I originally wrote this non-Masks tale a few years ago with the intent of selling it professionally. Unfortunately, it's a size which few publications are interested in. Hope you folks enjoy it.
"Please, Josh..." said Horton.
"I think that should be Mr. Thompkins to you," said Josh, carefully keeping his tone neutral.
"Come on, Josh! We've known each other since you were a toddler!"
"We met fewer than a dozen times before I started legal procedures against my Mother. Let's keep this formal."
Despite the manager's pretense of familiarity, the main way Josh recognized the man was his withered right hand. He'd had a gruesome fascination with that deformed appendage as a child, thinking up bizarre ways it could have happened. Now he just felt annoyed as his Mother's boss was trying to act like a friend, in order to get something from him.
Ted Horton was used to dealing with either underlings or superiors at work. Having to actually interact formally in his office with someone less than a third his age over whom he had no authority and from whom he needed something was an uncomfortable experience for him. The young man's unusual appearance didn't help his composure.
Josh Thompkins was... lopsided. His body was slightly larger on the right, and his right eye was blue while his left was green. The difference wasn't huge, but it was there. Aside from that he was vaguely handsome, with pale skin to go with his red hair, narrow face and lean frame.
For his part Josh was feeling uneasy and distracted. One of the distractions was the odd sculpture on the table behind Horton's desk. It was some sort of abstract thing, not at all matching the rest of the office decor. It kept drawing Josh's attention, and he did not need that right now.
"Look, Mr. Thompkins, you've put this company in a serious bind..."
"You should have considered that before you trusted your research to a madwoman."
"Dr. Thompkins is not insane," said Horton, firmly. "As soon as we can appeal and get a new psychological evaluation I'm certain we can prove that. In the meantime, though, we need her passwords."
"Not insane..." said Josh, staring at the man in his unnerving two-color fashion. "She bit off - and swallowed - the ear lobe of an orderly. After smiling shyly and indicating she wanted to whisper something to him."
"That's pure slander!"
"The orderly testified in court! They even showed the security video!"
Horton shied back, actually a bit frightened. Like his Mother, the boy could act calm then unexpectedly burst forth.
"That... that doesn't change the fact that we need her passwords to access her secure files. They have her so heavily sedated we can't get anything sensible out of her."
Josh could have argued that even without sedation, these past few weeks she hadn't said much which was sensible. He didn't have the energy.
"As I told you on the phone, she never confided in me. About anything. She also made a deliberate effort to keep me away not only from her work but from science in general. I can't help you."
"Just... let me have one of our researchers show you around," said Horton, actually pleading. "Once you see what we do, how important it is not just to our bottom line but to the health of millions, you'll change your mind."
Josh actually was curious. All he knew about his Mother's work was that it involved advanced biological research. Also, maybe there was something in her records about him and his problems.
"All right," he said, finally. "I guess I could try some guesses as to what passwords she might have used."
"Thank you!" said Horton, gushing. He punched the intercom button on his phone. "Have Dr. Culver come in, now."
Josh turned as the door opened, and was mildly startled. Dr. Culver was barely older than him. More, she was stunningly beautiful; tall, blond, leggy and well shaped. Josh stood and shook the hand she offered, smiling politely.
"You're Josh, then?" she said, in a high, clear voice. "Sorry; I had the impression you were younger, from the way the people here talked about you."
"Living with my Mother would prematurely age anyone," said Josh, not mentioning the health issues he was having.
"Well, if you'll come this way I'll take you downstairs and start the tour."
"Downstairs?" said Josh, suspicious but not showing it. He'd made certain his attorney knew where he would be this afternoon. If they did try something underhanded he had that insurance.
"The three floors above ground are administrative," said Dr. Culver, already cheerfully leading him towards the door, apparently not noticing his irregular walk. "All the research is below ground. Helps make security easier."
She turned to smile at him and shrugged.
"We are a biological research facility, after all. Among other hazards we keep stocks of infectious organisms, for testing the cures we develop. Also, nearly everything we do is both proprietary and potentially very valuable."
All that made sense, and was in line with what Josh had read about such places. A little more at ease, he followed the woman out the door, down the hall and into an elevator.
"Oh!" she said, pulling her ID tag out on its retractable leash and pointing to it before holding it in front of the sensor box above the buttons. "You can exit the building from anywhere - fire safety laws and such - but your guest badge won't let you into most places downstairs. So stick with me or ask a security guard for help."
Again, quite reasonable. Especially the part about being able to exit in an emergency.
They dropped for longer than Josh expected. When the doors opened he saw a sterile, white corridor of painted concrete and aluminum and stainless steel. Neon lights and sprinkler nozzles protruded from the drop ceiling.
"See the sign, there? We're heading left, to the Disease Elimination Lab. A bit pretentious, but accurate."
"'Antigeria'?" said Josh, reading further down. "What, you have a project to eliminate old people?"
The woman gave a surprisingly girlish laugh.
"No, no, we're trying to eliminate aging."
Josh knew that, actually. He was making a rather weak joke. At least she laughed...
"I'm sorry if I seem distracted, but... I am confused about this whole matter with Dr. Thompkins," said Dr. Culver, her smile slipping.
"The defense made me get a psychological evaluation," said Josh, tiredly. "Tit-for-tat, since I was demanding a court order for my Mother to have one. At first the doctors thought I was the delusional one, because of what I told them about my Mother's behavior, which contradicted her repeated evaluations for work. Then they started looking over the evidence I provided, some of which was uncovered by a detective agency I hired. They found falsified records, blatant lies, denial of documented events, and far more. When they asked my Mother about those things she became... hostile. Then turned violent when they persisted. She actually had to be put in restraints. Which didn't stop her from hurting people."
He turned that same unnerving two-tone gaze on her which he had used on her boss, upstairs.
"My Mother has been crazy for at least as long as I've known her."
"What did she do that was so bad?" Dr. Culver demanded, accusingly.
