"… and I'll be seeing you all next week. Please read chapters three and four before you come back on Tuesday. Class is dismissed. Miss Fang, could I see you for a moment before you go?"
Ara Fang paused in the middle of picking up her books and looked up at the front of the classroom at her Professor. The tall, saturnine man was busying himself in packing up his books and materials, as the black cat that was constantly at his side watched bemusedly from the top of a nearby bookshelf. What possible reason could the Professor have to want to see me? she wondered, as she picked up her satchel and walked to the mahogany desk at the front of the classroom.
"Please walk with me," the Professor said. "I'd like to speak to you in the privacy of my office, if you don't mind."
"… all right," Ara said. She looked at the greying old man curiously. Alarm bells were ringing in her head: older gentleman wanting to see her alone? Away from others. She was getting that itching feeling on the back of her neck from this one.
The black cat leaped down from the bookshelf and walked daintily alongside the two of them as they emerged into the hallway, stepping aside to let the next class of students enter. She followed the older man up the flight of stairs, past the paintings of Crowley and Aristotle, and into an office that looked slightly larger on the inside than the outside. Then again, every room at ICSUT's Massachusetts campus looked like that.
The Professor's office was neatly organized: a far cry from the stereotypical clutter of the academic. The shelves were filled with books new and old, with titles ranging from "A Brief History of the Universe," to "The Golden Bough," to "The Annotated Translator's Al-Azif." There was a basket with a pillow in one corner, to which the cat retired, bathing her face with her paws, as the Professor gestured Ara to a seat and closed the door behind him.
"I have a sensitive question to ask," he said, taking a seat in a chair across from her and leaning forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "Please feel free to leave at any time if I am making you feel uncomfortable, Miss Fang."
"… what is this about?" Ara asked.
"It's a delicate question, I will understand if you do not wish to answer. I was looking over your student records, and discovered that you are registered as male-to-female transsexual…"
… oh shit, Ara winced inwardly.
"… and was curious whether you are pre- or post-operative," the Professor continued.
Ara took a deep breath, trying to settle her pounding heart and unclench her tightened fists. "I think this is an intrusion of my privacy," she said, "And unless you can give me an answer right away as to why I should answer this question, I am going to be reporting you to Administration for harassment."
The professor inclined his head slowly and leaned back in his padded chair, raising his hands in supplication. "My apologies, Miss Fang," he said. "It was not my intention to make you feel uncomfortable. My interest is… mostly academic." He steepled his fingers in front of his face, pausing for a moment to marshal his words. "Allow me to take this from a different angle, Miss Fang. What do you know of my work?"
"You're the Institute's foremost researcher into Observatology," Ara said. "You've been doing research into the nature of consciousness and sapience. The soul, in other words."
"Correct," the Professor said, "but academia is my second profession. My other job is as a consultant for the Global Occult Coalition: specifically, their CAULATICA Division, maintaining the secrecy of the occult world from the mundane. Part of what I have been doing recently is refining their Identity Reassignment technology. Field agents in PHYSICS Division often request to have their identities reassigned in order to protect friends and loved ones left behind. This is a complicated and difficult process intrinsically linked to the study of consciousness and sapience itself."
"What does this have to do with me being trans?" Ara wondered.
The Professor smiled. It was a friendly, fatherly smile, and his excitement was obvious. "How would you like to be my test subject into cross-gender Identity Reassignment?" he asked.
"The simplest Identity Reassignment algorithms are cosmetic surgery," the Professor explained, "but sometimes, things become more complicated. A person might be a public figure, or may have been involved in a memorable event. And because many of us operate in the realm of the paranormal, we run into issues of sympathy and contagion: it doesn't matter how much you change your appearance, a strand of hair picked up from before you were recruited still holds sympathy to you. DNA testing makes it even more difficult these days. So the current research is tending towards reality alteration: changing the very nature of the person down to the level of their genes and EVE signature.
