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A Dragon in Two Parts
By Kiya Nicoll
“‘Shed your skin and spread your wings to fly’,” I read off the sign. The letters were done in a sort of swooshy font and punctuated by yellow and blue yin-yangy things at either end. “I’m not sure I’m comfortable getting a biorefurbishment from someplace that mixes their metaphors quite that hard.”
“C’mon, they’re a bit woowoo, but from everything I’ve read, they’re hands down the best.” Alice tugged at my hand. “At least go to an info session or something.”
“‘A bit woowoo’ isn’t promising either.”
Nonetheless I let her drag me through the doors and around to the brochures and past several rounds of smiling people who left me with the impression that I was dealing with something more like a cult than a medical practice.
We went to lunch afterwards, at a cafe that had cute little sandwiches and something like forty different ways of brewing coffee only three of which were drinkable. I dunked pastry into my mocha and peered at her across the table.
Eventually she bubbled over. “What’d you think? Of Chrysalis?”
“Didn’t it seem creepy to you?”
“Didn’t it? All those… I don’t know, Stepford smiles.”
She rolled her eyes heavenwards. “Have you ever considered that sometimes people are just happy?”
“Sam,” she said again, this time scolding.
“Alice,” I echoed back at her, mimicking her tone.
“What was it you told me that ‘dysphoria’ meant, etymologically?”
“Something that cannot be carried. Cannot be borne.” I stared gloomily into the coffee cup. “What if it doesn’t work?”
“What do you mean, what if it doesn’t work? That’s what they do.”
I rubbed my arms, which did not have enough hair on them to ruffle properly. “I mean, what if what’s wrong with me can’t be fixed? What if I’m just that shit a human?”
“It’d still be better, wouldn’t it? It would have to be. At least read the brochures?”
“Why are you so fixed on this?”
“Because you’re miserable,” she said, with a rather uncharacteristic bluntness that made me look up at her. “It’s not just the autoimmune fuckery, I can tell.”
“I can’t.” I leaned back and picked up the coffee, warming my hands against it. “It warps things. If I tried my immune system for treason, had it executed, and got a new one installed, how awful would it be if I still hated my life?”
Alice sighed. I had noticed that she did a lot of that, lately, and the shaking her head that came after. “Just read the brochures, okay?”
So I read the brochures, and I watched the video she linked me to, though that made me bang on the door of her room to tell her it was transcendentalist bullshit and I was having none of it.
“Did you watch this thing?”
“Yeah?” she said. “At least the beginning.”
“People aren’t like that. There’s no higher calling. There’s no deeper meaning. There’s no true mark of identity that should be manifested, or whatever that was about. Have you met people? They’re awful. I’m ashamed to be one.”
“Sam,” she said.
I would’ve slammed the door in frustration but she had shoved her foot in the way.
“It cannot be carried,” she said, and then stepped back so I could yank the door closed. It was less satisfying than I had hoped it would be.
After that, she stopped nudging me about it, which made her easier to live with. She didn’t bring it up even when the pain got worse, when my hands spasmed into useless claws and had be coaxed back into function. She didn’t have to, though; I kept thinking about that open lobby with the smiling people in it and how strange and brainwashed they all seemed.
Why, I kept wondering, did they keep smiling like that.
My hands were mostly working but my hip was not, the day I found myself staring at the knife block and wondering what it would feel like, how it would compare to the normal pain. I edged away from the kitchen and ordered a pizza and rubbed my hands, not knowing if I was trying to distract myself by fidgeting or work out some of the ache. Bodies, I thought then as I often did, were such an inconvenience.
Biorefurbishment was solved, more or less, but nobody had managed to crack the brain-computer barrier and upload themselves. I thought, not for the first time, that that would be the best of all possible worlds. No pain. No hormones. No immune system nonsense. Just pure existence.
I went on a date, to the same fancy coffeehouse. “Where do you see yourself in five years?” he asked.