"When I was twelve, walking home from school on a rainy day, I saw a kitten in an alley," he said, gaze and voice distant. "Normally I'd have just walked on. Mother had an absolute no-pets policy. Before I could turn away, though, it looked up at me and meowed, as if it were asking me for help.
"It actually came to me as I approached, shivering so hard it had trouble walking. I picked it up and put it inside my coat. It purred the whole way home."
He abruptly resumed walking, his guide needing a moment to catch up.
"I took it home, dried it, gave it some water and some salmon," said Josh, words calm and matter-of-fact, but with a strong undercurrent of anger. "I watched it eat, and afterwards it came over and thanked me. As I was petting it, the kitten fell asleep, exhausted. I took it into my bedroom and made a nest in a corner for it, with some towels. It slept the whole time.
"I raided my piggy bank and wrote a note for my Mother, telling her I had rescued a kitten and was going to a nearby store for cat litter and cat food. Then I left.
"When I staggered back in, carrying the smallest bag of each the store had, I saw my Mother in the kitchen, working on a salad for supper. She looked up and said 'What's all that for?' Putting on a brave front, I told her. She frowned, pointed the cleaver at me, and said 'We don't have a kitten.' I said 'Didn't you see my note?' I looked over at the table, and the note was gone. I later found it wadded in the trash. She didn't even care enough about her lie to destroy it. I put the bags down and hurried into my bedroom. The kitten and the nest I had made were both gone."
"That... Lots of mothers don't want their children to have pets."
"Oh, I'm not finished," said Josh, the anger moving closer to the surface. "She kept denying there had been a kitten. When she caught me asking neighbors if they had seen it she laughed and told them I was such a lonely little boy and had such a hard time making friends that I had invented an imaginary pet."
Culver looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Most likely, she was still willing to believe his mother over him. Josh sighed.
"The psychologists and psychiatrists who interviewed me had the same reaction you're having. Until I showed them a notarized letter from a woman a couple of years older than me who at the time lived in our building. She saw me with the kitten and followed me into our apartment, curious about it. She even gave me some advice on how to care for it." Josh looked over at the startled Dr. Culver. "I also had a notarized statement from another neighbor who saw my Mother sneaking a securely taped box with holes in it out of our apartment late that night. I was actually a bit relieved when I learned that. I had worried for a while that she had simply run it down the disposal."
Josh sighed, ignoring the ill look in Dr. Culver's face at his last comment.
"He was such a handsome cat, too. Black on top, white on the bottom, and with solid black whiskers, which were very unusual."
His escort actually stumbled, giving a bit of a gasp. Josh whirled on her.
"You know something."
"It... it has to be coincidence," said Dr. Culver, quickly, with a nervous laugh. She swallowed, shrinking under the young man's gaze. "There... In the long-term cryosuspension project there's a young adult b-black and white cat with black whiskers."
"Is there any chance he's still alive?" said Josh, a trace of desperation in his voice.
"We have the most advanced cryogenic suspension facilities in the world," she said, with pride. That faltered. "But, well, the notes for this one said he had been frozen..."
She stopped, eyes going wide with realization.
"It would be eight years ago, now," she said, voice a shocked whisper.
Josh closed his eyes and slowly raised his clenched fists, literally trembling with fury.
"DAMN THAT WOMAN!!! She brought him here, let him get old enough to test, then froze him!"
Dr. Culver backed away, very frightened. Slowly, Josh relaxed, forcing his hands open and lowering them.
"I'm sorry," he said, flushing, voice hoarse. "She still knows how to get to me. Even when she's safely locked away."
"Would... Let's go to the break room. I know I could use a rest after this."
Josh nodded and they changed course. One good thing, she actually seemed sympathetic, now. In the break room Josh suddenly dropped into a chair.
"Can you get me something to drink?" he said, fishing in a pocket and pulling out several prescription pill bottles. "I need to take something."
"Are you diabetic?" said Dr. Culver, suddenly concerned.
"No. It's something else."
She brought him some orange juice. While he selected one bottle and swallowed a pill from it, she made a point of reading the labels on those Josh had set aside.
"That's a TNF-Alpha inhibitor," she said, holding up one. "Are you having autoimmune problems?"
"I have an ulterior motive for wanting to try and help. Ever since I was old enough to choose my own doctors I've been trying to get my medical history from her. You see, she either did everything herself - even though she's not an MD - or had doctors she knew would keep quiet take care of me. When I tried to get my records the doctors told me my Mother had them. She said they were lying, and, besides, there had never been anything wrong with me to document."
"What are your problems?" said Dr. Culver, feeling her that concern had been justified.
"Mainly autoimmune symptoms," he acknowledged, reluctantly. "Arthritis and severe allergies are the least of it. I was
diagnosed with both at eighteen, the first time I was able to go to a doctor of my choice. The arthritis was already advanced, and had probably been going on for years."
He gave a humorless laugh.
"I'm a medical mystery. It's not lupus or anything else they've thought of. My hormones are messed up, too. Also, my blood pressure keeps shooting up and dropping down, my hips are distorted..."
"Dr. Thompkins never showed signs of any of those problems," said Dr. Culver, frowning in thought. "What about your father?"
"I have no idea who he was," said Josh, bitterly.
He sighed tiredly, looking down at his hands. Dr. Culver saw, now, the red, swollen joints.
"All my life I've felt like I was a failed lab experiment she couldn't simply dispose of because of some annoying laws."
"I'm... sorry," said Dr. Culver, hesitantly patting his left hand. "My worldview is being turned upside down by all this. I mean, I didn't know Dr. Thompkins well, but she always seemed... rational."
"I heard one of the psychiatrists wryly describe my Mother as a high-function psychopath," said Josh. "Antisocial personality disorder is the official diagnosis. She's smart enough to pretend to be sociable and reasonable to get her way when that's easier than bullying and intimidating. The court-ordered psychological evaluation was the first time in decades she couldn't bluff her way out of something she didn't want to do, and she couldn't handle it. The most bizarre part is that at times she still acts calm and rational, ignoring that she's already literally foamed at the mouth while screaming incoherently and committed acts of violence against the people who are trying to help her."