"One way to do this would be to consult a reality alterer… but the Coalition is, understandably, reluctant to do so. I've been researching alternative methods using Tangential Technology for the past couple of decades. We have made some advances, but the procedure is… shall we say… rudimentary. We can change a person's face, hair color, sometimes build and height, but things like race and especially sex are far more difficult.
"I've been searching for a good test subject for the past few years," the Professor explained, "and I'd like to suggest you as a candidate. You would be compensated for your time and the risks involved, of course, and your identity will remain secret, unless you wish it to be publicized. The reason I wish to know whether you are pre- or post-operative is due to… complications… that may arise based on your current state of being."
"Complications?" Ara asked.
"Whether or not you feel you have completed your transition to the new gender," the Professor said. "The state of mind you are in when entering the procedure is influential. My research indicates that the best chance of success may occur with an individual who is pre-operative. The desire to change yourself may help the procedure to be carried out smoothly."
"Wait a minute," Ara said, raising her hand. Her head was spinning, her vision blurring… she wasn't sure whether she wanted to vomit or laugh. "… let me get this straight. You want to magically change me from… what I am now… into a woman?"
"Exactly," the Professor said.
"… and explain to me why I should choose to go your way? I've already assembled the funds to complete my transition. I was going to take some time off at the end of the semester to go under the knife. And you're asking me to give that all up and go for an untested magical procedure instead at the last moment?"
"Ah," the Professor said. "Let's talk about the surgical method. You would have your external genitalia removed, and an artificial vagina formed using the nerve endings and structure of your current male organs. And… depending on whether or not you are currently undergoing hormonal therapy…"
"I've been on an antiandrogen and estrogen/progesterone cocktail for the past three years," Ara said.
"… ah, good." The Professor nodded excitedly. "In any case, you may have begun growth of breast tissue and shutdown of testicular function. But there are things that these procedures cannot change. Your bone structure remains male. Your facial structure as well. Voice and facial hair… genetics. All of these things remain male. At the end of your procedures, you may become close enough to physically female to avoid a sense of gender dysphoria, but none of this can make you as female as one that was born into that gender. And it cannot give you the one trait that is uniquely female among humans: the ability to bear children."
"And you're saying?" Ara's voice cracked as she felt her world fall away.
"I'm saying," the Professor said, "that if my theory is correct, the procedure I have developed works, you will become a flesh-and-blood woman, down to your very genes. Does that interest you?"
Ara Fang lay on her cot in her dorm room and stared up through the skylight at the night sky.
"There are risks," the professor had told her. "Very great ones."
"More so than possibly dying on an operating table?"
"Yes," the professor said, very frankly. "Quite simply, from a safety consideration, the traditional route of lifelong hormone therapy and gender reassignment surgery would be preferable. For instance, the working required would have a high energy requirement. We would, after all, be performing a working heavily Hued towards Ebony, with an extremely Tight Weave, bordering on Locked. That amount of EVE, allowed to get loose, could be catastrophic. Not to mention that the backlash would be severe. And there is the possibility that the working would be incomplete. Your body could end up… severely altered."
"… extra arms. Double legs. Body parts in the wrong places. Partial sexual alteration in some body parts… others not so. Other, more severe teratogenic effects… many of them would be unsurvivable. In other cases, you may wish that you had not survived. And then there are the more esoteric risks. We are attempting to convince the universe that you are and always have been female. The universe may reject the paradox by ejecting you from its reality. Or, instead of turning you into a female, we may end up creating a new 'you' that was always female, and in so doing, destroy the person you are now. Quite frankly, my dear, considering what could happen if you undergo the working, the dangers of a slipped knife or a bad reaction under anesthesia are preferable."
"So greater risk equals greater reward?"
"That depends on how highly you value the 'reward,' as you so put it. Whether you feel it is worth the significantly greater risk."
Ara rolled off of her bed and turned on the lights. She slowly removed her clothing, pulled on her favorite pink-and-white bathrobe, and walked out the door and into the hallway.
