Drinh sat back. “We can do more than you ever dreamed with it. We take only a few cells, and we alter the code. Then the mathematics of the coding is fed into tiny semiorganic devices, machines if you will, but on a scale so small, they could be seen with only the finest microscopes. They replicate themselves with astonishing speed, enter every cell in your body, and rewrite the code. Then they die and are passed out in the normal way or allow themselves to be consumed by the body’s defenses. The process is quite rapid. The cells quite literally become other cells. Major changes can cause a great deal of temporary discomfort and disorientation, but relatively minor ones such as we are talking about might well not be noticed, or no more than catching a minor virus at the worst.” “You can really do this?”
“We do it regularly. Of course, there are limits. I could not, for example, turn you from being an Erdomese into one of my own race. At some point you would be neither one nor the other, and the stress would kill you. But if you merely wanted to look like an Agonite, that I could do. Of course, we are talking far less than that here.”
She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. “Look like an Agonite? The process is that comprehensive?”
“Oh, yes.” He seemed somewhat uncomfortable all of a sudden, though, as if he’d already said more than he had intended.
She had a sudden thought. “You could not turn me into a man, could you? An Erdomese man?”
“Alas, no,” the doctor sighed, and seemed to relax a bit. “The reverse, yes, because in your race and many others the male contains only half the genetic makeup; the other half is female, coming from the mother. But you have two sets of female genes, so there is nothing there to edit. If you were male, I could remove the male chromosomes, duplicate the female ones, alter them somewhat, and recombine them so you would turn into a perfect, fully functioning female. But the other way-well, one must have something to work with, and your race is even more peculiar than most bisexual races in that you have no male hormones or male psychochemicals at all. Disappointed?”
“No, not really,” she answered, realizing that what she was saying was true. “But what could you do to me?”
“Oh, a lot of things. The possibilities are vast. To address the immediate problem, it would be a matter of finding the triggers and dampening them down. The work is complex because it is subtle, exacting, and challenging. It must be done just right. If we got it wrong, we might not catch the problem; or it could throw you off and create violent mood swings, intermittent pain, or even psychotic episodes. If we had an Erdomese clientele, it might be rather simple, but as we do not, it would be a matter of trial and possibly error. In fact, let me put the data into the computer and see what the risks might be.” He turned in his chair to a console, and although it had full audio input capabilities in Agonese, he used a complex keyboard instead.
All the better to keep trade secrets and control the conversation, she realized. In less than a minute a string of Agonese text came up on the screen, much of it punctuated with graphic images of things that were beyond her comprehension. Also, the screen was angled sufficiently to keep her from reading more than bits and pieces without being obvious.
Finally he turned back to her. “There are two possibilities that seem just about equal. Now, understand, I do not mean two different things we might attempt. Rather, there are two equally possible outcomes to the attempt as postulated. There is absolutely no way to be positive short of, well, experimentation. We have no case histories to tell which way it will go.”
She couldn’t imagine where he was heading. “Yes?”
“Well, there is about a three percent chance of serious complications. I tell you that up front, but that is actually a very small percentage in this kind of process. There is no risk-free solution. Beyond those unknowables, there is a better than forty-nine percent chance that it will decouple your mind from your desires.”
“I beg your pardon. What does that mean, exactly?”
“Basically, you would be fully capable of performing as a woman, but you would lack all desire to do so, even in the face of stimulus-response. You would simply be incapable of arousal. There is a medical term for this, but I do not know how it would translate. It is physiological frigidity.”
She nodded. “I understand the idea. I would be turned off of sex, as it were.” She thought about it. “Is it-reversible?”
“I would not recommend attempting a reversal. Changing the changed is always a hundred times more dangerous, because we would have even less to go on and the risk of things going terribly wrong would be major. Of course, you could always take injections or oral hormones to artificially restore it to some degree or another, but it would be temporary and administered by a clinic like this one, which could determine and synthesize what was needed.”
“I see.” It was in many ways an attractive possibility. “But Doctor, I can add. You have left almost forty-eight percent unaccounted for.”
“Urn, yes, I was coming to that. The problem is, the same regions of the brain and the same chemical balances serve more than one function, and without prior research we can be only so delicate. The nearly equal chance would be to achieve not a neutral balance but opposition. You would have no arousal or desire to copulate with males, but you would find yourself attracted to and potentially aroused by other females. You would not suffer the borderline psychochemically induced nymphomania that is at the heart of your problem, but you would be vulnerable, as with most sexual creatures, to stimulus-response.” “You mean I would react like a man.”