Dr. Culver started to say something but was interrupted by her pager. With an expression of annoyance she pulled it out of the holder and looked at the tiny screen, then sighed.
"I'm sorry, this is very important. If you'll wait here I'll get back to you as soon as I can."
"All right," said Josh, nodding. "I need to rest some, anyway, after getting mad out there."
"I do plan to help you if I can," said Dr. Culver, firmly.
She rose and walked briskly out of the break room. Josh sat for a moment, looking around, wondering why he hadn't seen anyone else in the hallways or here. After a few minutes he rose and bought a granola bar from a vending machine. He was just about to pop the last bite in his mouth when a security guard looked in the room.
"Mr. Thompkins, Dr. Culver asked me to escort you to the Advanced Projects Section. She said her page involved something she wants you to see."
"All right," said Thompkins, rising with a bit of difficulty.
A few minutes later they were in a corridor with a very different design from what he had seen elsewhere. It was older, and had walls made of painted brick rather than concrete, with an arched roof - also of brick - old-looking fluorescent fixtures and no false ceiling. They stopped at a set of bars blocking the corridor. There was a sign which indeed read Advanced Projects Section. The guard waved his ID card at the sensor beside an entry gate in the bars. There was a click, and he opened the door.
"Straight ahead," he told Josh, gesturing.
Josh nodded and walked through. He was tired enough to only feel a bit anxious when he heard the gate - so much like something from a jail - close behind him.
The corridor changed again just past the bars. Now it was rounded except for a flat floor, and the walls looked like slickly glazed porcelain. Ahead the short hall opened into some sort of large room. The light beyond the transition point had a greenish tint.
As Josh stepped across the threshold he felt a sudden numbness, over his whole body. He staggered forward, his vision fading, dimly realizing he was falling. He didn't feel the impact.
* * *
Josh woke screaming in pain. His voice sounded strange, as if heard under water. His eyes were taped shut, his arms bound, and he seemed to be floating, but could breathe just fine. All of that was distantly secondary to the agony filling his whole body.
After some interminable time a merciful numbness began spreading up his left arm. As it reached his head his consciousness faded with the pain. He found he didn't care if this were his last thought, as long as the pain stopped.
* * *
Some time later consciousness returned again, this time gloriously without the pain. Josh groaned with the memory of the previous agony, and stirred.
"Good morning," said an unfamiliar female voice.
"Please wake up," said Dr. Culver, sounding anxious. "I'm sorry; you should have more time to recover, but things are getting serious."
"What... happened..." Josh's voice sounded strange.
He opened his eyes and saw Dr. Culver looming over him. Josh didn't feel like looking around. Instead he stared at the barely familiar features of his guide.
"Hello." His voice was hoarse, but even that wasn't enough to explain the change.
"Listen, you stepped into a field which denatures the Y chromosome," said Dr. Culver. She was talking rapidly, and seemed almost desperate. "You're only alive because it works slowly and... Well, I've figured out why you were having so many health problems. You're a chimera."
"Greek myth," said Josh, with an odd clarity. "A creature made up of bits and pieces of other creatures."
"Brain's working fine," said the unfamiliar voice.
"You should have been twins, fraternal twins," said Dr. Culver, still speaking quickly. "Sometimes it happens, twins fuse in the womb. The technical term for the result is a tetragametic chimerism, an individual with two different sets of DNA. In your case, you were a boy and a girl fused together in such a way that you appeared male even though most of your tissues had XX chromosomes. Your SRY gene must have somehow gotten switched on. The field still nearly killed you. We had to put you in a regeneration tank to save your life."
"So that's why I'm gay," said Josh, conversationally.
Dr. Culver looked briefly startled, but shook her head.
"Listen, you've been here three days. Ideally you should have had at least a week in the tank, but we just didn't have the time. The police have been here - upstairs, I mean - looking for you. Director Horton told them you left well before they got there. He thinks you're dead, but is just starting to realize no-one has seen your body. We can't contact anyone outside. The building is in a security lock-down."
Something clicked in Josh's head.
"He... tried to kill me. That security guard..."
"Shouldn't have had access to this part of the facility! It's lethal to men. Only women are authorized to enter."
"Thing is, since we didn't report finding you, he's starting to get suspicious," said the second voice. "We were so busy trying to save your life that we didn't talk to anyone outside until someone called down here to ask if we had seen you."
"I'm a girl, aren't I?" said Josh, feeling an odd detachment.
"Look at it this say," said a third voice. "It's a lot safer for you to ask a guy out, now."
He... That is, she, saw Dr. Culver turn her head to glare, and followed that gaze. Josh saw a rather handsome black woman with a sarcastic smirk on her face.
Her expression softened a bit.
"Hello to you, too."
Josh tried to sit up, but failed miserably.
"Here, let us help," said the other stranger.
Josh looked left, now, and saw a small and very beautiful Asian woman.
"Hello." Honestly, Josh couldn't think of anything else to say just now.
"This is Mei Lynn Harper and Lois Jones," said Dr. Culver. "Both top-notch physical therapists familiar with our procedures. I hate to rush things but we need to get you moving."
With the two strangers doing most of the work, Josh sat up. The now-unfamiliar function of her hips was very disconcerting, the slight weight of small breasts moreso.
"I'm going to kill my Mother," Josh said, conversationally. "Slowly."
They gave her a sip of water, just enough to ease the dryness in her throat. She was painfully thin under the sheet, with the gauntness of someone who had been sick in bed for a long time. Josh was glad to note that she hadn't lost much, if any, height. Well, her mother was fairly tall for a woman.
"This is very strange. How am I going to prove who I am?"
"We recorded everything," said Dr. Culver. "Also, DNA tests will prove your relationship to your Mother."
With some effort they got her up and walking. Josh noted absently that the limp was gone; her body seemed symmetrical for the first time in Josh's life. She also noticed they were in some sort of clinic. Josh made them stop at a mirror over a sink, and stared.
