Escape Pod 823: Build-A-Body
By Avi Burton
When I was eighteen, I ordered a body off the internet. It was actually kind of easy.
I was old enough to remember when the first successful human transfer was performed— the consciousness of a paralyzed young man was dropped into a lab-grown body, appropriately nicknamed ‘Adam’. Scientists thought it would change the world. Politicians and preachers thought it would end the world. For a while, every pundit and their mother were convinced that we’d be walking around with chips in our brains, swapping bodies left and right. But as it turned out (as it almost always turns out), the reality was much more mundane. Full-body transference was limited to extreme medical cases and the occasional desperate celebrity. The world’s governments stuck enough red tape on it to dye the whole operation a bloody mess, and most people left well enough alone.
Theoretically, for transgender people with severe dysphoria, full-body transference was an option. There was a waitlist and everything. I’d been on it for eighteen months, trying to get a consultation. With my day job at the DMV, I was intimately familiar with the aching slog of bureaucracy, and had long since given up on making progress with transitioning, full-body or not.
Besides, I told myself, I didn’t really need it. I wasn’t one of those people who knew exactly what they should be and what surgeries were needed to achieve it. I pinched the skin of my wrist, trying to picture myself as anything else: Breasts, no breasts, penis, no penis, vagina, no vagina, body stretched and scarred and serrated into something new. Nothing shifted, nothing felt right. I was an alien in my imagined skin, no matter the accessories.
Maybe I didn’t want a body at all. Maybe I wanted a lack of one. In my dreams, I was always flying. Weightless, looking down on the city, invisible to everyone else.
I resigned myself to another eighteen months on the waitlist, and put the matter out of my mind.
Two days after I’d accepted defeat, an ad crept through my malware blockers long enough to flare a brilliant violet at the bottom of my screen. It contained two things: simple, bolded text, and an arrow pointing to a link.
BUILD A GENDER: CLICK BELOW. DELIVERY WITHIN 7 DAYS.
I knew it was spam at best, black-market bullshit at worst. But something about the plain, unvarnished words drew me in. It had to be some sort of scam, because legitimate revenue was limited—almost nobody was desperate enough to permanently remake their entire body. (In the early days of body transference, the New York Times had released a poll saying that most people would swap out just one body part, if they had the option. I agreed, but I didn’t know which part.)
The ad was vague, and didn’t do much to compel me to buy its product, which, ironically, made me want to click more. There wasn’t a price or process listed. Just nine words, as if the makers of the ad were utterly confident I would click it.
They were right.
The ad led me to an anonymous online form in the same plain, sans-serif font. There wasn’t a website or catalogue of body modification options, like I’d been expecting. My cursor hovered over the X button, but I didn’t close the tab. Some quiet traitorous part of me thought, what if it’s real? What if this gives me a body that fits?
All I wanted was to like myself. I wanted to look in the mirror and smile at what I saw. I wanted to know that I was right, that this body was right, that the world would see me as right. (Whatever “right” meant, anyway.) I couldn’t pass up this chance to change.
I gave the form a fake name—I only went by the shortened version of my legal one, anyway— and a friend’s P.O box. I was still convinced the site was spam, but enough doubt slipped in that I didn’t put in entirely false information. I put in my real age and assigned gender at birth. I figured it would be difficult to doxx me from just that information, and if my laptop was going to get hacked, then clicking on the link had been enough to damn me. I pushed onward.
The next page had only one question.
Please select your gender:
- a fog on a beach at dawn, mist curling through slate-colored waves
- the hooded figure that grins with sharp teeth in your dreams
- a golden, bloodied throne, riotous and gleaming
- the smell of wheatgrass
I stared at the text, cursor wavering. Yes, I thought for each option. No. Not quite. None of the answers were exactly right. Was this a joke? It didn’t feel like one—there should have been a punchline in there somewhere. The wording reminded me vaguely of what some of my trans friends had told me, half-laughing: That knife is so gender. My gender is Link from Legend of Zelda.
They were kidding, for the most part, but something underneath their words had a bite of truth to it. Gender, for them—for me, too, though I didn’t count myself in the same category, necessarily—wasn’t anything as easily defined as M or F. It was a carefully calculated performance and a gutting reveal at the same time. For them, at least, those who could revel in it. For me, it was more like a weighted blanket I couldn’t remove.
In the end, I selected the box marked Other and left the fill-in field blank.
That was the final question. A loading screen rolled by, then filled with blueish text: Thank you. Your order has been placed. You will be billed when it is built. Returns are free within thirty days.
I hadn’t considered the cost—I still couldn’t quite believe this was real. I powered down my laptop with a sensation of tenuous relief. I told myself I didn’t believe anything would happen, but hope ached like an old wound regardless.
That night, I dreamed of flying again.
The package arrived a week later. It was bulky—roughly the size and shape of a mini-fridge—but surprisingly light. Had the manufacturers short-changed me? Given me a child’s body or half a torso or nothing at all? Anxiety fluttered in my chest as I examined the box. The packaging was professionally plain, and there was no return address. The sender was marked as ‘Shelley Services’. I felt silly for having gone through all the trouble to hide it, especially since the street was empty as I loaded it into the back of my car and drove back to my dorm.