“No, not precisely. In the sense of stimulus-response to females, yes, but you would not think of yourself as male or have male responses and desires, in some races a small percentage of people are born this way. It would solve your problem, because you would be unlikely in any event to encounter females outside of Erdom, but not as completely as neutralization, and of course drug and hormone therapy to restore normalcy would be very unlikely.”
She considered it. Bizarre-that the worst-case scenario would be to wind up viewing women close to the way Julian Beard was brought up seeing them. But Beard had always been fully capable of giving up almost anything, even sex, for very long periods, and certainly, if it couldn’t be Lori, she would rather not ever be tempted, even accidentally, by one of those native men. “How-how soon would I see a difference?” she asked him.
He shrugged. “Impossible to say for sure. Still, only automatic and stimulus-response chemical actions in your brain would be affected, so the change would be quite rapid. The practical effect might be noticed in days, perhaps hours, although total and permanent change might take a few weeks. We are dealing here only with a very small reprogramming of an even smaller area. But the permanence of the process is important to remember; if you wish to have anything else done, it is best to have it done all at once.”
“Anything else?” She could see his gaze. “Oh, the hands. I thought about that after what you said, but … Well, you said it would take away my desire. Would it do more? Would it make me antichild, for example, or incapable of loving someone or having other normal emotions?”
“Again, you’d need an Erdomese physician to fully answer that. It is not like this has been done before, let alone repeatedly, with someone of your race. There are bound to be some ancillary changes we can’t foresee, but not drastic ones. I doubt if you will become some sort of emotionless, cold individual or anything like that. It might even work the other way. You might find that your emotions in other areas are stronger. There is often that sort of compensation. But would you love your child if you had one? Of course you would.” “Then I cannot have the hands done. If you check your data base, you will see that these are essential for one of my kind to have a normal childbirth. I want as few options closed as possible. I just want relief.”
“Then you shall have it,” Doctor Drinh assured her. “We have your residence here. I will get our computers to work on this and see what is what, then call with price and such. I really do think this might well be the best thing for you, considering your circumstances.”
Alowi left, and the doctor immediately went into the back of the clinic and walked briskly into the laboratory portion of the building, where a huge, sluglike creature was working at a machine using countless wormlike tendrils. “You heard and followed, Nuoak?”’ Drinh asked the other.
“I did. The problem she seeks relief for is real.”
“I know, I know, but I haven’t felt fully comfortable since they moved here. I almost told her there was no help, but I think that would have been worse than the truth in arousing suspicion.”
“Your professional pride and bragging got the best of you, and you know it. She is exceptionally bright and knowledgeable and as an offworlder has the education and possibly the cultural background to eventually put two and two together, particularly with the added detail you gave her. I don’t like it.” “But what can we do? We can hardly dispose of her. The Dillians are her comrades and titular employees of their state. They have council contacts that make them too dangerous to involve. But if we play normal, she will almost certainly put the facts together and start snooping in earnest. Then what?” He thought a moment. “I suppose we could slow down her data processing speed and limit her retention. Do it slowly, and she wouldn’t even be aware of it or even care if she did notice. If the Dillians noticed and wouldn’t accept it as some natural mental problem, we could always claim it as an unfortunate side effect.” “Too obvious,” Nuoak responded. “The data that we got from the security police suggest she learned Agonian in only a few months and is well on her way to reading Standard. No, looking over the data, a more interesting suggestion comes to mind.”
“Yes? You have an idea?”
“I do not believe that she is a direct threat to us. The chemistry here is fascinating. She is almost totally nonaggressive, quite literally incapable of defending herself against any significant threat. It must have taken every bit of her willpower to just come here on her own. She might well suspect the truth to a very great degree, but she would be incapable of acting upon it.” “She had the guts to come in here and be pretty cool about it.” “That is less a function of biology than force of will over biology, resulting from the fact that before Well processing she was male and, to some degree, by her mind battling against her body. The urges inside her must be excruciating. But no, we must accept that she will suspect, or already does, and perhaps even tell her friends about her suspicions. The fact is, though, that they can do nothing at all about it. They remain here only as her friends and protectors and possibly out of a bit of fear of actually returning to Dillia and taking up normal lives there. It must be quite a difficult thing to actually bring yourself to do. Still, they must be unhappy here, and bored and frustrated. They would leave if they saw a way, I feel certain. They are held by the one pressure this Erdomese girl can bring to bear; a version of passive aggression. ‘If you leave, I’ll stay here and die.’ Remove that and you remove the problems, all of them.”