"Holy shit," she said, matter-of-factly.
Staring back was a younger version of her Mother. Both her eyes were now bright green.
"Bad enough I'm a girl. I have to look like her."
"We did some DNA tests," said Dr. Culver. "We three and a couple of techs in here discovered that you are almost a clone of your Mother."
"I'm afraid all we have for you to wear are disposable gowns like you have on and lab coats," said Lois. "We had to cut you out of your clothes."
"They wouldn't fit now, anyway," said Josh, pragmatically. "You know, there were many times in my life when I wished I were someone else. I don't think I ever wished I was a girl. I like being a guy. Liked."
They slowly walked her around the lab until Dr. Culver decided they'd exercised her as much as they dared, then sat her in a chair.
"The problem we have is that we're running out of excuses for why we're staying in here," said Dr. Culver, as she checked Josh's vitals. "The first couple of days Horton was busy dealing with your attorney and the police. Horton told them you'd left but they didn't believe that. Your attorney got a judge to issue a search warrant, but the Foundation's attorneys were able to convince them that the basement was a secure area. The second day more police came with a different warrant which included the labs, but this time he convinced them not to enter this wing and a few other places, claiming it was dangerous without environmental suits. He's now worried that they'll come back with a third warrant. He has his people working on an injunction, claiming proprietary secrets would be endangered. He's also trying to get some other women in here."
"Wait," said Josh, as something occurred to her. "A field which selectively attacks the Y chromosome... That sounds like bad science fiction. Or something my Mother would design."
The three women - the three other women - looked back and forth between themselves.
"If you're up to it, I think you need to see what we're really doing down here," said Dr. Culver.
"I need something more to wear, first," said Josh. "I'm getting a significant draft. My feet are cold, too."
They found her a lab coat and some slippers, then helped her back on her feet. Dr. Culver moved ahead and opened the door. Outside the small clinic was an alien world.
"Wow..." was all Josh could manage.
The green-tinted light glimpsed before filled the place. Josh couldn't find a source for it. The large chamber appeared to be some sort of bubble in the solid bedrock, the walls glassy smooth, like the corridor entrance. The air was cool and a bit damp and had an odd scent to it. Something almost minty.
"They found this over sixty years ago," said Dr. Culver, as they stood there, taking it all in. "I've only been here for a year and a half, but I've heard the story. They were digging a tunnel to move stock between a warehouse and a store and found an existing tunnel, which looked melted rather than dug. It ended in a wall they couldn't break through. A special group was set up to study it. That eventually became a research foundation. Twenty-three years ago they figured out how to open the wall. The first man who went through dropped dead. The man behind him was Horton, who tried to pull the first man out."
"That's what happened to his arm!" said Josh.
"The effect isn't instantaneous," said Dr. Culver. "Horton felt the damage in time to avoid going all the way in but kept trying to pull his boss out. After he gave up the first man's secretary impulsively pulled his body out, which is how they learned women weren't affected. The foundation started hiring talented women in several fields to explore what lay inside."
"They're doing all this in situ?" said Josh.
"With a few exceptions, any equipment taken out of here stops functioning. Though it starts up again if returned."
"Wait... that sculpture in Horton's office..." said Josh, noticing the stylistic resemblance between that and the equipment here.
"Is one of the few items which continue working. Only, we still don't know what it actually does. Horton likes to tinker with it, even though he's not qualified. For nearly everything else, you have to be in here to use it. So women have done all the work exploring and experimenting in here."
"This... This is alien!"
"Yes. No-one knows how long it has been here. It may have been melted into the rock a few centuries ago or millions of years ago. Whichever, everything in here is in perfect working order. We know what about a fifth of it does."
"This... this is too big for any private foundation... It should be a matter for the UN! And they let my Mother in here?!"
"She was in charge, actually," said Dr. Culver, looking embarrassed. "She was invited to join the project after they figured out most of this had medical uses, and she just sort of gradually took control."
"That's my Mother," said Josh, sourly.
"She may be crazy," said Dr. Culver, "but she's a genius. Without her we wouldn't know half of what we do now."
"Is her workstation in here?" said Josh, getting an idea.
"Yes. She didn't want Horton or any of the other 'patriarchs' to have access to it." Dr. Culver sighed. "Actually, she didn't want anyone to have access to it, and did a good job of arranging that. We've all tried to guess her computer's password but it just keeps making rude noises. We were afraid to do anything more than that; didn't even dare move it, with all the wiring we don't know the purpose of."
"Show me," said Josh, the bit about wiring reminding her of something.
An ordinary office cubicle was set up in one of the open areas amid the alien equipment. Inside was the computer, running but with the screen blanked.
Josh sat down. Immediately, the screen lit, and a rather subservient male voice said "Good morning, Dr. Thompkins."
"How did you...?!" said Mei Lynn. "Biometric identification!"
The other two were equally astonished. Josh felt understandably smug.
"My Mother hated typing in a password every time," said Josh. "She had a similar setup in her apartment office, with biometric sensors unobtrusively watching."
"You're almost an exact physical match," said Dr. Culver, nodding.
"I just realized something," said Josh, startled. "I'm really weak, yeah, but this is the first time in over a decade - maybe the first time in my whole life - that I don't feel sick. I feel more alert, more..."
She made vague waving gestures.
"Not surprising," said Dr. Culver. "Your hormones are almost normal, now, and you don't have two different immune systems fighting each other."
"Okay, then," said Josh, with a determined nod. "Let's see what we've got, here."
"Wait," said Mei Lynn. "Why are we bothering with this just now? Shouldn't we be working on a way to get out?"
"This could give us a way out," said Josh, as she pondered the screen. "Maybe a bargaining chip, maybe a line outside for communication with the police, since you said cell phones don't work down here. Of course, I really do want to try and find out is if there's anything in here which explains why I am the way I am. Or was."
"I have to admit, I'm curious, too," said Dr. Culver. "We do have some time. We raided the break room before they got too suspicious so there's food in here for another couple of days and we can close the door if we have to. Let's see what is on here before we make any decisions."
