Unnatural Causes

Copyright 1983 by Benjamin Eakin

I awoke to bright sunlight as it streamed in through the translucent shieldwindow of my detention cube. It was nine a.m. Things were generally rather lax here. No audio tones to signal wake up time, meal time, recreation time, etc. All in all, if you overlooked the fact that I was locked in, Detention Center XIV wasn’t such a bad place.

Growing up in the Outland, I had read about the centers, called prisons then, of the mid-twentieth century. Compared to them, this center seemed like a picnic in the park. That was an expression from the mid-twentieth that I had learned also from my studies. It was one that would mean nothing to the Metropolitan people as they would never dream of actually eating out of doors in the forbidden green spaces. It even seemed odd to me, as the green spaces in the Outland were too dangerous to linger in.

Freedom is a relative term. In these detention centers, one could partake of any of several forms of recreation, mostly physical. Exercising the body seemed of utmost importance here; the Faculty (their euphemism for guards) had no need for sick residents. Mental exercise was discouraged at all times. Of course, physical exercise requires the coordination capabilities of the brain, but that was as far as the Faculty allowed it to go.

Physical contact among the residents was absolutely forbidden. This was accomplished easily by the use of wrist shockers. Upon entering Detention Center XIV, each resident was fitted with the metal bracelet complete with ID number and the capacity to deliver a numbing electrical shock to the wearer foolish enough to attempt to touch another. The wrist shockers were activated during all times that the residents were allowed free access to each other. At night, when each resident was sealed into their private cubes, the shockers were deactivated to permit such things as showering without the possibility of frying oneself. The devices were not without their problems.

For reasons unknown to me, my shocker was deactivated for only a brief time each day to allow me to clean myself. Even in the privacy of my cube, the device was kept active. No one would give me an explanation why this was so.

As to the reason for my confinement in this place, I hadn’t a clue. Several days had passed since my arrival and despite insistence on an explanation for my presence, none had been offered. Having been given a demonstration of what happened to any object attempting to pass through the shieldwindows of this complex, I had decided to bide my time. The sound of searing flesh and the stench of singeing fur had convinced me that the Faculty meant me to stay put. I pitied the poor creature they had used for the convincing. All it had wanted was the bit of food on the other side of the window.

As I lounged on the bed in my new home, I watched fascinated at the myriad of colors that the shieldwindow produced on the walls. It reminded me of the way the mist produced an array of color after a rain in the Outland. The weather was still unpredictable there as the Metropolitan government made no attempt to control it outside the cities. My people were left to their own devices in most respects. It was strange to me that something so destructive could diffuse light in such a pleasing manner.

An audio tone signaled me that someone was entering my cube. There was a delay mechanism built into the doors to give the occupant ample time to make himself presentable for a member of the Faculty. This meant making sure that you were clothed in a manner considered acceptable to them, their sensibilities were offended quite easily by the kind of resident at this facility.

In the doorway stood Landis, a lesser member of the Faculty. It was the duty of the lesser members to attend to the everyday needs of the residents and to usher them to and from consultations with the higher Faculty. He was clothed in the tight-fitting uniform of the lesser Faculty, a flesh colored fabric that clung to his body yet gave no hint of gender. Along with the slick hairless scalp that was common of all Metropolitans of both sexes, the effect of sexual neutrality was complete.

It was said that the bodies of all Metropolitans were totally smooth, without the slightest hint of hair. However, the modest style of clothing in the cities would make that impossible for the casual onlooker to determine. Some form of clothing covered every available inch of skin but for the head.

“The Committee wishes to see you, John 45289,” he said.

In this place you lost only a part of your identity. You were allowed to keep your given name, but the surname was replaced with the number assigned to the file kept on you in the Control Room. It was my understanding that lesser members were highly paid for their jobs as it was considered hazardous duty. The lesser members were the only ones to come in actual contact with the residents. No physical contact, of course, but operating in the same air space. Within breathing distance, as it were.