When I said, “I really don’t, to be honest,” he frowned and looked away. We split the tab and went our separate ways, and I found myself standing outside the office building full of smiling zombies and grinding the ball of my thumb into my palm hard enough to hurt.
I went in.
One of them greeted me with a chipper smile and I said, “Hi,” awkwardly, before adding, “I was in here a, a while ago with a friend, and I thought I’d come back for more information?”
“Of course!” he chirped. It was very strange to hear something so bright and birdlike from a big tattooed man like that, though I supposed that was what I got for assuming that that sort of perky was necessarily tiny and blond like Alice. Or it was more evidence that this place was a cult. “Would you like a session with a human guide or an informational AI?”
‘Guide’ sounded creepy. “The AI, I guess.”
“No problem!” His hand passed over a control panel, flicked, shifted; it was some fancy gestural system, and I could be distracted by the tech. He spotted me and grinned. “Neat, huh? All I have to do is,” he twitched two fingers slightly, “and it pops up a new patient database. This,” he shifted his hand, “gives me the schedule for the holographic chambers. We have an opening tomorrow at two, can you make that? I know it’s an inconvenient time.”
“Tomorrow at two would be fine, actually.”
“If I could see your ID to lock in the reservation?”
I rummaged and handed it over. “I assume you use the holograms for something other than convincing newbies to sign up.”
He scanned the card and handed it back. “Oh, they’re part of the intake system. We have people go through a bunch of scenarios to test out how they’d like to respond, to react to situations. It’s very, what’s the word, ecological.”
It was a strange word to choose, but I almost thought I knew what he meant by it. “Huh,” I said. “That’s interesting.”
“So… Samantha, is it?”
“Oh, sorry.” He gestured, typed something in, presumably so the AI knew what to call me. “Are you interested in a transition-related bioformat, then? We have an expedited process for gender affirmation.”
“What? No.” I waved my hands at him. “Not what I’m looking for.”
He cocked his head to one side. “No worries if that’s not your deal,” he chirped. “We just understand that alleviating dysphoria can be lifesaving.”
“Yeah,” I said, and put the card away again. I was relieved he didn’t do anything more than collect the rest of the information he needed, get me to fill out a short questionnaire, and hand me a business card with the time of my appointment on it. I glanced at it before tucking it away, and this time I noticed that the weird yin-yang was actually a yellow snake intertwined with a blue bird, maybe a hawk, though it had a neck like a stork. The two animals’ heads made the little dots in the other side’s color.
When I got back to the apartment, Alice was home already. “How was your date?”
“What, again? One of these days you really have to manage to get to two.”
“I think I’m just too nihilistic. And anyway I’ve got doctor’s appointments all day tomorrow.”
“One of these things is not like the others,” she pointed out. “Do you need a lift?”
“Nah, I can take the bus, I’m not entirely an invalid.”
“Something new in the afternoon? I thought you just had endocrinology and the PT.”
I shrugged. “Really busy day, I guess.”
“Well, lemme know if you need anything.” She wandered off, humming cheerfully. I wondered how she could manage it, the cheerfulness. I couldn’t tell if it was a defect in her character or mine, that she could live in the world and hum like that, and I was stuck with grim realities of being human.
Those grim realities meant blood tests in the morning, and then the regular appointment with the torturer who was supposed to be fixing something which wasn’t entirely explained and wasn’t working anyway. I did not stop at the fancy coffee shop for lunch, because I wanted real food in reasonable quantities; instead I found a set of food trucks and got a giant order of tteokbokki from one and a dish of ravioli in cheese sauce from another. Thus supplied, I went to eat my starchy bounty in a small park and sprawl in the sun like a lazy, replete reptile.
By the time I arrived for my appointment, my mood had upgraded to a sort of benevolent misanthropy. I checked in without incident. One of the cheerful people guided me around to a small room with a single chair in it and said, “Take your time.” She entered a code into the keypad by the door and gently closed it. I listened for the sound of a lock but there was nothing.
The lights flickered minutely, and a second chair seemed to pop into being, occupied by a hologram of a Latina woman wearing a sharp dark blue suit, her hair in a neat bun, her glasses nudged a little down her nose.