"I thought the only communication in or out was the wireless intercom phone... thingy," said Lois.
"That and the electrical line are the only official connections," said Mei Lynn. "I wouldn't put it past Dr. Thompkins to have WiFi or something."
With Josh making educated guesses as to what the names of the folders signified they began searching through the computer. Josh barely noticed when two more women - whom Dr. Culver introduced as Trudy Curtis and Melinda Harris - joined the group.
"So far it's all files about our work here," said Dr. Culver, frowning. "Copies of stuff we already have available on our own computers. Maybe Mei Lynn is right; we need to start thinking about how to either escape or call for help."
"I haven't been thinking about much else," Trudy muttered. "I've been wearing the same clothes for three days straight."
"Okay, let me try something else, then," said Josh, opening a menu. "Let's see... networks... nope. E-mail not working. Nothing."
"May I try?" said Melinda.
"Okay, but I'm not sure how far I can move before it logs off."
The tech leaned in close to Josh and reached for the mouse. For the first time in his - now her - life Josh noticed a woman's breasts with more than an academic interest.
"I thought you were gay?" said Lois, sounding a bit irritated. "Or did that carry over?"
"It's..." Josh swallowed, embarrassed. She shuddered, and from more than the cool, damp air. "It just hit me, I have a pair of those, now. I'll have to wear bras and panties and all that stuff. I was never into crossdressing, never wanted to be a woman, tried to be manly, and now..."
She swallowed again and ducked her head, tears welling up.
"Easy," said Dr. Culver, putting a hand on Josh's shoulder.
"Sorry. It's just starting to hit me. I'm stuck this way, aren't I?"
"Probably," Dr. Culver admitted. "We don't know for certain, but... well, at least you'll be healthy."
"I'm going to need a lot of help with this."
"You get us out of here and Horton in jail and I'll help you with the physical stuff," promised Lois.
"Got something!" said Melinda. "Yeah. She didn't have a connection set up, but the computer has found a wireless router. It's for use inside the Foundation, but I should be able to go through it to the outside. Low signal strength, though; it'll be slow."
"I'll send an e-mail to my attorney," said Josh, opening the mail app. "What should I tell him?"
"Send a short message telling him where you are and that Horton tried to kill you," said Dr. Culver. "If that gets through, send a longer one with more details."
Josh soon finished the first message and hit Send.
"Wow, that's slow," she said, after several seconds of waiting.
"Okay, now start on the longer one," said Dr. Culver. "I'll give you some other addresses to send it to, besides your lawyer."
The second message took over twenty minutes to compose, being a group effort. A few minutes into that process the first message finished transmitting. When no-one had any serious objections left Josh hit Send on the second.
"That's enough for now," said Josh, pushing back from the computer. She noted that at a bit more than arm's length the computer logged off. "I'm hungry, and I need to pee."
"You're being awfully demanding," said Lois.
Josh whirled on her and opened her mouth. Then looked shocked.
"Oh, my God... I am turning into my Mother."
"I think you're just exhausted, anxious, and have low blood sugar," said Dr. Curtis. "C'mon back to the clinic and we'll all eat something."
"I still need someone to show me how to work my new plumbing," said Josh, subdued.
"Hon, you've got two physical therapists and a genuine MD here, all female," said Mei Lynn, laughing. "We'll have you pissing like a pro in no time!"
* * *
A little under an hour later Josh was definitely feeling better, not least because they had managed to scrounge up some actual clothes for her. Changing into them was her first chance for some private time to inspect her new body. She had the same red-blond hair and pale skin as before. Her breasts were small, but Dr. Culver said they would most likely fill out as she put on weight and finished developing into her new body.
"Just my luck, Mother is a D-cup," Josh muttered to herself, as she experimentally cupped her breasts. "Once I recover from looking like a concentration camp victim I'll probably be centerfold material."
After some examination she decided her face was simply a feminine version of her old one. Josh had never thought he resembled his Mother very closely, but now she had to admit that the likeness was definitely there, just previously masculinized.
With everything in place - no bra, for now, since none of the women (other women) here were her size and shape - Josh exited the bathroom.
"I'm really worried by how thin I am."
"A large percentage of your tissues were dead or dying by the time we popped you in the regeneration tank," said Dr. Culver. "The three days in there replaced everything vital first, then started rebuilding muscle mass. Unfortunately, I had to cut that part short. Fortunately, your brain was entirely female, and only a few little bits of CNS had to be replaced, plus part of your eye. Even with that, I'm surprised you haven't have memory and coordination problems."
"I didn't get a chance to ask about that before," said Josh. "Regeneration tank?"
"Sort of a tissue culture dish for entire, large, multicellular organisms," said Dr. Culver. "It's primarily alien technology, with some human tech added to help us control and monitor things. We've never used it for this exact purpose before, but have used it to treat people for various things. We even regrew one woman's foot."
"Wow," said Josh, astounded. "That would... Why aren't these things in every major hospital?"
"Give us another year and a half - two at the most - and they will be," said Dr. Culver, proudly. She sobered. "If we can get out of here alive."
The intercom beeped. As it had several times in the past half hour. This time it didn't stop. Dr. Culver sighed tiredly and answered it.
"No, we're not coming out yet," she said to whoever was on the other end. "As I said before, we're at a critical stage of an emergency treatment. We could really use some food and fresh..."
She listened for a bit, her lips thinning and face paling.
"No. We're not coming out. Don't send anyone in."
She hung up and stood there for a moment. Then heaved a great sigh and turned to the others.
"He knows something's up, but not what. At least, I don't think he knows what."
"Let's close the hatch," said Trudy.
"Hatch?" said Josh. "I didn't see one when I came in here. Of course, I didn't have time to notice much."
"It's not really... Come on, I'll show you."
They trooped out of the clinic - which Josh now realized was a prefab building in the largest floor space in the cavern not occupied by alien equipment - towards the entrance.
"Oh, yeah," said Trudy, shying towards the right wall, using some human equipment there for cover. "I see guards. All male, fortunately."
