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All our lives changed forever the day the gates appeared. They brought riots, chaos, and war, and eventually they changed the future of the human race.
But for ordinary people -- for my friends and me -- the gates brought an awesome choice -- whether or not to go through.
That day, I was walking down the street on the new North Houston college campus with two of my friends, Don Wesley and Russell Borderlon, and my girl, Rita Hernandez. None of us suspected that the world was about to change. It was a Sunday, during spring break, and unusually cold weather for Texas had cleared the skies of their normal polluted haze. We were on our way back home after eating lunch at the campus beanery. The food there wasn't anything to brag about, but it was convenient and came with the tuition, so we all ate there a lot. Besides none of us were very good cooks.
The campus was almost deserted because of spring break. Most of the students were gone, heading down to Galveston or Corpus Christi. The ones who could afford it, and didn't mind the risk, flew to Mexico.
Those of us who remained were enjoying a lazy Sunday. Don and Russell were walking in front of Rita and me. Russell had his palm computer out and was arguing with Don over some physics problem. I was saying something I have long since forgotten to Rita, using it as an excuse to blow in her ear.
I heard a gasp from Russell.
"Hey! I'll be goddamned!" Don said.
I looked up just in time to keep from bumping into them.
A gate had materialized almost on top of us. It appeared on thegrassy lawn at the east corner of the campus, adjacent to Romania Street where we always turned when going home from the cafeteria. Russell later told me that its appearance was instantaneous as far as he could tell. One moment there was only grass and a paved street in front of us, and the next moment the path was blocked by the gate, a glowing green arch darkening to dull turquoise inward from the edges and toward the space in between. Though it was only about twenty feet high and maybe ten feet across at its base, we were so close it seemed to tower over us.
We untangled ourselves and stood gaping up at it in amazement.
"Where on earth did that come from?" Rita demanded. She stared up at the gate with huge black eyes as wide open as a frightened owl.
I was frightened, too. Years of reading science fiction told me that the gate was clearly alien. I slipped a protective arm around her waist.
"It came out of nowhere," Don said, awed. "I almost ran into it." He stood with his hands on his hips, head tilted to one side as if he were examining a blackboard problem in one of his math classes.
"Impossible." Russell shoved his handheld computer back in his pocket. He glared at the gate as if it were defying some natural law.
"It did!" Don repeated.
"What in Christ is it?" Rita asked. I could feel her shivering inside the circle of my arm. She crossed her own arms against her chest in a defensive posture, flattening her breasts into the crook of her elbows.
"I don't know, but I'm going to find out," Don said. This was typical. He tended to view life as nothing more than a complex math problem he could solve with a minimum of effort if he could only find the right approach. He took a step toward the gate, hands outstretched.
"Don, don't! It might be dangerous." Even as he spoke, Russell reached out to grab the back of Don's windbreaker.
He was too late. Don was already walking forward. Three quick steps brought him into the edge of a faint nimbus extending from the darker turquoise inner portion. For a second I could see him there, frozen, one leg lifted for the next step. Then he disappeared as abruptly as a popped soap bubble.
"Don! Come back!" Rita screamed. She broke free of my arm and took a step forward.
For a second I froze, stunned by the sight of Don vanishing. Then my body reacted, and I grabbed Rita, catching the belt of her toga. I yanked her backward just as she reached the edge of the nimbus where Don had disappeared.
Rita stumbled and fell against me, and I held her tight, frightened at how close she'd come to that strange haze. She pressed her hands to her face in horror, her eyes wide with panic.
"Let me go!" Her voice rose in a panic as she struggled to get free of my grip. Her coffee-and-cream-colored complexion paled to a sickly yellowish gray, draining all the beauty from her face.
I shook her. "Rita, calm down! We're okay."
"This is impossible -- Don has to be here!" Russell's dark blue eyes glittered with curiosity. Keeping well away from the entrance, he began edging around the side of the arch, as if by stepping off its dimensions he could measure it and assign it to a category within the physics he loved so much.
That scream was a startled soprano voice. It came from the other side of the arch. Some other woman, as frightened as Rita, was losing control.
That thought lasted only a second. The voice came again, louder and shriller, with an overtone of horrified surprise. "My God, what's happened to me? My God! Lee! Russell! Where are you?"
Russell and I both bolted around to the other side of the arch. On edge, it was less than ten feet wide. Three or four quick steps and we were around the corner. Russell pulled to a hasty halt and I ran full tilt into him.
My momentum knocked us both to the ground. I rolled over and found myself flat on my back staring up at a totally naked woman. She stood a foot away from my head, her legs spread apart as if she needed all the support she could get to stay standing. Her head was bent and she was clutching both her breasts, staring at them as if they were two strange parasites suddenly attached to her body. A mass of curly brown hair blew around her shoulders.
I stared, fascinated. It wasn't her nudity that grabbed my attention, as you might expect, but the horror-struck expression on her face. She raised her head, looking bewildered, like a child too young to understand who had just caught a glimpse of her distorted reflection in a funhouse mirror.