Once my door was safely locked, I set the package on my desk and paced around it, chewing my nails bloody. My body was cold and trembling, as if it sensed its impending obsolescence. I couldn’t bring myself to open the box. The scissors quivered in my hand.
Stupid, I told myself. Just toss it, if you’re so scared. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that, either. The box and I sat in a restless stalemate—it inanimate and plain, me jittering in place.
What was I afraid of? That it would all be some sort of cruel prank—or worse, that it would be real? It couldn’t possibly be real. That wasn’t how this worked. It felt like a fairy tale, and in those stories there was always some trick to the fae bargain, some painful loophole that resulted in suffering. I preferred fiction to the gruesome news stories, though, because at least in fables, the bargainers asked for their fates.
I brought the scissors down in one decisive slice, like a surgeon making the first incision. I tore the box open.
There was nothing inside.
At least, not at first glance.
I stuck my hand in the box and gripped fabric, gauzy and translucent. I pulled out a drape of cloth—shapeless—that shimmered in the light, barely visible. Confusion shifted in my stomach. If this was a joke, the punchline was too obscure for me to understand.
I pawed through the box for any context, any clue, and only came up with a crisp receipt: Shelley Services’ patented nanotechnology ensures you will get exactly what you need. May require some modification.
I stared down at the fabric, breathing hard. Hope and disappointment rose and fell in my chest all at once. There’s nothing to lose, I told myself. Here, alone, in my home, I would feel awkward and strange in my bones, but at least there were no prying eyes to judge me.
I stuffed the cloak over my head. It clung to me like another layer of skin. I pinched the fabric, watched it drift back into place.
Then I went to a mirror.
Shit, I thought, I look ridiculous. Nothing about me had changed. My dysphoria wasn’t magically cured. I was just a person wearing a glittery cloak that could have belonged in any four-year-old’s wardrobe.
But—it was comfortable. And I’d stopped caring long ago about my appearance, because I knew that no matter how objectively good-looking I might have been that day, I still wouldn’t appear to strangers the way I wanted to be seen. I’d still get put into a box of boy or girl. At least the cloak obscured some of that. I’d rather have been an ugly whatever-I-was than a hyper-gendered supermodel.
Annoyed at some unknown higher power for gifting the cloak to me, and even more annoyed at myself for following along, I headed out.
Something was strange when I left my apartment. I couldn’t place it, at first, but I knew that something had shifted. A sudden burst of cold wind. A sense of dizzying disorientation that trailed me as I left the steps of my apartment building. Faint nausea in the pit of my stomach. And yet the only tangible change was the cloak—and the fact that people kept bumping into me.
Jesus, I thought, weaving out of the way of people hurrying down the sidewalk, there must be a convention for clumsy people happening nearby. But after the fourth sorry-I-didn’t-see-you-there shuffle, I could no longer ignore what was happening. This wasn’t a coincidence.
As a test, I leaned against the brick wall of a building and stuck my hand out. Three people looking straight ahead smacked into it.
I looked down at my body. I was invisible.
The cloak shifted colors to match whatever I passed, an ever-adapting camouflage. Custom nanotechnology, goddamn. It didn’t render me completely unseen, but it was close enough. No one gave me a second glance as I drifted down the street. A smile split my face.
I stood in the middle of the street and waved my hands. No one saw. No one cared. My sleeves changed colors to match the shifting of clouds over the autumn sun. Wind brushed my skin, and I imagined I was flying.
Unfortunately, being invisible got old really fucking fast. Constantly being collided with was irritating enough, but the way people seemed to look through me was worse. Their gaze focused for a moment, then slipped, as if I were a glitch—an optical illusion that could be blinked away. I hated the sensation of impermanence.
I learned the hard way that I didn’t really want to be invisible. I wanted to be seen as I was. Even if I still hadn’t figured out what I was. Even if I was beginning to worry I would never know.
I stuffed the cloak away in a dusty back drawer and forgot about it for a few months. Winter drew in, a blissful escape into the world of bulky parkas and obscuring scarves. I loved the guesswork of anonymity the weather provided. Was that a boy, girl, or Abominable Snowman approaching me on the street? Who cared? All that mattered was getting out of the cold as quickly as possible.
The season was bitter—one of the worst winters on record for my county. I passed through the months like a ghost, haunting my apartment, taking refuge in online chat rooms where people could know me without ever seeing my face. I was still invisible, in a way, but it was better than nothing.
Then winter passed, as it always did. The ice cracked into fractals and slipped away down the drain. The cold surrendered to the lukewarm marsh of spring, and I realized I had grown a full two inches during the dark, frigid season. None of my clothes fit me right (not that they had, to begin with, because right would imply they made me look the way I wanted to appear).