“Will they explain the reason for my visit, then?” I asked.

“I have only been told to bring you to them. I am not told the nature of their business, nor do I wish to know it,” he replied.

Landis ran a hand across the smooth surface of his head in a nervous gesture I had encountered before. The Metropolitans seemed unanimously uneasy in the presence of an Outlander.

As we walked down the halls toward the Control Area, I noticed another of the lesser members coming in our direction accompanying a resident back to his cube. I had seen “her” when I first arrived, but only for a moment.

I say “her” because it appeared in the most subtle way that this member was in fact a woman. Despite the stern look that all these people seemed to carry like a weapon, “she” seemed softer than—Landis, for instance. It seemed to me that the neutral uniform didn’t completely do its work of wiping out the sexuality of this member. There appeared to be two small breasts hidden beneath the fabric and the petite, lithe body portrayed femininity. Though “she” sported the same baby smooth head as Landis, I was of the opinion that this lesser member was indeed female.

Our eyes met for a moment and I thought hers lingered briefly before she glanced away.

Finally, we reached the end of the corridor. This door was the only way in or out of the inner complex. Once you had entered through it, there was no escape.

Landis spoke to the security scanner in front of us.

“I have John 43289 as the Committee requested.”

The door slid open instantly. We passed through.

Landis pointed to a door on our left.

“Go through that, be seated, and wait,” he said.

I walked to the door as ordered. It slid open for me and I entered a small room. The door slid shut behind me. I sat down in the chair that was the single furnishing.

As I sat wondering what would happen next, the Committee appeared in front of me on the wall. The wall was actually not. It was some sort of barrier that had been opaqued in a manner to pretend as a wall until the forces on the other side deemed it appropriate to make themselves known. I realized that our meeting was to take place through this barrier for the protection, I assumed, of the Committee members. The chance of some infection was surely thought unnecessary.

The Committee seated behind a desk consisted of three members. Three sexless Metropolitans dressed in the crimson red of the higher members.

“Good morning, John 45289. I trust your stay with us hasn’t been too unpleasant so far,” said the one in the middle.

“Aside from not knowing why I am here and the fact that I am not at liberty to leave, I have been quite comfortable, thank you,” I replied dryly.

“Do you mean to tell us that you honestly have no idea why you were brought here?” said the one on the left with some surprise.

“Not a clue. Honestly.”

The middle one spoke again, “We have looked carefully at the data in your dossier, John 43289, and, frankly, we were of the opinion that you were more intelligent than that.”

“I suppose that I have always thought of myself as less than stupid, yes.”

“It says here,” the middle one continued, as though I had said nothing, “that you were born in the Outlands in 2116. Unlike most of your kind, it says that you were educated in a formal sense by biological parents much in the same way that the people of long ago were taught. Why do you think that is so?”

“Life in the Outlands is difficult and dangerous as I am sure you must be aware. My parents were proud people who wanted me to carry on a tradition that their ancestors had thought important for many generations.”

“They were, no doubt, aware that formal education of the mind among your people is expressly forbidden by the Metropolitan government,” said the one on the right.

“My education helped me survive life in the Outlands. I cannot understand why the Metropolitan government could feel that to be dangerous. My education has gotten me…”

The one in the middle interrupted, “Your education, John 43289, has gotten you here.”

I didn’t finish my sentence.

“It is not wise to question the government. The laws concerning the Outlands are for the safety of all, Metropolitans and Outlanders alike,” the middle one continued. “It is of greatest importance to mankind as a whole that our two peoples stay apart. Your biological parents surely knew well the laws governing the separation of our peoples. Had they not already died of natural causes in the Outlands, they would have been sought out by the Disease Control Police and destroyed for their crimes.”

“Why am I here?” I asked solemnly.

“We will ask the questions, if you please,” the one on the left said sharply. “You could have infected the entire city by now if we had not intercepted you.”

“Why am I here?” I asked again.