She was speaking barely above a whisper.
"I'm surprised he didn't just send female guards in here," said Josh, also quietly.
"There aren't any," said Dr. Culver. "Horton doesn't believe women can do the job, and your Mother went along with that to keep security out of here."
"Still," said Lois, worried, "you'd think he'd send someone in."
"You sure they didn't?" said Josh.
"Yeah. There's an alarm which sounds whenever someone enters," said Trudy.
"That's how we found you," said Lois. "If you'd been there much longer, even the regeneration tank wouldn't have saved you."
They crept carefully forward until Lois motioned for them to stop. She then continued alone, cautiously moving to what looked like a giant, half-melted mutant mushroom growing out of the right wall. She put her hands on it and closed her eyes. There was a moment of stillness. Then the entrance began sphinctering shut. There were sparks from the power conduit as it was cut.
The guards noticed immediately and yanked their handguns out. Fortunately, the process was fast enough they only got off a few shots before the "hatch" closed.
"Everybody all right?" Trudy called out, sounding shaky.
Fortunately, everyone was.
"Okay, now our time is limited," said Dr. Culver. "Roughly three days of air with this many people. Some electricity from the alien equipment, augmented by batteries. I can already hear the beeping of the UPSes."
"So how do we know when the cavalry arrives?" said Josh, worried. "If it does, I mean."
"We can use a piece of the alien equipment to see what's going on in the corridor," said Dr. Culver. "C'mon; let's get to work."
* * *
"I found her diary!" said Josh, causing everyone to hurry over. "It was in a hidden folder."
His Mother's computer had priority for electricity among the pieces of human-made equipment. It was plugged directly into a converter attached to the alien power supply.
"That could be a big help," said Melinda.
"I'm starting nine months before my birth," said Josh. "Here's something. 'The procedure was successful. Now I just need to wait until I can test whether it actually worked.' Uhm, skimming backward. 'Yes! The...' Doc, can you tell me what this means?"
Dr. Culver leaned closer and looked, frowning. Taking the keyboard for a moment, she typed in a technical term and searched previous.
"Wow," she said, finally, after several quiet moments. "Your Mother was a genius."
"What did she do?" said Josh, tone deadly.
"She created an autosomatic embryo from a treated egg. She then used artificial insemination to create a normal egg which she used to stimulate blastocyst formation."
"Uhm, she used the natural fertilization process to stimulate implantation of a treated egg which had a complete set of just her chromosomes," said Dr. Culver, still reading. "She then used some sort of enzyme treatment to eliminate the hybrid egg, leaving only the all-her egg. Only, she must have fused them together, instead."
"All this time," said Josh, quietly. "All this time I've wondered why I was the way I was. Just like that, I know."
"This is remarkable," said Dr. Culver, excitedly. "Really groundbreaking work, worthy of a Nobel Prize. Twenty years on, and no-one else has even come close to what she did! From what I'm reading, she did all this herself. To herself. All the procedures. I'm going to copy this whole document to a thumb drive."
"I should have thought of that," said Melinda, as Dr. Culver worked. "I'm going to dig up an outboard drive and clone everything on that computer. Be right back."
"When you're finished, can you go forward to when I was born?" said Josh to Dr. Culver.
"Yeah... Here it is."
They crowded around the screen and read silently for several moments.
Dr. Thompkins planned to deliver her baby herself. That seemed rather unrealistic, but considering the other things she did leading to and during the pregnancy none of those there doubted she would have tried, and most likely succeeded. However, she went into labor over a week early, while giving a presentation before the Foundation's board of directors. Those stuffy old men panicked and called an ambulance, forcibly keeping her in the board room until it arrived. After that there was simply nothing for it but to let the baby be delivered in the hospital. The doctor was confused about the complete lack of medical history for the pregnancy. Still, the delivery went well. Then Dr. Thompkins heard the doctor announce "It's a boy!"
"She must have been furious!" said Lois, laughing. She glanced at Josh and her smile died. "Sorry."
"I bet if she'd been able to carry out her original plan she'd have just poured me down a drain when she saw I was apparently male," said Josh, feeling sick.
"Now, honey, don't be so sure of that," said Lois. "Your momma wasn't the best mother in the world, but she did bring you up and see you were educated."
"Only because it was a matter of public record I existed."
"No, I have to agree with Lois, here," said Dr. Culver. "Your Mother was clever enough she could have gotten rid of you in an untraceable way even with the public delivery. She didn't."
Dr. Culver stretched and found herself yawning. She checked her watch.
"Ow. It's after Midnight. Melinda, you make that copy. Once you're done we put that drive away someplace secure; then we all need to turn in."
* * *
Josh woke early the next morning. Since she now felt healthy after years of being both sick and drugged and had a later start than the others the day before, this was understandable. She was also hungry. She carefully waded through the bodies sleeping on a couple of cots and some improvised pallets, grabbed her donated underwear, ducked under the other drying laundry, and entered the john. The process of female urination was still alien enough to take some time. When she finally opened the door there was someone waiting.
"Good morning," said Dr. Culver, quietly. She, like all the others here, had slept in a disposable examination gown.
"Morning," said Josh, with a sigh. She felt vaguely embarrassed, standing there in just a t-shirt and panties. Having breasts made one acutely aware of what showed through thin fabric. "All yours."
"Could you try to - quietly - organize some breakfast from the supplies?"
"Sure. Say, where does all the water for this come from?"
"The aliens had a beautiful recycling system."
"More than I wanted to know, I think," said Josh, wryly.
She opened the locker where every bit of food and drink they could find was stored. She stood for a moment, chewing her bottom lip. By the time Dr. Culver exited Josh had a large pot of water going through a coffee maker. They were actually out of ground coffee but had some instant, which she also had out, along with cups, bowls and spoons.
"That's too much for coffee," said Dr. Culver. "Remember, we have to conserve electricity."
"Gonna use it for more than coffee," said Josh. She pointed to what she was working on. "Watch and learn. You can make a fair breakfast porridge from crushed granola bars and hot water."