The bathrooms were down the hall from her room, and she stepped through the one with the circular symbol of a stick figure that had broad shoulders and didn't wear a stylized skirt. At this hour, as she had hoped, there was no one else in the bathroom. She walked in front of the sinks, removed her robe, and looked at herself in the mirror.
She didn't like mirrors… didn't have any in her room. And looking at herself, she was reminded why. The person she saw in the mirror looked… wrong. Despite the small, budding breasts, in the process of forming after three long years on medicines that made her constantly sick and tired. Despite the long hair and the smooth, hairless face with the fuzz lasered off. Because there was still the narrow hips and the broader shoulders and the Adam's apple she hid under turtlenecks and tight scarves, and most of all, that thing between her legs.
She reached up and touched her own face and the stranger in the mirror touched his.
She reached out and touched the mirror, and the stranger extended his hand to touch his fingertips to hers.
She picked up the bathrobe and put it back on and walked back to her dorm.
She lay on the bed and stared up at the night sky until it turned into twilight, and then, at last, into the morning blue.
"Your first step will be halting the hormonal therapy," the Professor explained. "We need to have your body as close to its original male form as possible."
"That seems backwards," Ara said. "Shouldn't it be as close to female as possible?"
"Boiled water freezes fastest," the Professor replied.
"That isn't an answer."
"No, but it's a decent analogy. What we need to do is hold your male and female possibilities together at once, then transfer the possibility from one to the other. And the more distinct your original male possibility is, the easier it will be to differentiate you from the new possibility being formed. This is important to maintain your sense of self during the transfer. To prevent loss of self-distinction."
"Until the procedure is ready to be performed," the Professor said. "One year and a day from now."
And so Ara stopped taking the pills, and her breasts stopped growing, and her body hair got thicker, and she felt herself slipping backwards down the hill she'd spent so long climbing.
Meanwhile, she and the Professor began going over the various components they would need for the working. "The most important thing," he said, "is a solid image of your desired form. Photos would work. Three-dimensional figures would be best."
They went to the imaging laboratory and had photographs of her male body taken from every possible angle, and then they found someone who could Photoshop it into the body she'd always wanted to be.
Ara immediately rejected the first set of images the artist sent back. "It's too perfect," she complained.
"It looks fine to me," the Professor said.
"Of course it does. This girl is gorgeous. She could be a model… a supermodel… an actress," Ara said. She held up the image of the thin-waisted, slender beauty with flawless, smooth skin, and shook her head. "This doesn't look like me at all. It doesn't feel… right."
They sent the suggestions back to the artist, and they sat together for an entire afternoon going through permutation after permutation, adding an imperfection here, correcting one there, going through face after face after body after body after possibility after possibility until, one day, a month after they'd first sent the request out, Ara looked at the person in the images and saw herself.
Meanwhile, she underwent medical procedures of every kind. Every single millimeter of her current body was studied and recorded. After the photographs came the endoscope, then came the CAT scan, then came the MRIs, then the COLLICULUS imaging, then the genetic scans. Hundreds of thousands of images of herself from every possible angle, mapping every possible facet of a human body.
And then came the day that the sculptor delivered the statue of what her new self would look like, and she sat down across from it for an entire night, just studying her new self. She reached out and touched the face of the closed-eyed thing of silicone and steel. One day, this is what I will be, she thought to herself.
And then the day came that the Professor told her that it was time to go see a dwarf about a sword.
"A sword, huh?" the short, stocky man with the giant beard said. "Not much call for one of those in this day and age."
"Not much call for a blacksmith, either," the Professor pointed out. "I guess we were both born a few thousand years too late."
"Speak for yourself. I pity those poor medieval swordsmiths who didn't know the difference between chromium steel and high carbon." The blacksmith laughed out loud and gestured to Ara, who stood in the entrance of the smithy, nervously looking around. "Who's the twink? Your new catamite?"
"My test subject," the Professor said. "For the identity reassignment."
"So that's the tranny, huh? Come over here, let me get a look at you."