“Very well,” said the middle one. “The charge against you is covered by Section 567298, Article 15 of the Outlander Penal code. You are charged with unlawful entry into the Metropolitan cities. The penalty for this can be deportation to the Outlands, continued imprisonment or vaporization. The extent of your crime is under review at this time and there are other indictments under consideration. Good day.”

The barrier became a wall again.

Dumbfounded, I stood at the sound of the door sliding open. Landis stood waiting for me.

“Surely, Landis, they cannot do this. They mean to hold me here and possibly even kill me for something that should not even be their business. In the Outlands…”

“This is not the Outland,” Landis said with some disgust.

I was escorted back to my cube in silence. When we got there, he said, “You are free to go to the recreation areas now if you wish.”

He turned and walked away.

I slumped to my bed in dismay. I had known it would be dangerous to attempt to enter the cities, but I had no idea that it would land me in detention so quickly. The police, it seemed, were very effective here. I stayed staring at the walls for a long time trying to understand how this could be happening.

Later, after the evening meal, I tried to talk to some of the other residents. Just as the members of the Faculty had seemed reluctant to get too close to me, the residents made it known rather quickly that even they wanted little to do with me. Finally, I managed to find one elderly resident who would talk with me. I guess he figured he had nothing to lose as I discovered he was to be vaporized for his crime.

“But why are you to be exterminated?” I asked. “It’s ironic, isn’t it?” he said. “At my age, you would think it wouldn’t matter any more.”

“What wouldn’t matter?”

He motioned me close. As I leaned in to hear what he had to say, I felt the biting pain of an electrical shock traveling through my body. I had gotten too close.

The old man hadn’t fared any better. The shock had sent him reeling to the floor. I started to help him up, then realized that it would only mean another, more severe shock.

“Are you all right?” I inquired.

He looked stunned for a moment, then slowly rose to his feet.

“I’ll be okay, let’s go to your room. We can talk in more safety there.”

I headed for my cube with the old man following uncertainly behind. As I entered the room, I turned to see if he was still with me. I saw that he was looking both directions.

“One can’t be too careful, you know.”

He entered the room then and closed the door behind him. Residents were capable of opening and closing their own doors at all times during the day, unless the Faculty decided to seal you inside for one reason or another. The shockers guaranteed that no improper behavior transpired between the residents.

“We can talk more freely here. The Faculty rarely monitors the rooms unless there has been some sort of trouble in the complex,” he said.

I sat on my bed, motioning him to the chair opposite it. “All my life,” he said, “I have been different from the others in the cities. I learned early in life that it was wrong to be different in this way. As a small child, I was taught to know how one was to be in this society. Still, the process of life organism management was in an infancy of its own.”

“I don’t think I understand,” I interrupted. “Did your parents teach you these things? My parents taught me that it was important to develop a sense of oneself to survive in the world.”

The old man fidgeted nervously.

“No, you don’t understand. I have no parents in the sense that you mean. No one in the cities does. Reproduction here is strictly asexual.”

My mouth dropped open at this point.

“Asexual! You mean to tell me that the entire population of the cities originates in the laboratory?”

“For as long as any alive can remember.”

“But what form of birth control is used that there are no live births?”

“None is needed,” he replied.

“But how? In the Outlands, the population grows continuously. The men and women there copulate like rabbits. The only reason that we are not totally overrun by people is the harsh condition of our lives. The infant mortality rate must run close to 80%. Even if you manage to grow to adulthood, the chances of growing old there are slim.”

“I think I understand what you mean by copulation, John, but in the cities there is no such thing. The laws of the land prohibit it.”

“Laws? How could laws prevent it? Sexual contact is a natural function. Even without the need to propagate, the urges of pleasure ensure that it will continue.”

The old man went on a little wearily, as though talking to a child who refused to comprehend, “Even without the laws of the government, the laws of our nature prevent us from the act. We are taught in the nurseries that physical contact of any kind is discouraged. Sexual contact is taught to be not only unnecessary, but illegal.”