I didn’t want to buy a new wardrobe. I scrounged for clothes that might still be wearable, and in the dusty corner of a bottom drawer I found the cloak. It had faded a little bit, but it still shimmered in the light, dully translucent. The fabric was comfortable. If I layered something under it, the technology that powered the cloak might shift to match the color. I chose a dark purple undershirt and set to work.
I wasn’t the best tailor in the world, but I’d had enough practice to be passable. What was left of the cloak rippled under my fingers. I worried briefly that cutting it up would destroy the nanotechnology inside, but decided in a fit of petty vengeance that I didn’t care. It wasn’t like it had helped much, anyway.
The fabric was surprisingly easy to slice through and divide up into parts: front piece, back piece, collar, sleeves. Torso, ribs, arms, waist. It was easier to think of my body in anatomical sections, rather than a whole.
I put on the shirt, felt it shift—adjust to my body, to my perceptions. I rolled my shoulders back, braced myself, and looked in the mirror.
The shirt fit.
It fit in a way that made me look like who I wanted to be. I knew myself—I was the same—but I was different. The shirt rippled in the light, tinted purple. Cutting the cloak had changed it. It didn’t camouflage so much as adapt to what I wanted it to be. When I tugged on the sleeves, they flared out, and stayed flared. When I ran my fingers over the collar, the stitches shifted to a more comfortable fit.
The fabric fell against my chest, but didn’t squeeze it. It made me androgynous but didn’t obscure my entire body, either. For the first time in my life, I looked like who I was—no. I knew who I was. My hands started to shake.
May require some modification, the receipt had said.
I did not look like a man. I did not look like a woman. And I knew, with sudden, deep-set clarity, that no one would mistake me for either.
Joy trembled in my chest, tentative and shy. I pointed at the person in the mirror. They pointed back at me. I winked at myself. I spun around. The shirt flared out as I moved, and I giggled—actually giggled. Shit. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laughed like that.
My foot hit something soft on the floor. I glanced down at the scraps of leftover fabric. I had enough left to make pants.
The ad hadn’t asked me to build a body. It had asked me to build a gender, and gender didn’t demand of me certain genitalia. Other people might want those, but I didn’t. I didn’t need a new body. I didn’t need to be invisible. I just needed better clothes.
I was a boy in a skirt. I was a girl wearing pants. I was both and neither. I was everything and nothing at all. I was flying. I was free.
By Tina Connolly
About this story, Avi says: Gender is not a binary. It’s not really a spectrum, either. A simple sliding scale is far too neat of a model to sum up such a complex, variable, and intimate part of the human experience. Gender is, to use the words of Doctor Who, a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey….stuff.
And about this story, I say: There are so many excellent phrases and insights in this story. The opening line is delightfully hooky: “When I was twenty-one, I ordered a body off the internet.” Then we learn more about what that possibility might specifically mean to our protagonist. They have, in fact been waiting 18 months even for a consultation, and then they try to put the idea aside by reflecting “Besides, I told myself, I didn’t really need it.” You know, not like those other people who need it more, they go onto explain. Those theoretical people who are more sure of who they are and what they want. That poignancy felt very accurate to me both from a queer perspective and from a human perspective. It can be so easy to dismiss some undefinable need that way.
I also really liked the gender quiz, and I felt for the protagonist who couldn’t even sum up their desired gender using ideas like curling mist and wheatgrass. And it makes perfect sense for this particular protagonist and their story arc why they couldn’t at that point. I think the protagonist needed the cloak to provide them with that little bit of camouflage and protection so then, they could have space to just be, without constantly dealing with other people’s perceptions of them. Finally they can grow (two inches!), and change, and be ready to make those modifications themself. They can be “everything and nothing at all.” Free.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please, go forth and share it.
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Now! One of our fabulous ship’s captains, Marguerite, has run the numbers and found some really interesting things. And one super exciting one is that Escape Artists as a whole had FOUR MILLION downloads last year. Over two million of those came directly from Escape Pod. That’s wild, y’all. And awesome.
Which leads me to my next interesting point which is that the percentage of you all wonderful people that donate has risen, which is entirely awesome. The numbers are now hovering somewhere around 4-7% of our audience. And those numbers are great and they also kind of of surprised me cause I thought it might be a little higher than that. And truthfully, we would love to get it a little higher than that. 10% of our audience is our current goal, which would keep allowing us to make more Escape Pod, and also continue to fund and pay all the wonderful amazing people who go into producing this show each week. It feels nice and streamlined at the end but it’s really a lot of people working very hard.
So think about the nice people working very hard, and pick up your phone, and just, you know, say, hey today I’m just gonna check out those links they keep talking about. Just mosey on over to escapepod.org or patreon.com/EAPodcasts (and, I will tell you we also have monthly subscription options available through Ko-fi (koffee? koh-fi? I’ve never actually said it out loud. K,O dash F,I, you know the one), PayPal, and Twitch) and then! you can cast your vote for more stories that learn that they don’t actually want to be invisible after all.
Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from New York street photographer Bill Cunningham, who said: “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Avi Burton (he/they) is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto, where they’re studying creative writing and theater. When not writing, he can be found fencing, obsessing over classic literature, or talking to his cat.