“I am listening.”
‘The odds you quoted were correct, but surely you noticed that we can tip the scales on one of them. We have the orientation model from the male Erdomese in the computer now. If we use that as our model, it would also be possible to introduce a tapeworm of sorts. It would search through her catalog of memories while she slept looking for the specific pattern of her memories of her husband and their time together, and allow her mind to restructure those events.” “A tapeworm is the most dangerous thing you can do in a sentient creature,” Drinh noted nervously. “We might as well change all her memories for the mess it would be likely to cause! Best to just kidnap her and be done with it if that is your solution!”
“You misunderstand. The limited nature of this program is so subtle, she probably will not even be aware of it. At worst, she will either blame it on the results of the reorientation and accept it as a minor side effect or take it as an inner revelation of something that’s been there all along. It won’t matter. It will not change her relationship with the Dillians one bit, and it will produce a logical result. She will not only have little motivation other than friendship to want to find this husband of hers, she will have an even greater motivation for fearing finding him as she remembers him. As this plays out, we can find someone, perhaps connected to the Great University at Czill or some lesser institution, with the potential to offer her some sort of position. She would be among many species and would not stand out as particularly alien, and her knowledge of Standard would allow her to do academic research. I believe her offworld profession was some sort of geologist, at least judging from those secret police reports. A passive, productive, rewarding job in a protected setting. You see?”
“I see. It is a good plan.”
“Only you do not agree?”
“I agree because I have no choice,” Drinh replied, “and nothing better to offer. But you are a logical scientist from a race that does not have the sexual context both her race and mine share. People do not always react logically in this sort of situation. Nor do I think the Dillians stayed for her alone. Not this long. There is something to be said for comradeship and for the sense of personal violation, of insult, when it is broken up the way their group’s was. I don’t even think the two lost people are at the heart of it, not anymore. Some people simply have a strong urge to see justice, and I think that may be in play here.”
“There is no such thing as justice if you have a good enough attorney,” Nuoak commented.
“There you go being logical again!”
The call came in only a day later. The clinic could perform the procedure at any time, given a few hours’ warning to actually synthesize and program the tiny microgadgets. They were confident, it was a simple procedure, and the price they quoted was considerably less than the translator had cost. Considerably less. “Well, I don’t like it,” Anne Marie said flatly. “It isn’t natural. And what’s to keep them from fouling your brain chemistry all over to hell and gone? Why, suppose they can do all they say! Why, after that stuff’s inside you, you won’t be able to stop it! You could wind up being turned into a cow or something worse!”
Alowi shook her head. “I do not think he would do that. He might if I were some captured guinea pig, but not to paying patients who come in the front door. I got the impression that they were a lot more experienced with this than they want to admit. And they have probably won friends by doing big favors-fixing congenital defects, perhaps regrowing limbs, maybe even the reverse of what I am thinking of.”
“But what if, somehow, sometime, we or somebody finds and liberates Lori? How’s lie going to feel with a permanently frigid wife?”
“I-I thought about that, but I can no longer let that enter into my plans. If I am to be the first totally free Erdomese woman in history, then I have to go all the way with it. If he is found, then I will still be me, and if he wants more, well, Erdomese are polygamists. Actually, I have had more dark thoughts about Lori since consulting with Drinh.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Tony asked her. “Well, everybody says that the clinic works with criminal gangs, and we know who is most likely to have that kind of clout and protection. Suppose there is a really good reason why nobody has seen a trace of Lori or Mavra. Suppose they were two of the clinic’s guinea pigs for its ambitious experiments. He said he could actually make me look Agonese. What could he make either of them into?”
“Oh, my I” Tony exclaimed, sounding exactly like Anne Marie.