"My God!" Her hands left her breasts and began scrabbling through the bushy triangle of brown hair between her thighs in a frantic search. As she looked down, she noticed me lying at her feet.
"Lee! What's happened to me?" Her voice broke. Suddenly she moaned and hunched up, trying to cover both breasts and pubic area with her arms and hands.
Russell was already standing up again, starting at the strange woman with his mouth open.
I heard another sharp intake of breath and looked up to see Rita standing on my other side. Her eyes were still wide with fear, but I knew seeing another woman in distress would distract her from her own worries. Rita was usually a picture of calm competence, and her life was dedicated to helping other people. Seeing a naked woman in front of her, she snapped into action. "Lee, get up and give me your jacket," she said, beginning to peel hers off.
The woman was muttering to herself as if she were about to lose it, but Rita was accustomed to encountering strange behavior as a psychology major. Now she calmly ignored the eerily glowing gate behind her and walked up to the naked woman, holding out her jacket.
I got to my feet and shucked out of my own jacket while she was wrapping hers around the woman's hips. She grabbed mine and threw it over the woman's shoulders.
Meanwhile, Russell continued to stare at the woman with amazement. "Don? Is that you?" He moved forward, as cautious as a cat approaching an unknown danger.
"It's me. I'm Don. Oh, Lord love the pope, look what that thing did to me."
"Lord love the pope" was one of Don's favorite expressions. I should know. He was my best friend, closer than my brother. I must have heard him say those words a million times in the past few years.
I was still stunned, but hearing "Lord love the pope" come from the woman's mouth made me start to believe; that is, if we weren't dreaming the whole thing. Besides, I was beginning to notice that this woman resembled Don, in the same way that Don's eighteen-year-old sister might have.
Rita looked worried. "Well, we can't stand here. Whatever this thing is, it's dangerous. Let's get her to your house, Lee, then figure it out. Come on, dear." She grabbed the woman's hand, tugging her away from the gate.
"Don't call me 'dear,' damn it. I'm a man!" Don, if that's who it was, pushed Rita away. She hadn't had time to zip up the jacket and the violent shove made her breasts pop up. If she was a man, you sure couldn't prove it by her anatomy.
The sight of those round breasts seemed to break Russell out of his trance. "Please, I'm not sure who you are, but we need to get away from this thing before it grabs someone else. If you come with us, we'll take care of you."
The woman clutched the jacket closed again and with a reluctant nod went along with Russell and Rita as they started back to my house. She didn't say anything else as we walked along. She seemed to be concentrating on her walking, like a neophyte sailor on her first cruise in choppy seas. Her eyes were the same dark brown as Don's but they appeared glassy, as if she were coming out from a heavy doping session.
The few students we saw were all shouting and running in the opposite direction, toward the new gate. I looked back over my shoulder, half expecting it to be gone, but it was still there. Already a small crowd was gathering, coming from all directions. There was little traffic on the street, and the few strollers we passed on the sidewalk were staring ahead at the gate. Besides, they were used to seeing students in odd raiment; probably they thought the girl with the jacket tied around her hips by the sleeves and another hanging over her shoulders was the victim of a new clothing fad.
Rita stayed close to this stranger who claimed to be Don while Russell and I hung back. Russell didn't say a word to me--he was too deep in thought. Well, I was thinking too, but I doubt my thoughts were as profound as Russell's. Mostly, my mind circled round and round one incredible idea: was it possible that weird green arch could change a man into a woman?
It sounded like a wild science fiction tale, one I would read in a book but never expected to see materialize right before my eyes. My mind kept replaying the picture of the gate appearing out of nowhere, but my astonished disbelief refused to vanish. It wasn't possible.
As I watched the woman struggling to walk, I felt a pang of guilt at my relief that it was Don who had gone through the gate rather than me. How would I react if it sucked me in and turned me into a woman? I didn't want to pursue that thought. Fortunately, I didn't have to, as my house came into view, sitting like a sanctuary on its spacious corner lot, and we turned into the drive.
I rented this house, which was a post-Millennium modular located only a few blocks from the college campus. It was solid on the outside, but it was easy to rearrange the rooms on the inside. Don and Russell lived there with me, and I'd spent the past several weeks trying to talk Rita into moving in too.
I told the door to open, and Rita hustled the girl into Don's bedroom. Russell snapped out of his reverie as we entered, and we both headed straight for the bar at the far end of the great room. This room was comfortably furnished with a couple of loungers and the two wall screens that connected us to the media and the web.
I don't usually drink much, but I still kept the bar well stocked for parties and for the others in the house. Russell hardly drank at all, but he didn't object when I poured us both a double shot of Jack Daniels and dropped a couple of ice cubes into the glasses. We sat down on the little lounger and propped our feet up, trying to pretend we weren't straining our ears at mumbled sounds coming from the bedroom. I couldn't make out what Rita and Don were saying, other than a strained curse or two from the strange young woman claiming to be Don.