“And this teaching is so effective that the urges for sexual contact are completely defeated here? I find that very hard to believe.”

At this point, a voice came over the communication box on the wall.

“The complex will shut down for the evening in five minutes. Residents are advised to return to their cubes at once.”

The old man stood up to go.

“I will speak with you further tomorrow. I must return to my cube or risk trouble for myself,” he said and turned to leave.

After he was gone, I heard the distinct sound that the door made when it had been sealed by the Control Room. For the evening, I was locked in.

I lay thinking about what the old man had said for a long time, unable to sleep. None of it seemed possible. I was, of course, aware of the difference in the appearance of Metropolitans to the Outlanders. Still, I had never been told much about them except for the fact that they were masters of our fates and were to be feared.

I had also heard the rumors of the local people around my village. The stories had been too incredible for me to believe. Certainly, the stories about the hairless bodies had been true, but I could now vouch for the fact that these people did have genitalia. Had I not spent the night with one of the Metropolitan women on the very first night in the cities? She had surely had everything necessary for the act. It was true that her breasts were a bit smaller than I was used to, but that was a genetic thing and was not uncommon in the Outland. Had she also been taught the laws that the old man spoke of?

Sleep finally came to my troubled mind and I dreamt of hairless, sexless bodies hovering over me through the night.

The audio tone at the door woke me from my nightmares. Before I had a chance to dress myself, the door slid open and I saw that it was the lesser member of the Faculty that I had assumed to be female. Without thinking, I stood up.

With a look of total horror, she pressed the button on her belt that controlled the door and it slid shut again. It was only then that I realized that I was completely naked.

The voice from the communication box addressed me, “John 45289, you are ordered to dress yourself to be escorted before the Committee.”

It was apparent that I had unnerved this member somewhat and was to be punished for it.

When I was dressed, I pressed the button to open the door. Nothing happened.

After a moment, it opened. I saw that my escort had released the lock after checking with the Control Room to make sure that I was presentable.

“You will accompany me,” she said.

We proceeded down the corridors toward the Control Area. As we walked, I observed her closely from the rear. Her boyish figure intrigued me. It suddenly occurred to me that she might just have a boyish figure because she was in fact a boy. Now, I was unnerved. The cities were very confusing.

Once again, I was directed to wait in the small room. I waited. The wait was longer this time.

Presently, the wall dissolved as it had before and the Committee was seated in front of me once again.

“John 43289, in the future, you will see to it that you are properly dressed at all times,” said the middle one.

“Even when I sleep?” I inquired.

“Even when you sleep,” the middle one reprimanded. We cannot have you offending the members of this complex for your own personal comfort.”

I nodded my assent.

The middle one continued, “The sanitation sensors in your cube have informed us that you are not keeping yourself as antiseptic as you should. In the future, you will bathe twice a day in the sterilizing spray and remove the hair from your face at those times.”

“Shave twice a day?” “That is correct. It would be better for all concerned if it were more often, but we have determined that it would be too discomforting to you. We are not without feelings, you know.”

I did not know.

“I feel we should go on with the business at hand,” said the one on the left. Try as I might, I could not tell whether the three members were in the same places as before or if they had switched places.

The one in the middle nodded and motioned to the one on the right to begin.

He said, “The investigation into your escapade has been completed. We now are in possession of all the information we need. Aside from the original charges, you are to be indicted on several other counts.”

“It is unbelievable to us,” said the left one, “that you would dare to enter the cities in the first place. The law against it is made well known to the people of the Outland. No one has even attempted it in many years, much less succeeded. As though that were not enough, you have had the gall to…”

The left one hesitated, as though he could not speak of such things.

The middle one went on, “Along with the original charge and a small host of others that are trivial by comparison, you are now charged with Section 567298, Article One of the Outlander Penal Code. That charge is physical, sexual contact with a person of the cities. whereas the original charge carried the possibility of deportation, this charge carries only one punishment. You are to be vaporized.”

The Committee was gone.

Once again, I was escorted back to my cube.