Ara felt the rage rise in her blood, but she walked over nonetheless and stared directly into the dwarf's eyes, cold and hard. The short man laughed out loud at that. "Yeah, I can see I've pissed you off a bit, huh? Good. I like a bit of spirit in my women."
"The proper term," Ara said curtly, "is trans, or trans-woman, if you wish. If you wish to continue this business transaction, you will refer to me as such and apologize for the slur."
"My apologies," the short man said, bowing his head politely. "I'll remember that for the future. I've been… apart from civilization."
"Heinrich's been living in these woods for the past… fifty years, now?"
"Fifty-five," the short man said. "People freak me out. I don't understand how the hell you guys can stand living in a fucking city surrounded by millions of the things." The short, bearded man spit into the hot coals.
"In any case, can you do it? Make the sword for us?"
"I can. But I'm not going to. She's going to do it."
"Me?" Ara squeaked, surprised.
"Yeah, you. And you're also going to make the chalice, too." He gestured to the swords hanging from pegs on the walls of his stone smithy. "Sword. Symbolically male. Oriented towards fire. Chalice. Symbolically female. Oriented towards water. Do you get what's going on here?"
"I think so. The sword and chalice are meant as symbols of my feminine and masculine aspects," Ara said, brows furrowing. "And I have to make them in order to create a strong sense of Sympathy between them for symbolic purposes."
"Got it in one," the short man said.
"Can she do it? Learn to make a sword in time for the ritual?"
"It doesn't need to be a great sword," the short man pointed out. "It only needs to be enough of a sword to serve as a symbol. And I'll help her with it. But she has to be here and help with the creation process."
"If you can afford to take the time off of classes…" the Professor said dubiously.
"One week. No longer. She comes back during Spring Break and pounds steel with me rather than partying down in Cancun or whatever."
"All right," Ara said. "I'll see you in April, then."
"Sounds good. There is, however, the matter of payment."
"How much do you want?" the Professor asked.
"Money's not an issue. I don't spend much out here, except for raw materials, and I've got a deal with the Coalition for ritual gear and such. What I want…" He turned to Ara and grinned lewdly. "Well, when Freya bargained with the dwarves for Brisingamen, she offered…"
"HEINRICH!" the Professor shouted.
"Fine! It was just a joke!" the short man said defensively.
"It wasn't a very funny one!"
"Fine, I'm sorry… but if you really want to make a deal…" The man stroked his beard and sighed. "Look, I'm generally happy living away from people. They kinda piss me off for the most part. But there are some things that I miss from the days when I lived in civilization…"
And so, when Ara returned to the cabin in the woods that following Spring, she brought with her two bottles of Laphroaig Islay Single-Malt, and one of Balvenie 40.
"Yeah, that's the stuff," Heinrich Guggenheim said, as he held the bottles up to the light, smiling. "Human beings are fucking assholes but sometimes they make something worth keeping."
He put the bottles into his cabinet reverently, like a priest handling the consecrated Hosts, and then rolled out a sheet of butcher paper on his table made of roughly hewn logs, and began sketching out a design using a charcoal pencil.
"Isn't this supposed to be my sword?" Ara asked.
"Sure," Guggenheim said.
"Then let me design it."
She thought she saw him smile as he passed her the pencil and stepped back from the table.
She sketched out a short sword, double-edged, slender and elegant, the lines evoking that of a Chinese jian, and then sketched in the ornate hilt and long tassel as well. "That part you'll have to find someone else to do," Guggenheim said. "I only do blades and sometimes hilts."
"That's fine," Ara said. "I'll find a jeweler to do the rest."
"Then let's get started."
He began by showing her how to work the bellows to heat the coals on the forge, then had her working the big hammer to pound the ingot out into a long, narrow sword blank. Her first swing missed the anvil entirely and nearly smashed into her foot. "Careful there," Heinrich warned. "You break your foot and you're going to waste the entire weekend."
"This thing is too heavy. I can't swing it."