“But that makes putting yourself in their hands even worse! Anne Marie protested. “If they did do something to Lori, something monstrous, then they almost certainly know who you are. Suppose they think you’re really there to spy on them! That you’re on to them! They could do something to you and then, when it was noticed, say, ‘Oops! Sorry! We made a big mistake! But it was experimental and we didn’t know everything about Erdomese women and you were warned of the dangers.’ What could we do? Nothing!”
“I thought of that, but I do not think they are the kind to panic, and I really believe they will be extra careful not to do anything wrong simply to keep us at a dead end. Besides, if I do not do something, I am going to go crazy. If they are the ones who stole the life I was content to lead, then they owe me a life of independence at least.”
“I have a bad feeling about this,” both centauresses said in unison, another thing they did more and more often. “But if you are determined, we will not stand in your way.”
“If they do anything other than what they promised . ..” said one. “… Then we will be on them like a ton of lead,” the other finished. They set up an appointment with Doctor Drinh.
Alowi sat there on the stool as before, in the outer office, feeling nervous but determined.
Drinh was the competent physician now, taking final samples, giving her a thorough checkout, and running the resulting data through his medical computers. Finally he said, “All seems in good order. All that remains is to ask once again if you really wish to go through with this, because once done, it is done.” She nodded. Sorry, Lori, but I just can’t stand this otherwise. “I would not have returned if I had not already decided. Let me get it over with.” Doctor Drinh walked to the back of the office and opened a compartment, removing a clear rectangular container in which there was some equally clear liquid. He took out an Agonian syringe, which resembled a small flashlight with two nubs, put it against the container, and pushed a button on the syringe. Almost instantly the fluid was gone, drawn into the syringe. He then walked over to where Alowi sat and stood by her. “This is it,” he told her. “Say no now or it is done.” She swallowed hard. “Do it.”
She felt the two nubs of the syringe against her right rump, then a sudden tingling sensation much like a minor electric shock, and then nothing. The doctor put away the syringe and replaced the container. She sat there a moment, wondering what was next. “You may go now,” he told her, sounding satisfied.
She felt surprise. “That is it? That is all there is?”
“That’s it. Period. You might feel some dizziness or disorientation off and on, and you might run a slight fever, so take it very easy for a few days. There might also be some confusing or bizarre dreams and thoughts for a bit, but that should last only a day or two. You should certainly notice a lessening in your tension by tomorrow at the latest. Also, I would walk back rather than ride if you feel up to it. It will help distribute the serum in your system.” She got up. “I hope it works,” she told him.
“I hope it works, too,” he responded with a sincere smile.
LORI, TOO, COULD NOT HELP BUT NOTICE THAT JUAN CAMPOS’S well-planned and fiendish revenge was not as complete as it had been intended to be. Overloaded with the mind-numbing drug, sent through a training course over and over and over again until all action was automatic, he had been beyond even caring what had happened. Weeks of Pavlovian training and then the real thing, trips back and forth by night without the slightest deviation along back trails laced with an overpowering scent unique to him, all seemed to be one continuous blur, without a sense of time, place, or event.
How long this had gone on, he could not know, but slowly, ever so slowly, he began to come out of the stupor. Rational thought returned with the same slowness, in fits and starts. He was unable to distinguish what was real from what was dream, but eventually he came to understand that for some reason that drug no longer affected him, that its power was fading with increasing quickness.
There was some sense of denial about that fact. He didn’t want to come out of it, didn’t want to think and perhaps face the pain and monotony of this life, but his own inner strength denied him the oblivion he needed.
What did it matter that he was no longer addicted except to add to the torture? If they found out, they might not trust him anymore, and that would mean his finish.
But that, too, was an odd thought. Wouldn’t death be preferable to a life of this!
The answer, though, was no.
That left escape, even though he was a four-footed freak far from any home or help, forever cut off from rational communication with the outside world. Even if that weird new translator didn’t encode everything in and out, it would probably be useless. His mouth felt funny; it wasn’t malleable as it always had been. Even the limited communication he’d had with the handlers who had special translators to make themselves understood was now one-way. The only sound he seemed capable of anymore was from very deep inside and sounded more like a bray and meant nothing. His handlers, usually none too bright underlings, had found that amusing.
Still, it had been a shock to find out that indeed he had changed so radically and that after all this time of staring down at the ground, his neck was somehow now long enough and flexible enough to allow him to look straight ahead. In fact, it became increasingly flexible as time wore on.