"I did not know that," said Dr. Culver, impressed.
"Yeah, well, the older I got the more I had to cook for myself," said Josh. "As Mother got increasingly odd about what groceries she'd buy I learned to improvise."
"I have a confession to make," said Dr. Culver, hesitantly, as they waited for the pot to fill. "Horton picked me to be your guide not just because I was your Mother's chief assistant, but because I'm attractive. The bastard was always doing things like that, using me or one of the other pretty faces to charm a guest. For some reason your Mother, who was always ranting about how men objectified women, never noticed."
"My experience was that Mother never officially objected to anything which was to her benefit," said Josh, equally sourly. She gave a wry laugh. "In any case, the tactic was wasted on me, for reasons now explained.
"While I'm thinking of it, what was that Trudy did yesterday with that... thing which closed the door?"
"The aliens used some sort of biofeedback control systems," said Dr. Culver. "We don't know the exact mechanism. If you touch one of their controls you... feel something. With practice you can make the control do something by willing it, and feel what it's doing. The way they originally opened the hatch was by bombarding it with signals until they got lucky, which took years. That equipment is long gone, though I guess they could bring it out of storage or build something new, if they wanted to. I'm surprised they haven't already."
"Why did they - the aliens - have a man killer thing at the door?"
"The best guess is that it's some sort of pest filter," said Dr. Culver. "Who knows? Maybe for them it was a delouser. The Y chromosome is unusual, so the effect could be entirely accidental. We've never found what generates the field, or any connection to it in the door controls."
By the time the water stopped dripping the rest of their little crew was stirring. The scent of hot - even if instant - coffee and the makeshift hot breakfast served to stimulate them to something approximating wakefulness. By the time Josh announced breakfast was ready everyone had finished in the restroom except Trudy. She made it out in time to grab the last bowl just as Josh finished pouring in the hot water.
When the meal was over the others all declared this to be a most excellent meal. Josh had the good grace to blush.
"I'll get the dishes," said Mei Lynn. "My specialty just isn't much in demand, right now."
"Any ideas on what you'll fix for lunch?" said Lois, smiling at Josh.
"We just finished breakfast!" said Josh, in mock annoyance.
"Let's get dressed and get to work," said Dr. Culver. "Same shifts as we had last night. Mei Lynn and Lois take turns monitoring the hallway. The rest of us explore Dr. Thompkins' computer."
* * *
"I think that's about it," said Dr. Culver, leaning back and rubbing her eyes. "Oh, a team of experts could spend decades on follow-up, but we have the gist. That's twenty-three years of work digested in two days."
"I think we need to open that hatch, soon," said Josh, tiredly. "It's getting stuffy in here."
"I'm afraid you're right," said Dr. Culver, sighing. "Sooner than I expected."
"If they haven't killed that wireless router we can try one last call for help," said Josh. "I still have those two other messages we worked up waiting to send."
"Yeah," said Dr. Culver. "Okay, I guess we have no choice."
This time they built a barricade across the entrance ahead of time, both to stop bullets and impede entry. Trudy positioned herself at the controls while the others stationed themselves behind cover to look out the "hatch."
"Something's been bugging me about the alien controls," said Josh. She rubbed her eyes and yawned. "Sorry. Just won't jell."
"Low oxygen," said Dr. Culver. "The people who set this up didn't want to clutter the passageway with too much plumbing, so they have vents in the hall blowing warm, dry air in through the top of the opening. Cool, stale air then flows out through the bottom. Even a few minutes would give us another day or more in here. We have no idea why the aliens didn't have air regeneration equipment in here. It may simply be turned off, lying unrecognized in a cranny, somewhere."
The wait stretched out uncomfortably.
"You all right over there, Trudy?" said Lois, looking at the tech.
"Sorry. Just having trouble concentrating."
Josh felt a stab of worry. What if they had waited too late, and she couldn't open the hatch? Fortunately, in another few seconds the bizarre transfiguration took place. Immediately, fresh, warm air began pouring in. They saw no-one waiting.
"Hallelujah!" said Lois.
"Okay, Josh, you go send those messages while we take a look outside."
"Sure," she said, rising. "Be careful out there. Don't want to find you gunned down in the hallway."
"Don't worry; neither do we," said Mei Lynn, seriously.
With the fresh air clearing her head as she walked, Josh quickly reached the computer. It unlocked with the now-familiar obsequious greeting. The wireless connection was still there so she sent the messages. The e-mails went through quickly, this time. Josh also noted several incoming messages, which she quickly read. She actually ran back to the entrance once finished.
"Nobody there," said Melinda, who was standing at the entrance, relaying what the others were finding outside to Trudy, and now Josh.
"My attorney sent several e-mails," said Josh, excitedly. "In one he said they were coming in with a warrant - the third one, I guess - and half the police force! That was two days ago... Everything since is him asking me to reply."
"Hey!" came an excited but distant call from Lois. "There's nobody here! Looks like some hurried attempts were made to destroy records but they got stopped before they were really started. All the animals are gone, too."
Josh hurried outside. There she found that the gate had been forced.
"The police must have come down here while there was no-one watching the monitor," said Dr. Culver, as she saw Josh examining the lock.
Josh stopped, and made a face.
"Wow. We stink. All of us, I guess."
Dr. Culver started to laugh, which proved infectious. After a few minutes, Lois stuck her head through a doorway well down the hall and said she'd found a phone in an office and called 911.
"They finally figured out what I was talking about and put me through to the detective handling the case," she told them. "I've still got him on the line, on speaker."
They hurried into the office, to hear the detective say:
"I have units on the way. Come on up. There's currently no-one in the building."
* * *
"I'm glad you're finally satisfied," said Josh. "I was beginning to think I'd have to start my life over as Jane Doe."
"Can you blame me for being doubtful?" said Detective Carstairs. "We were expecting to find five women and a young man. Instead we found six women with a wild story.
"Anyway, here's a peace offering for doubting you," he concluded, pushing an envelope across his desk.