“You are instructed to proceed with your sterilization bath. You will find that the devices needed for removal of your facial hair have been placed in your cube.”

The boyish member turned and walked away.

I could only wonder at the point of keeping me clean if I was to be executed. The door to my cube slid shut and I heard the seal lock into place. At the same time, I noticed that the activation light on my shocker had gone dark.

I undressed and dutifully stepped into the bathing chamber. As I did, the sterilizing spray spewed forth from the nozzle. I had learned that it was best to keep the eyes closed as the spray had a stinging effect. A voice from the communication box informed me that the can on the ledge was a depilatory cream for use on my face. I realized that the scanners were monitoring me to insure compliance.

After finishing the cleansing bath, I dried myself, dressed and went to the door. I pressed the button. A voice asked me to wait. I felt the scanner give me the once over to see that I was properly attired. As the door opened, the activation light on my shocker came back on.

I began a search of the complex, looking for the old man. I was frantic to have him explain things to me. It seemed that no one else thought it necessary to do so. when I found him, he slouched away from me as from fear.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“You have become dangerous now,” he said.

“Dangerous? How do you know that?”

“News travels fast here, despite the efforts of the Faculty. You have been labeled an urgent case.”

He turned to go.

“Wait, you have to help me. They’re going to kill me and I don’t even know why.”

Without turning around, he said, “Go back to your room. I will come there shortly when I see that it is safe.”

With that, he walked away.

I waited in my cube for what seemed an eternity trying to analyze the events that were unfolding. How could they think I was so dangerous? Why was it so urgent that I he vaporized to protect society?

When the old man appeared at my door, I got up to greet him.

“Close the door quickly,” he said.

I did.

“You must realize that even though I am an old man, I value my life. I keep hoping that the decision about my death penalty will be reversed. After all, I worked hard for the government all those years in the research department of the Genetics Complex. Being with you can only serve to endanger my position further.

The old man spoke quickly with fear in his voice.

“I can’t stay long. You will probably be scanned periodically from now on.”

“Then, please,” I pleaded, “tell me what I have done that is so terrible that I should be killed for it. What could you have possibly done that they would kill you?”

“It is clear to me now that the education you received from your parents was based on what can only be considered ancient history now,” he said. “It is obvious that you know nothing of the more recent history of this planet.”

“Outside of the fact that we in the Outlands are forbidden to enter the cities, I suppose I don’t.”

“As I told you yesterday, I have known all my life that I was different. Up until very recently, I have been able to keep that a secret. Since physical contact is thought unimportant and people are very private about their own bodily functions, it was not all that difficult to keep my secret.”

“What secret? What are you talking about?”

The old man quickly released the fasteners that held his clothing on. As the garment dropped away from his body, I saw that, aside from the fact that there was not a hair on his body, he looked completely normal in every way. I was at a loss as to the reason for his sudden disrobing in my presence.

Seeing the puzzled look on my face, he said, “This is by way of explanation.”

I looked more puzzled.

“Take a close look,” he demanded.

I had already seen more than I had wanted to see.

Disgusted, he refastened the clothing and went on, “In the late twentieth century, a plague engulfed the entire world. What we have here in the cities and the Outlands are all that is left. The diseases that are associated with physical and especially sexual contact had become uncontrollable. The science of the day had, up to that point, coped with the most common of the diseases, but new strains began appearing faster and faster. The overuse of antibiotics had diminished their effectiveness to a point that they became useless. New antibodies were being developed all the time, but, finally, time ran out. The loss of life was horrendous. Fear was so widespread that normal propagation had almost ceased. The fear of physical contact was destroying the worlds populations.

“The possibilities to recreate life in the laboratory had been known for some time even then. In order to survive, the job of producing children to replace the dying population fell to the scientists.”

“And how did the laws come into effect?” I wanted to know.

“Preservation of the species. It did no good for the scientific community to create new life if that life simply went out and infected itself.”

“But, the Outlanders. We have always reproduced ourselves by physical contact.”

