oOo-

I can’t fully describe the feeling of that moment, but as I came back down to earth, the last of the fireworks popping inside my brain, I was overcome with a desire to climb into him, to become as much a part of him as I could. I leaned against him, pushing the softness of my breasts into the hardness of his ribs, leaning my head against his chest. Since when did this feel so natural?

It was a perfect moment. Time stopped and we could have been standing there a second or an hour, I don’t know. A gentle breeze played around my legs and across my back, cool, refreshing. His hands felt enormous where they held me, arms wrapped around me, one hand cupping a shoulder, then other resting on my waist. I had never felt so safe, so right.

A broken snatch of conversation announced the arrival of another couple on the balcony. I pushed away from John gently and he released his hold of me. We must have been out there a while as the music drifting through the open doorway had slowed right down. I led my man – yes my man – back inside and onto the dance floor, where we held each other close and swayed to the gentle rhythm of the music. Couples surrounded us, but somehow we couldn’t have been more alone. My feet hurt a little from the silly shoes, but they would have to have been gangrenous and falling off before I surrendered my place on the floor with this gentle man.

Eventually the music wound down and we went our different ways. There were a lot of couples, perhaps fifty, which meant that there were still more than half of us not paired off. With me unbalancing the ratio there was always going to be at least one unpaired couple, but with things as they stood I wasn’t about to feel guilty. Some of the ugly expressions from earlier were giving John confused looks, so he shrugged, smiled and kissed me on the top of the head. His arms stayed protectively around me as he guided me from the dance hall.

He walked me back to my rooms and we stood in the corridor for an age saying goodnight. I wasn’t about to ask him in on a first date, besides he still owed me some suffering for the freak comment. Yeah, so he apologised and I accepted, so what? I was a girl and a girl’s allowed to give mixed messages. Actually it was more the first date thing. Even one day as a girl was enough to know that inviting him in now was as much as admitting to myself and everyone else that I was a slut.

We locked lips and shared bodily fluids – well amylase at least – for a while, but eventually incipient blisters and drooping eyelids won over continued romance and I pulled myself away from him to open my door.

“Tonight was amazing John. I had a great time.”

Go on take the bait. It’s not as if I’m being subtle here.

“Can we meet for breakfast tomorrow?”

Good boy.

“If you like. What time?”

“Well it’s late now so I guess, maybe about nine-thirty or ten?”

Getting up in the double figures part of the morning is for teenagers and the slovenly.

“Nine-thirty sounds good.”

“Great, shall I pick you up here?”

Walking in together would be making a statement I wasn’t sure I was ready to make yet. Wow, when did I get so good at this?

“I’ll meet you there. I have a few things I need to do first.”

Yeah, like get up and get dressed. Still it doesn’t hurt to soften the blow.

He shrugged off his disappointment. Echoes of the old John there, but I wasn’t about to complain. We enjoyed one more parting kiss… Well ok two… Alright three. Satisfied? Anyway, we parted and I watched him walk off down the corridor until he disappeared round a corner. I had no sooner closed the door than there was a knock.

-oOo-

“So how was it?” a nightdress clad Mira pushed past me and perched on the sofa, a mug of cocoa in each hand. I eased myself down next to her and released my poor feet from their confinement, breathing out a sigh of utter contentment as relief compounded recollection of the evening. I tucked my legs up under me and accepted Mira’s offering. The smell of chocolate revived me and we talked into the night about my experiences. I had the sense there was a touch of envy in the way she looked at me on occasions, but I wasn’t about to call her on it then and there.

My evening dissected, I asked her how hers had gone.

“Oh pretty much the same old same old. Drank a bit too much, danced with a few guys, chatted with a few friends, came home early.”

“Why don’t give one of the guys you know a chance? I mean it’s not as if you’re committing to anything just by having a snog is it?”

“It’s like I told you, I want it to be perfect. I’m waiting for the perfect guy.”

“I can’t imagine it being more perfect than it was tonight, Mira. I mean John was jerk this afternoon, both in the food court and by the lake, but you know that’s how guys are. They’re insecure, but they have to keep a brave face on things otherwise their friends make their lives a misery.”

“Speaking from personal experience?”

“Been there, done that, got the tee shirt. It doesn’t fit anymore mind, not over these things, but yeah, personal experience.

“The thing is you have to reach past the macho exterior, look for the real guy inside and show him that you care. Once he gets that, he doesn’t need the mask anymore and he’s yours for life.”

“How did you get so good at being a girl so quickly?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. It comes naturally I guess.”

We lapsed into silence, Mira swirling the dregs of her cocoa and staring into the bottom of the mug as if searching for some answer, some prediction of the future.

“Shane’s not coming back is he?”

It was a bolt of lightning out of a clear blue sky, totally unexpected and just as big of a shock. I mulled her words around in my mind for a few seconds, feeling the truth of them.

“It’s early days yet, but I don’t think so. Not if things carry on as they are.”

She smiled, but not entirely freely. There seemed to be a hint of regret in her eyes, a thin film of shining moisture.

“John’s a lucky guy… And staying on the bright side, we get to be friends now.”

She gave me a quick hug and disappeared with the mugs. There was a moment’s regret at what seemed to pass in that moment, but two hundred years is long enough to wait for anyone. I got ready for bed and climbed between the sheets.

Who knew what the future held? There were too many variables to make a sensible prediction. All I knew was there was a lot of it to enjoy and right now it seemed filled with nothing but promise. I snuggled down in bed, pulling a pillow into a tight embrace. I closed my eyes and, as I had done so many times before, I conjured in my mind’s eye an image that set my heart racing. For the first time in over two centuries I fell asleep with the certainty that he would be thinking of me too.

-Fin-