I blinked at her.
She smiled, with another little holographic glitch. “Good afternoon, Sam.” Her voice was a pleasant alto.
“You’re not what I expected.”
She continued to smile, but not unnaturally; the generation of expressions was pretty good, actually. “We’ve found that most people respond well to a female avatar with a deeper voice, for a mix of approachable and authoritative.”
“Do you say that to all the girls?” The cynicism was reflexive.
She shook her head. “No. But your questionnaire responses indicated that you would prefer an approach that contained no bullshit and straight answers.”
I was genuinely startled by the vulgarity; she responded to my shock with a little smile. “It is a pleasant diversion from the newcomers who prefer a more touchy-feely approach. Shall we begin?”
She won herself a smile. “Sure.”
That fancy yin-yang appeared between us, the snake bottom half looped up in the stork/hawk top. “Here at Chrysalis we are dedicated to bringing the material form,” the snake pulsed with iridescence, “into alignment with the – some people prefer to call it spiritual form or inner self, but I suspect you would prefer other terminology, wouldn’t you?”
The bird flickered this time, and the AI lady said, “The intellect,” without seeming to have any hesitation about it. “Our techniques do not have direct effects on cognition, save those that follow from the natural responses to the shifts in the body.”
“The guy at the counter mentioned transition. What else do you do, fix disabled people to be normal?” Being angry at the hologram would do no good, but I was angry anyway.
“We help people come into alignment with their true sense of self,” she replied, implacable. “Would you like to see some images of past clients? We collect before and after from people who have signed a release form.”
“Sure,” I said.
A holographic book materialized on a little stand between us, and I brushed my fingers over it to open it, turning pages. Here a transition, there a breast resize, one obvious furry having the time of their life with swivelable ears, and then I stopped. The left page was a woman in a wheelchair, drawn and worn; the right, the same woman, the same wheelchair, flexing one arm to show off her more developed biceps, which had been adorned with a swirl of eyecatching color, tracing out the lines of musculature like she had been drawn in a superhero comic.
“As you see,” said the AI.
“You didn’t make her walk.”
“We are not changing people. We are bringing them into alignment.” The AI gestured. “She was cured of her problem, as it happens.”
“She felt that her strength development was inadequate for the things she wanted to do, despite her training and the regular exercise she got from her chair, so she corrected that. She competes, now, in races, in the enhanced leagues, and does quite well even against those whose strength is partially cybernetic.”
I turned the page. The images seemed identical in appearance – a man in dark glasses, wearing a snappy white suit, looking like he was just on his way to see a cricket match. In the second shot, he was smiling. The AI did not appear to have disclosure permission for him, so I continued on. Grumpy face, happy face, checked-out face, vibrant face. I paused for a moment over a rather ordinary face that became entirely grotesque, but the fanged grin was luminous with pleasure.
“We don’t judge. We bring people into alignment.”
“You keep saying that. The alignment thing. It doesn’t mean anything.” I flicked the holobook closed and leaned back in the chair, folding my arms.
“Every person has an idealized self-image,” she replied, where a real person would have had to pause to gather thoughts and come up with the correct thing to say. “A sense of self. Many people feel that their physical forms in some way fall short.”
“The grim reality of being made out of meat,” I snapped. “Look, if you’ve got some sort of escaping the chains of the material thing going on here, I am all for that. Physical reality suck,s and I wish I could have my life without having to deal with it, but-”
“But you are correct, we do not do that. We can only reshape the physical form to render it closer to congruent with the sense of self.”
“And what if you get it wrong?”
“We endeavor not to.” She seemed to take a breath, which was irritatingly fictitious of her. “Our intake process for most patients includes extensive profiles and explorations of holographic scenarios designed and refined to map the mind’s desires on multiple levels, including teasing out unarticulated desires. These can be refined and checked against increasingly customized scenes, until we are confident that the algorithms will produce a satisfactory match.”
“Most patients? What are your exceptions?”