“During the years that the laws were being instigated, most of the people flocked to the cities in hopes of being saved by the doctors there. Most did not survive. As the genetic engineering began to produce infants with noticeably different characteristics, the government decided that those who remained alive with the old characteristics should not be allowed to live. The possibility for reinfection was thought too great. A campaign of systematic slaughter began. The few who escaped headed back into the country. The ones of those who survived the elements and the ravages of the diseases are the ancestors of all Outlanders.”

“But you said that you are different from the rest. I don’t understand. It is obvious that you have the same hairless body of the Metropolitan, but aside from that, I couldn’t see any difference between you and me.”

“That is the problem. The genetic engineering didn’t stop with merely producing children in the laboratory. The fear that the infections would start all over made the government determined to see to it that it could not happen again. Complete sterilization of the human species was considered unwise. What was needed was a way to make copulation not only difficult, but impossible.”

“But how can that be. If you will pardon me, from what I saw, you are equipped better than I for the job.”

“John, you are even denser than I thought. That is exactly the point. The scientists worked with the genes over a long period until they finally produced genetically perfect males with the one exception. While the genitalia is still present for purposes of elimination, it is minute and incapable of achieving an erection. Even in the unlikely event that the erection is accomplished, its size prevents any penetration.”

“But, you are normal,” I protested.

“In the Outlands, I would be almost normal except for the absence of hair. In the Metropolitan areas, I am a dangerous criminal. Haven’t you ever wondered why the Metropolitan appears sexually neutral even in the tight fitting clothing here?”

I was horrified at the thought of the genetic trick that had been perpetrated on the males of this society. Could fear be so strong a motive?

“I understand in part, but if you aren’t capable…”

“But, I am capable. That is what finally gave me away. The Disease Control Police are everywhere these days. Some minor infections have been surfacing recently and the patrols have been stepped up. It is not something I can control. It was my misfortune to be noticed one day during what are now routine inspections.”

“And so you will die.”

“More than likely. If I don’t leave here, I will most surely die. You are marked now, John, and contact of any kind with you will be viewed with suspicion from now on.”

“But, how could the Police have found out about me and the Metropolitan girl?”

“Fear is a strong control measure. Occasionally, there are reports of woman in our society who still have some sexual desires. More than likely, she sought you out rather than your finding her. In the end, though, the Police have a strong network of information. After picking you up, they most certainly began an investigation into your whereabouts from the time you set foot in the cities. Fear of retaliation from the Police leads most in this society to reveal what they know. Someone simply saw you with the girl and reported it. Upon questioning the girl, if she did not tell them what they needed to know, they would simply put her through a penetration scanner. People have been known to be put to death on the suspicion of masturbation. The scanner can sort out the difference between sexual penetration and self-penetration. Either way, it portends a fact that the government does not want to exist. The redevelopment of the human being in the cities as a sexual being is to be stopped at all costs.”

“And the girl?”

“Most probably she has already been vaporized. In a way, she is considered more of a threat to the cities than you.”

It was all too much to take in. I studied my feet for a moment trying to digest the information he had been giving me. When I looked up, he was moving for the door.

“I must leave, John. I have jeopardized myself enough. The only reason I came was that I felt that you should at least know why you were to die.”

As he left, he turned and said, “I am sorry, John … for all of us.”

I didn’t see the old man again. After his visit, I began to understand all the things that had puzzled me. The Metropolitan government had obviously decided at some point that the people of the Outland would pose no threat to the cities as long as they stayed in the country, far away. The laws were designed completely for the protection of the Metropolitans. The Outlanders were to be left to themselves to live or die at will. As long as they stayed ignorant, they were controllable.

I did not leave the cube after that. At my request, my meals were served to me there. What little exercise I got came from the incessant pacing I did back and forth in the small room. .It was all an insane joke. It had to be.