"Then don't," Guggenheim said. "Just lift it up and let the weight do the rest."
She lifted up the heavy steel tool and let it fall onto the anvil, hard. Guggenheim grinned as he struck the steel with his own hammer. Between the two of them, and a long, backbreaking day of hard labor, they eventually managed to form the steel into a long, bladelike shape.
The week passed in much the same manner, with Guggenheim showing her how to heat the metal to the proper temperature. How to let the hammer do all the work of striking the steel. When to return the steel to the heat. He did most of the work, but made sure that she was involved in every step of the process.
The week passed, and on the second-to-last day, Ara pricked her finger and let the blood droplets fall into the two casks of oil and water laid next to the forge, as Guggenheim heated the final sword to a red heat and plunged it first into the oil, then, as the flames rose around the blade, into the water, to quench the blade.
The last day was spent polishing and sharpening the sword, and by the time the sun set at the end of the week, Ara had the blade of her sword wrapped in a silk blanket to carry back to the world.
She lay on her cot, looking up at the thatched roof that last night, as Guggenheim turned over in his bed, and asked, with a bit of trepidation, "Heinrich?"
"That first time we met. You mentioned Brisingamen."
"Yeah," Guggenheim said.
"Freyja offered gold and silver to the dwarves who made that necklace. But in the end, she paid them by spending one night with each of them."
There was silence.
Guggenheim turned over in his bed and snorted derisively. "Go to sleep, girl," he growled.
"Yes, sir," Ara said.
She pulled the blanket up over her shoulders and stared at the wall for a good, long time.
"The point of that story," Guggenheim said, after a few minutes, "isn't that Freyja slept with the dwarves. The point is that there are some things in life you'd give anything to have… and sometimes, you pay too much to get them."
"It was still an unfair thing to ask for in payment," Ara said.
"Sorry about that. In case you haven't figured it out already, I'm not a very nice man." Guggenheim yawned. "Anyway, a shitty sword like this… you'd be overpaying me."
Ara chuckled a bit and, after a few more minutes, finally drifted off to sleep.
"Glass," the woman in the leather apron said.
"Are you sure? Maybe pewter would work better," the professor said dubiously.
"Glass," the woman repeated firmly. "It has to be glass, and it has to have a silver stand. You want it to have as many feminine attributes as possible. Silver evokes the moon, glass evokes water. Glass and silver is the best choice."
"I'm not sure that we have time for her to learn both glassblowing and silversmithing," the Professor pointed out. "We're coming up on the end of that year and a day."
"She doesn't have to," the woman said. "She had to make the sword, because it represents a part of herself that's being taken away. But the chalice needs to be made by another, because it represents a new aspect of herself being added on."
"I guess that makes some sense," the Professor said dubiously. "But on the other hand, there's also a strong resonance in having her make the chalice herself."
"Why don't we ask her what she thinks?" the woman in the leather apron said, and they both turned to face Ara, who was sitting on a ratty old chair listening to the entire conversation.
"The chalice will be an integral part of your own transformation. It needs to have resonance to you," the Professor pointed out.
Ara scratched her head and looked across the workshop at the apprentices and workers hammering out silver and tin over small anvils and stakes. "… actually," she said, "I think I might have a different idea."
"So what exactly is this," Lydia asked, when Ara had returned from her dorm room. She held the cheap-looking glass tumbler up to the light. "Romancing the Future? What the hell does that mean?"
"… it's a prom glass," Ara said softly.
Lydia and the Professor fell silent.
"… my father didn't approve of my nature," Ara said. "He… was angry all the time. Emotionally abusive, even. Only the fact that he didn't want it getting out that his son was a 'freak' kept him from sending me off to some kind of camp or something. Maybe my mother would have understood better, but she died when I was young… and he was always afraid that he'd screwed up on raising me. Their only son. Because I wasn't happy with being a son. Because I wanted to be a daughter, like my older sisters. He used to scream at them so much. Blamed them for me being what I was. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't anyone's fault."