“Many gender confirmation cases. Chronic pain leading to suicidal ideation. Life-threatening conditions. For these cases we offer a palliatory treatment with the option of pursuing a more customized biorefurbishment once the most critical concerns are addressed.”
“When the circumstances are unbearable,” I said.
“Exactly. Concern for the well-being of our patients is paramount.”
“Neat trick,” I muttered, and the AI politely did not acknowledge it. “What about people whose idealized self-images are fucked up?”
“We do not offer psychological services,” she said, quite prim. “Our algorithms have a number of safeguards to ensure that nobody takes on a modification that is incompatible with survival. There are limits to the physical changes that are possible. The only successful limb additions we have managed have been tails, deriving from modifications to the coccyx. In addition, we have chosen to exclude certain options to remain in accord with our ethical vision.”
“I thought you said you don’t judge.”
“We do not judge, but that does not mean we consent to turning you into a goat.”
I spluttered. “Has that sort of thing happened?”
She did not offer anything further, and I waited long enough to feel awkward, before saying, “How does this holographic scenario thing work?”
“We begin with some questionnaires to determine your conscious goals for a biorefurbishment – beauty, strength, flexibility are common, along with treatment programs for conditions otherwise rectified through surgery or long-term medication. Using those as a baseline, we present scenarios and record reactions to those scenarios; at the patient’s option these scenarios can be enhanced with the use of hallucinogenic treatments to reduce the barriers between reality and the idealized self.”
“Isn’t that dangerous?”
“The option is not offered to clients with a medical history indicating that such usage is likely to have adverse effects, and we of course monitor our recording sessions extensively.”
“Can I see an example of one of these scenarios?”
The AI paused, and I got the impression she was checking in with some human decisionmaker. “You have not provided any background consultation to develop a scenario, nor releases for recording. I can offer you an non-customized experience.”
“I’d like that, yes.”
“May I have your binding verbal assent to record the following session so that its data is available in the event that you become one of our patients?”
I had to think about that, turning the implications over in my head. They didn’t have any brain scanning equipment on hand, at least. Eventually I said, “Yeah, fine.”
“Thank you. I will dematerialize my visible form for the duration. If at any point you wish to end the scenario, you merely need to say so.”
“Any specific safeword or something?”
“Not necessary in this circumstance.” She and her chair flickered and vanished, and her disembodied voice said, “Please stand so that we can safely clear the chair.”
As I stood, the chair slid back, and then the room flickered and changed. I went still, wondering how much of the apparent furnishing had been an illusion that I had not spotted, then took a moment to take in what had replaced it. It seemed to be a rather bland and featureless lobby, white walls, no front desk, several pedestals with art on them – a double-handled vase here, a reclining woman there, all of them a brownish black that made the whole room an overwhelming monochrome.
I paused for a moment to look at a black feathered mask before peering through the several doorways. The first one had a little tea shop that was so very like the coffee place that I had to laugh and move on, utterly untempted by ogling illusory dainties. The second, an art gallery, had actual color, but I moved past that too, stopping at a third, a path that wound down into a garden. I chose that one, following the paths that seemed most interesting, until I found myself exploring a lush wilderness and making my way towards the sound of a waterfall. It was vivid enough that I was slightly startled that brushing my hand through the spray did not leave me damp.
“If I’d gone through the art gallery,” I addressed the invisible presence, “it’d have brought me through to things that I actually liked eventually, right?”
“That is part of the function of the algorithm. Ideally we would start with some knowledge to make the process more targeted and efficient.”
“Thank you. This has been very informative. I think I’m done now.”
The jungle vanished and I found that I had not ventured more than five feet from where the chair had been, which left me staring at the floor and wondering how it worked.
“Do you have any other questions?”
“Not right now, thank you.”
“A human will be here in just a moment to make certain you don’t get lost on the way out.”
“Thank you.” The human arrived perhaps thirty seconds later and brought me out, and I took a moment to lean on the counter and ask her about the fuss of payments and expectations and what I would need to know, collecting a new run of pamphlets and eventually going home.