The only contact I had now was with either Landis or the member with the boyish figure who I learned was named Alex. The sense of femininity was still present when Alex was around and I found that I was becoming quite attracted to whatever Alex was. The only joy I had left came when she (?) arrived at my cube with a meal or some other necessity.

Alex had even begun to talk to me on occasion in a civil manner. I got the impression that a bond was forming. It was a weak bond, I was certain, but I knew it was there.

Sleep had become more of a problem as the days passed. There was no clue from the Committee as to when I was to die. I was left dangling, waiting for the inevitable to happen.

This particular evening, when Alex brought my evening meal, she (I still wasn’t totally certain, but it made it easier on me) seemed edgy. This seemed odd, for she had come to appear at ease in my presence. She did not stay with me as I ate as had become her custom. Instead, she left the room nervously almost as soon as she had delivered my meal.

As she left, she turned and said, “Sleep lightly tonight.”

When she was gone, I worried that she knew something about this night that I had not been told. This was very likely since I was rarely told anything. Still, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps people were vaporized in the middle of the night in order to minimize the impact it would have on the other residents.

Her parting words had assured that I would not only sleep lightly, but fitfully. In a half sleep, I dreamed of the molecules that made up my body being turned into something less than dust. The next dream was stranger still.

In this dream, Alex had entered the room, crossed over to me and placed a hand on my shoulder. She was telling me to get up and get dressed in something warm. She was saying that the cities were in what passed for winter. The government felt that artificial changes of season, though mild, were beneficial.

I sat straight up in the bed as I became aware that I was not dreaming. Alex was really in the room, kneeling beside me. Her hand was on my shoulder. I glanced down at my wrist. The activation light had been turned off.

“Did you hear me?” she said quietly. “We must hurry.”

In a daze, I got up and grabbed another of the resident uniforms that hung in the room. I slipped it on over the clothing I was wearing.

“Where are we going?”

“There is no time for questions now,” she said. “I’m going to get you out of the complex.”

“But why?” I insisted.

“Listen, you fool,” she screamed softly, “I don’t have time to talk about this now. You are scheduled to be vaporized in the morning and I would be killed instantly if I was found here with you. Now move!”

She pointed toward the window.

“Are you crazy?” I said. “We’d be fried in an instant.”

Alex pressed a button on the control pack at her belt and pushed me forward. The shieldwindow had dissolved.

“If someone notices that this shield has gone down, an alarm will sound and backup shields will be activated. Now, get through that window.”

When I hesitated, she climbed through the window in front of me. I practically dove out behind her. Just as I cleared the window, she pressed another button on the control pack and the shieldwindow reactivated.

She began to run away from the complex and I followed. After dodging our way through the shadows, we reached an alley between two tall buildings.

Alex turned to me and said, “Take off your clothes.”

Having learned not to question, I stripped off the uniforms. The artificially chill night air hit my skin and I flinched with discomfort.

Alex disappeared for a moment behind a waste disposal container, then reappeared holding more clothing.

“You will be less conspicuous in these,” she said. “We will be in danger now until we can get to the border. We may have to strap that down somehow,” she said, pointing at my crotch, “but I think we can fool them long enough to get away.”

“Away to where?” I asked, slipping into my new attire.

“The Outlands, of course.”

“The Outlands! But why?”

Without a word, Alex reached behind the container and retrieved more clothing. Quickly, she unfastened the uniform. As the clothing fell away, I saw that I had been right. Alex was female for certain. Two small, firm breasts stared at me as she kicked off the uniform. There was an obvious lack of outward genitalia between her smooth legs.

Still, I didn’t understand why she would take this risk for me or why she would want to go to the Outlands.

And then I understood.

As she raised her arms to slip on the new clothing, I first spied the sweat glistening on her skin from the run. Next, the pieces fell into place. There, under her arms, were dark tufts of hair.

I walked across to her and raised my hand to run it along the top of her head. It was just as I thought it would be. The smooth scalp was no longer smooth at this late hour. A soft stubble covered the tight skin.

Alex looked up at me with a sly smile.

And I understood.



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