She had to sit down to steady herself… the memories were flowing faster and harsher than she'd thought they would. "I had a couple of high school friends who… were sympathetic to me. They helped me to plan it out. One of them, a girl… she was my date. She came over and I wore my tux and we left the house together. Then we went to her house, where she had the dress we'd picked out ready. She helped me put it on. Did my hair. Did my makeup. Put in the shapers and the bra and did my jewelry. And then we went to prom together."
Ara smiled bitterly as the memories came back. "A few of my old friends clapped when they saw me in my dress. Some others turned away. There were a few angry mutters, some weirded out looks. But there were a lot of happy smiles, too. I danced all night, and Shelly and I, we went out onto the beach with a bunch of our friends, and we sat on the sand and watched the sun rise, and one of my friends, a boy whom I'd had a crush on, told me he liked me no matter what I was, and he held my hand and kissed me."
"It was the best night of my life, but when I got home, after changing back into my tux and leaving my dress at Shelly's house, my father was up. Someone at the prom, I never found out who, called him and told him what I'd done. He screamed at me for hours, and hit me a lot with a rolled up newspaper. As if I were a dog. And he threw my prom glass at the wall and smashed it to bits."
"This is Shelly's," Ara said, running a finger along the rim of the cheap drinking glass that Lydia held. "She gave it to me after she heard what my father had done. So I'd have something to remember that night by." She gave the Professor and Lydia a sick smile. "She's one of the few people I regret leaving behind when I came to ICSUT."
There was a long moment of silence, and Ara realized the entire workshop had halted their work. Everyone was watching her, their hammers and snips stopped by her story.
"… yeah," Lydia said thoughtfully, holding the bowl-shaped glass up to the light. "I think if we put a silver base on this, it should do just fine."
"How do you feel?" the Professor asked.
"Tired. Hungry. Excited. Exhausted." Ara laughed nervously as she swung her feet back and forth. "Scared."
"Understandable," the Professor said. "Let's go over the particulars of the Working."
He went over the various particulars of the systems and spells and elements that would be used in the Working. Ara barely heard him. They'd gone over this many times before. But this would be the last time that they would talk each other through the procedure.
"… are you certain that you wish to continue with the procedure?" the Professor asked.
"Yes," Ara said firmly.
"Then please sign here."
He passed her what seemed like dozens of clipboards, each one with a neat "X" written near the bottom in blue ink, and Ara signed, in dozens of places, various documents relating to the fact that she knew what she was getting into and would not sue anyone ever if anything went wrong.
She signed her name with a flourish on the final sheet, and the Professor stood up to go into the next room. A very nice young lady with short hair came by next and led Ara into the next room. It looked like bride's room at a church, with a couple of couches, a table, a mirror, and a closet.
"You can change into the gown here," she said. "We'll let you know when it's time to begin."
The lady then walked over to the other door in the room, opened it, and stood in the open doorway for a moment. Ara could see that it led outside, to a cool spring day in Massachusetts.
The door closed behind her, and Ara was left alone in the room.
This was insane. She was about to undergo an extremely dangerous magical working that could backlash and kill a bunch of people. She was about to alter the very fabric of the universe itself.
And why? Because she couldn't bear to live another day without a vag? What kind of logic was that?
She should leave. She should go. She should pick up her bag and walk right out that other door and just run across the campus as fast as she could and leave this whole thing behind.
Her head spun, her vision blurred, her heart pounded. She was clenching her fists so hard she could feel her fingernails dig into her palm.
She took another deep breath.
She took off her clothes, put them in the duffel bag she'd brought along with her, and stood in front of the mirror, looking into the eyes of the stranger she saw there.
His sad eyes looked back.
She reached a hand out to him, and touched his fingertips with hers.
She walked back to the closet, flung open the doors. It felt right to don the thin white garment by swirling it through the air, like the skirt of some magical fairy princess.
She cinched the belt of the robe around her waist. Precisely ten seconds later, the doors opened, and the Professor walked in.