“How was your day of doctors?” Alice asked.
“Considering a new therapy. It’s only ten a session. Twice a week max.”
“Weirdly affordable. Do you think it might help?”
“In the long term? Maybe.”
“How long do you have to try before you know?”
I shrugged. “I think it’ll be more fun than PT, maybe.”
“Worth a try, then. You need more fun.”
“More fun than PT’s not a high bar,” I pointed out, and she laughed.
I wondered if I should have told her it was the Chrysalis thing, but I wasn’t sure how she would take being right, so I didn’t.
When I went back, there were questionnaires, detailed ones, some of them like those personality tests that cults do, others asking what I was looking for in a biorefurbishment. I could answer the ones about pain, at least. I read a booklet titled “Serpent,” in a quiet waiting room, rolling my eyes at the parts Alice would probably call ‘woowoo’, but thinking about it afterwards, I could not shake the impression that it had a point, and further, a point that left me questioning my vague brain in a box ambitions.
“Which program would you like to run today?” said the docent. They called them docents, as if these little experiences were part of a museum tour.
I tapped the book against my hand. “This was talking about – this is going to sound stupid.”
“I don’t think it will.”
I wanted to reassure myself that his smile was vapid, but it wasn’t.
“It talks about this, um, dissociation that lots of people have with the serpent stuff, the physical, the passionate, the visceral. That these are things that are, um.”
“Demeaned. People who work with their hands rather than in an office. Women’s physicality used as a weapon against them. Can’t you be rational.” He smirked, waved a hand. “Yeah, all of that. I got it a lot when I was younger, ‘cos I’m gay.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’d try to paint it as an obsession with sex, rather than the supposedly higher and more noble pure love, you know? Respectability depends on divorcing from the body. It’s some fucked up shit.” It was rather more casual and human than most of the people here had tended to be, and I wondered if the AI had recommended a docent who would say ‘shit’ to me. “So you’re dealing with that? It’s a heavy load.”
“I,” I stopped. “Long story short, getting the fuck out of my body has a lot of appeal to me, and I think I have to see if I want to get over that, if I’m going to get anywhere.”
“Gotcha. I know just the thing.” He punched a code into a keypad, checked his notes. “I see you’ve been cleared for psychoactive support. This one’s got a strong recommend. I wouldn’t usually do that for a first timer but if you want to tackle the body stuff right away….”
“Might as well do it properly.”
So there was a polite ritual of swabbing down my arm and giving me a little injection, and the door flickered lights to say it was ready, and I stepped into a dark room full of stars.
“Shout out if it goes weird,” he said, and closed the door, leaving me floating in space.
I walked among planets, entirely bemused at crossing solar systems with the strides of a god, and after a while, reached out to flick the rings of Saturn with the tips of my fingers.
The planet rang like a bell, the sound humming against my skin, making me catch my breath. Entranced, I flicked it again, then rang the gong of Jupiter, the bass vibrating my breastbone like a rock concert. It almost didn’t matter that my fingers passed through the holograms, everything responded so intensely, asteroids chiming, comets singing like the high notes of a violin. Rather than walk, I jumped. I bounced off Mars and spun across the surface of the sun, ducking through prominences and feeling heat rising up my legs.
Eventually I collapsed on the floor in the center of the room, caught between laughter and the pain of my efforts, tears running down my cheeks. When I had recovered enough to speak, I gasped out, “End program,” and the docent came in to help me up.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Hurts like motherfuck,” I said, and slumped into a chair.
“That’s why you want out, huh?”
He nodded, sympathetic, but not pressing, and settled down to be amiable company until I left.
I went back. One session without the enhancements, one with, all according to the rules. Sometimes I finished a session sobbing on the floor from the pain, or from the whatever I’d been through. I wandered jungles, pouncing on tiny purple lizards, wove beams of light into tapestries, and answered weirder questions from the algorithms: I preferred rivers to oceans. I hated lima beans. If I had a superpower, I wanted to fly.