Inside, Josh found her new driver's license.
"Thank you," she said, feeling greatly relieved. "I salvaged my wallet from my ruined clothes, so I have my Social Security card and credit cards; I guess I can keep everything which doesn't have a photo or list my sex."
She smirked as she realized the weight on the license was already wrong. She was eating like a pig, under the direction of her personal physical therapists.
"So what are you going to do?"
"With the whole board of directors in jail for ordering my murder the company is under federal government oversight," she said, thoughtfully. "They've already said they want me to participate. Maybe even be on the new board."
"Very clever of Horton to record that meeting where they told him to kill you," said Carstairs, nodding. "Not to mention self-preserving."
"I'm just glad they got that security guard," said Josh, with a shudder. "He's the one who actually did the deed."
"Well, good luck," said the Detective, rising and extending his hand.
"Thank you," said Josh, as she reached out her own hand. "I think I'm going to need it."
* * *
There was so much to remember about how to act, now. Fortunately, these days most people in most circumstances didn't think much of a woman with a few masculine mannerisms. Josh still wouldn't wear a dress or skirt, but had embraced slacks and a few other pieces of the female wardrobe. Though she didn't like bras, she already had nearly two dozen – most now too small - and wore one whenever she was in public.
I really hate women's clothing, thought Josh, unconsciously tugging at a bra strap.
As she became more confident interacting with straight men she began wearing a small amount of perfume and makeup and even painting her nails. Lois had been right, all those weeks ago, when she said Josh would get more dates this way. Though she was still too new at this to have gone beyond some very innocuous flirting.
"How did it go?" said Dr. Culver, as Josh entered her car.
"Driver's license!" Josh cheered, holding it up like a trophy. "Hey, just noticed they have my original name on it. Y'know, I've had a lot of suggestions for a new, female name - Josey being the most acceptable - but I think I'll stick with Josh. If only to confuse people."
She put her seat belt on - mindful of her new breasts - and settled back in the front passenger seat as the doctor drove away.
"You know," she said, contentedly, "I think I'm starting to get the hang of this woman stuff."
"I'll remind you of this remark after you go through your first menstruation," said Dr. Culver, dryly. "Should start any day, now that you're not half-starved."
The foundation turned out to be hiding a lot. Even from Josh's mother. For example, except for her they had frequently rotated the staff allowed in the alien chamber, with the explanation that the environment was psychologically depressing. All personnel were given monthly evaluations and rotated to other jobs when certain factors went outside certain bounds. The sole exception was Dr. Thompkins.
"Positive feedback," said Josh, quietly, looking out the side window without seeing the scenery.
"Pardon?" said Dr. Culver.
"It's a positive feedback loop. Using the alien devices isn't just sensing and being sensed. The devices both adapt to the user and try to adapt the user to them."
"Well, yes," said Dr. Culver, uncomfortable at the thought she'd used that same equipment. "Your Mother remained constant on her psychological exams and she was doing very good work so they left her in there."
"Not knowing she learned in college how to give psychologists what they want," said Josh, sadly. "She's always been crazy; even my older relatives say so. The influence of the alien devices pushed her further and further along that path. At a time when she should have been getting help they were making her a maniac."
"So it wasn't entirely her fault," said Dr. Culver, as she stopped at a security gate. "Dr. Culver and Miss Thompkins to see Dr. Taylor."
They were waved through. A few minutes later they were in the psychiatrist's office.
"She's improving steadily," he assured them, smiling. "Really, she's making remarkable progress."
"Will she remember who I am this time?" said Josh, quietly.
The psychiatrist's smile faded.
"We... don't know. Her condition is unique. From what you folks have told me..."
He gave a nervous laugh, and shook his head.
"That news segment - with the all-female TV crew - almost had me thinking this was some elaborate hoax. Though the documents you provided were convincing. At least, after I made a few calls to confirm them."
Something else Josh would have to get used to was public attention. The commitment of the foundation's chief researcher months earlier had attracted the attention of the press. The raid on the facilities attracted more. As details of the charges leaked out the coverage became regional. With the revelation of alien devices it went global. After a lifetime of trying to maintain a low profile Josh was now an international celebrity. She was just glad she was healthy enough these days to endure the attention.
"May we see her?" said Josh.
"Of course. This way."
A few minutes later they were back outside, in a garden where many of the patients walked, rolled in their wheelchairs or simply took the sun. Dr. Thompkins was one of the latter.
She looked much older than she had before her breakdown. She also looked much more peaceful than Josh could ever remember. She sat there in her lawn chair, idly stroking the big, yellow cat in her lap. Josh smiled and squatted down beside her. The older woman immediately noticed the younger and smiled a greeting, but there was no sign of recognition.
"Hello, Mother," said Josh, quietly, gently. "How are you today?"
"Are you my daughter?" she said, face and voice filled with wonder.
"Yes, Mother," said Josh, holding her smile, but feeling tears start to well. "How are you feeling?"
"I am feeling just fine," she said, reaching out to touch Josh's face. "Especially knowing I have such a fine daughter!"
They chatted for several minutes, the two doctors standing back a polite distance. Finally, Josh patted his Mother's arm and said she had to go.
"Please, come back soon!"
"I will. I promise."
The trio walked silently back to the psychiatrist's office. Even after they all sat down, no-one said anything for several minutes.
"Her short-term memory is fine," said Dr. Tailor, finally, "but access to long-term memory - in or out - is severely impaired."
"I know," said Josh, voice slightly choked. "This is my third visit, and she never remembers anything about me."
"That may change. She is showing signs of remembering routine activities. The past two days she has been up and dressed, ready for breakfast, when the orderly went to get her. Her most recent MRI also shows improved brain function. Don't give up hope."
"Oh, I'm a long way from that," said Josh, with a laugh. "What I've been through recently has shown me there's always hope. Thank you, doctor."
Josh and Dr. Culver said their farewells and left. Leaving a thoughtful Dr. Tailor standing at his window for quite a while.
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