"Were you watching me?" she asked.
"Through COLLICULUS," the Professor admitted.
"What would you have done if I walked out that door?"
"Watched you leave. And looked for another test subject."
He closed the door behind him and looked seriously into Ara's eyes. "I have one last request for you," he said. "I need your truename."
She'd known this was coming for a while. She nodded to him and cleared her throat nervously. It felt a bit closed and dry, so she swallowed before going on. "Arachne."
"Arachne. The Spider… if memory serves, she was a weaver. One of the greatest. So great, in fact, that the goddess Artemis challenged her to a contest. Artemis wove images of the Gods ruling humanity and defeating them time and time again… and Arachne responded by weaving images of the many abuses the Gods had heaped upon mankind. And when Artemis tore her weaving to pieces, she hanged herself."
"It was Athena, not Artemis," Ara said. "And she was angry because Arachne wouldn't admit that some of her talent might have come from the Goddess of Weaving."
"My mistake," the Professor said. "And how do you feel, Spider? Are you a plaything of the Gods, abused and mistreated? Or are you the rebellious, prideful child who refuses to acknowledge their gifts?"
"… I think," Ara said, smiling nervously, "that I'm a young woman about to undergo a huge change in my life, who's feeling freaking terrified right now and just want it to be over with."
"A good answer," the Professor said. "Come."
He opened the other door and led her into the next room: a massive cave, cool and damp, with a broad, flat floor of polished stone. A small army of masons had spent many days carving a precise shape into the granite floor: it hurt her eyes to look at, consisting as it did of circles within circles within loops and angles. It had to be nearly twenty meters in diameter.
Guggenheim stood at the edge of the circle, holding a small anvil under one arm as if it were a basketball. He wore his belt of tools around his waist, including the heavy hammer she remembered so well. Lydia stood next to him, holding the silver-and-glass chalice in her hands: it looked beautiful, the expertly crafted ivy and vines in pure silver wrapping around and embracing the cheap glass. There was a small parade of other assistants here too, carrying a ewer of water, a small basin, and a tray of small knives and other tools.
All of them were dressed in black robes with red cords around their waist. And as she watched, two assistants stepped forward with a set of robes for the Professor as well. He held out his arms as they helped him into the heavy black garments and tied the red cincture around his waist. One of them passed him a staff: it looked odd, carved in a strange shape, and she realized that it had been crafted from the stock of an old rifle, reshaped to form the upper half of an ornately decorated staff.
The Professor turned to the other end of the room, where a number of persons stood around a set of complicated equipment. Another small group sat on folding chairs in the shadows. "The Working," he said, "will take place in three phases. The first is medical. The subject will be examined medically, and some final preparations will be made. The second is symbolic. A series of rituals will be carried out symbolic of the change, in order to set the lines of the working in the minds of the participants. The final stage of the Working is the precise application of several bursts of carefully targeted Aspect Radiation. For the safety of all observers and participants, we request that you remain behind the yellow line marked on the floor. Any attempt to cross the yellow line will result in immediate physical restraint."
He turned to a couple of white-coated doctors and nodded to them. Ara was led behind a curtain, where a couple of doctors performed one last physical check, took one last blood sample, patted her on the shoulder and wished her luck.
Then someone handed her the sword, wrapped in silk cloth, and stood her in line just in front of the Professor, and the entire procession walked in very slowly, at a measured pace.
She would never again be able to remember exactly how it happened. It was taped, of course, and she would later be able to watch from an outsider's perspective exactly how it all took place. But personally… she didn't remember much of anything.
There was a slow procession around the entire circle, seven times clockwise. Water was poured into a basin and poured over her head. The sword was waved over her body in a series of precise movements. She was given the sword back and told to press it to her forehead and chest while the Professor said a lot of things in Latin. The staff was pressed against her back and someone said something very loudly in Greek before striking her once, sharply, across the shoulders.