Then, sometimes, in the hologram rooms, I could fly, adjusting my hands to bank and swoop, arching my back, curling through space. I had no idea what data they thought they were getting, but I was happy enough to have the experience. Alice commented on how the new therapy was obviously helping.
Then the letter came, the one that told me they had enough data for the attempt. She saw the blue and yellow logo on the envelope as she handed me my mail, arched her eyebrows, and smiled. I didn’t know what to say, so I just ducked my head and read it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I pushed the letter across for her to read.
“Oh, that’s great, you can do it now!”
“I don’t know what it will do to me. And I’m liking training the AI.”
“Do you want me to come with you when you sign the forms?”
“…Yeah. Yeah, I do. Thanks.”
There were consent forms and small print, and I read them all, all the details, and checkboxes and places to sign, and at one point my pen hovered over a page, and Alice said, “Sam?”
“I don’t know what to say.” There were options, constraints to put on the system, and as best I could tell, the options were human, human-passing, and anything goes. Within their ethical limits, presumably.
“You always say you’re only passing for human anyway,” she said, after a moment.
“You’re right,” I said, and ticked that box.
Eventually, they took the papers away, and I sat with Alice until they came back with one last form. It had a date on it, and a time estimate, and a place for a signature. Two days from now and an estimated procedure time of three and a half days.
I signed it, and was surprised by my lack of hesitation, and flexed my hands to try to clear the stiffness. Alice took me to lunch, to a place with real food.
On the day of my appointment, I arrived early. The docent who had been there with me at the beginning stopped by to shake my hand, and then it was doctors double checking my medication contraindications, telling me I needed to strip down and get in the chamber, and going off to give me privacy.
The chrysalis chamber was like a cross between an egg and a hammock, and I curled into it and relaxed. Another zero-g tank. Another hallucination. Just another day at the office. They hooked up the IV, closed the door, and my mind flooded with light and pain and ecstasy. I remember waking up, thinking I was stone sober, floating in space, and reaching one hand up to try to pluck Saturn’s rings, before falling back into sleep.
They decanted me into a pool, and I woke up for real, stretching, trying to blink the sleep out of my eyes and figure out why on earth I didn’t hurt. There was a bruise on my arm from the IV, and I ran my fingers over it, rumpling the soft downy fur there, poking it to prove I could still feel pain if I wanted. I’d always liked a nicely furred forearm on a man, I thought hazily.
Then it occurred to me that I was naked, and I smoothed my hands down my chest, feeling out the spot where the flesh turned into scales, black scales with an iridescent sheen to them, smooth and supple and curving out over a hip I could still prop a crate on if I wanted. I ducked under the water, swam a little to clear my head, surfaced again, and looked at my hands, my broad, strong hands, that bent and unbent with ease, each tipped with a wicked little claw that extended and retracted like a cat’s.
The scales faded out again at my knees, and my shins were covered in downy, feathery fur, entirely pettable. I flicked my tail out of the way, then was distracted by the fact that I had one, long and scaled and mobile. It made me grin.
I pushed out of the pool and twined my tail around one leg to keep it out of the way. There was a mirror to one side, and I peered into it.
It was my face, but sharpened, realer. My hair had expanded into a feathery mane that spread back onto my shoulders, and I could feel two little nubs of horns almost entirely concealed within it. My eyes had gone from brown to a sort of deep, rich gold, and nothing hurt.
“I don’t have to carry it anymore,” I said to nobody in particular.
I could not remember how to stop smiling. Nothing hurt, and I was beautiful, and alien, and fierce.
About the Author
Kiya Nicoll is a writer, poet, and artist living in a New England oak grove. They dabble in a wide variety of assorted obsessions when permitted to do so by the children, the cats, and the limitations of physical embodiment.
About the Narrator
Lalana Dara is Thai American, was born in New York, and spent 20+ years in life sciences and information technology.
She is a gamer girl, a foodie, and a wanderer. Usually not lost. Lalana is also known as Piper J. Drake, bestselling author of romantic suspense, paranormal romance, science fiction, and fantasy.