There was a black cat, the Professor's familiar, who walked between her feet seven times, halting at the left foot. The sword was taken from her, and Guggenheim broke it over his anvil with one powerful swing of his hammer. The silicone model of her future self was brought out, and she was made to embrace it seven times. A small cut was made on her upper thigh. A drop of the blood was mixed with water in the chalice and she was made to drink it. Two more drops were smeared across her face and that of the doll.
Then the Professor took a small pot of silver paint and a stylus and drew a series of symbols all over her skin and that of the doll. Everyone else was led out of the circle as a small pump filled the channels with a liquid that made her eyes water.
And then she lay in the center of the circle, her right hand holding the cold, clammy hand of the silicone doll that they had made, while a black cat sat between the two of them, unblinkingly staring at the Professor's eyes.
There was a low whumph, and the gasoline that had filled the channels of the circle was ignited. Flames rose up all around her in a precise pattern, illuminating the chamber in a lurid red light.
Purple electricity leaped between the points of the stalactites overhead and she felt herself plummet into the heart of the world.
She opened her eyes again and looked up into the face of the Professor. He was smiling down at her.
"How do you feel?" he asked.
"… I hurt," Ara whimpered. And she did. Her entire body felt like it was aching horribly. Her eyes were dry, her throat was dry, she was desperately hungry. She prised her left hand free of the grip of the silicone doll and rubbed her eyes.
She missed and touched her nose instead. It felt… odd. Strange.
She turned to her left… and she saw something there crumbling into ash and dust. Something that looked very much like the body of the man she used to see in the mirror.
Then the doctors came and swarmed over her, and one of them put a rubber breath mask over her face and she closed her eyes and passed out.
She awoke to find herself lying on soft sheets, wearing a thin hospital gown, in a darkened room that beeped.
She very much had to pee.
She crawled out of the bed, but was brought up short by something hooked up to her arm. She dragged the IV along with her into the bathroom, pulled up her gown, sat down on the seat.
It felt strange… like it was coming from the wrong places, and that this muscle felt wrong, and this place was off, and this entire thing…
The realization of what was going on hit her, and she felt the tears rise up in her eyes. She gingerly reached down with the toilet paper to wipe herself off, and felt her fingertips press against her body.
It was a good hour before she could finish sobbing, and when she did, she rose up on unsteady feet, flushed the toilet, and turned on the lights. She turned to the bathroom mirror, and saw herself looking back.
She reached out a hand and felt her fingertips press against the silvered glass, and smiled.
"Well, Spider," the Professor said, snapping the clipboard closed. "According to this, you're a completely healthy young woman."
"I knew that already. I could have told you that the first night."
"Yes," the Professor said. "But this was a medical report from an outside doctor. So I guess this means that our experiment was a success." He leaned back in his chair and gave her a wry smile. "How did you like your first period?"
"It fucking sucked," Ara laughed ruefully. "I admit there was a moment, in the middle of the cramps and bloating and having what felt like half my uterus flowing out of me, that I felt like a fucking idiot for agreeing to all this."
"And the other?"
"… well, it seems functional, if that's what you're asking," Ara said, blushing. "But I haven't tried it with anyone else yet. I didn't exactly have a great time the first time I lost my virginity. I think I'm going to use the weight of experience for my second time around."
"Good on you, then." The Professor snapped his clipboard shut and got to his feet. "Well, then, Spider. I'll be seeing you around."
He got up and helped her into her coat, and locked his office door behind him. "Oh, before I forget," he said, handing her a gift bag. "This is a memento. From two new friends."
Spider waited until she was back in her dorm room to open up the gift bag and take out the contents. One of them was a glass chalice with a silver stand. The other was a broken sword mounted on a wooden plaque.
She leaned the plaque up against the wall, behind her desk, and put the chalice on her nightstand. She'd have to find a case for them, she decided, when she had a moment.
Then she changed into her pajamas and lay down on her bed, looking up through the skylight into the stars. She stayed there for a long, long time, until the blackness turned into the grey of twilight, and finally into the morning blue.