I leaned back in my chair, already aware that the life I had known until now was about to change forever. Before the arrival of the gates, I was more or less a perpetual student. I had already earned degrees in journalism and biology at North Houston College, but I was still taking undergraduate courses (all that were offered at North Houston at the time) in psychology, business, sociology and anything else that took my fancy.
It probably sounds like I was leading a spoiled life of leisure, doing as I pleased, while other students had to struggle after the last of the federal loan programs were cancelled. I have my grandfather to thank for that.
My grandfather, Mosby Stuart, was an eclectic jack-of-all-trades who was relatively uneducated but self-taught in a number of subjects, most notably electronics. My parents claim I take after him. My dad described him as a visionary, a dreamer who wandered all over the South for years, seeking a niche and dragging his family along with him while he looked. He finally found a place for himself during the electronics explosion back before the Millennium, making his fortune designing software for some of the early computers.
He retired to eastern Texas where he spent a lot of time sitting in front of the keyboard or browsing through his vast library. Dad used to tell me stories of how Grandpa and Grandma argued over all the space the books took up in the house, especially his collection of science fiction, which I later inherited. That was before e-books became wildly popular, of course.
I wish I had known him better, but Dad was in the military while I was growing up, and we didn't get back to Texas that often. Grandpa was a Civil War buff, and Dad told me I was named after Grandpa's favorite general, but only after Grandpa promised a hefty donation to the disabled veterans of America, Dad's favorite charity. Mom and Dad had a disagreement about whether to call me Jackson or Lee, or so I heard from my older brother, Derek. Mom won, because as far back as I can remember everyone has called me Lee.
Grandpa and Grandma were killed in a car crash while I was still in my teens. Grandpa's will left his house to my Dad. Each of us kids got a trust fund. I started drawing my annuity on my eighteenth birthday, a few months before I was ready to start college. For a young kid, it was more than enough. I was able to afford the rent on a four-bedroom home off campus, a new car every couple of years, and still had plenty left over to enjoy life.
Rita was the greatest joy of my life in North Houston. I had originally chosen to go to that college because it was close to my family. Mom and Dad had moved into Grandpa's house only thirty miles further north on the NAFTA highway. In the two years before I started college, I grew to love that old place and the piney woods it was set in, a few miles out from the little town of Ruston. Now, with Rita in my life, I had a whole new reason to love living in Texas.
Russell and I had time to finish our drinks before Rita and the strange woman came out of the bedroom. The woman was dressed in a pair of loose slacks and one of Don's shirts. Her face wore a stunned looked, but the dark brown eyes were all-too familiar. They were Don's eyes.
"I could use one of those," Rita said, spotting the glass in my hand. She left the woman sitting on the large lounger while she made them both a drink.
Don--to make things easier, I'm going to call the woman Don for the time being -- slugged his down and then doubled over in a fit of coughing.
"God," he finally said in a strangled voice when the coughing stopped. "That burnt my throat. What did you put in there?"
"The usual." Rita gave him a worried look. "If that body is brand new, maybe it's never tasted liquor before. Better take it easy." She took the glass and made him another drink, but I noticed she added only a bare minimum of liquor to the mix.
Don took a tentative slip and seemed to relax a bit. He--no, I guess I'd better call him 'she,' since her body certainly left no doubt about gender--she finished what was in the glass, then sat slumped over as if trying to hide her new breasts behind the oversized shirt.
I was still struggling to sort out my thoughts. Don had been my best friend for years. We enjoyed the easy, comfortable friendship of two people who thought alike, were both crazy about science fiction, played the same web games and helped each other in classes. Don was my tutor when I struggled with math, and I helped him when he had to write a paper. We had grown close, almost like brothers. In fact, many times I had found myself wishing he actually were my brother rather than the one I had. I had never been comfortable around Derek, even when we were young. And since he had come out and told the folks and me he was a transsexual, I hadn't had much to say to him. Every time I thought about his claim that he was a woman trapped in a man's body, I became queasy.
Russell's blonde eyebrows creased in a frown. He looked at Don, glanced away from where she sat, and then forced his gaze back to her.
"Uh, Don, do you remember what happened to you when you went into that, uh, gate I guess we can call it?"
"I don't remember a damn thing. One second I was walking toward the arch, and the next thing I remember is coming out on the other side like this." She looked down at her body, then got up and stalked over to the bar again. I couldn't help notice how her hips swayed as she walked. I looked away, taking a deep breath. This was crazy.
By this time I had abandoned the idea that I might be dreaming. The whole scenario was too clear and defined, too logically linear once the basic assumption of that gate, as Russell called it, was stipulated. I had two thoughts in rapid succession.
"How do we know you're really Don?" That was the first one.
"Et tu, Brute?" She looked pained.
As much as I loved Don, I needed to make sure this was really him. Maybe I had read too much science fiction, but I couldn't help wondering if some strange force inside the gate had made an exchange.
The woman who claimed to be my best friend seemed to read my thoughts. She glared at me and snapped out a few words like a challenge. "Willy's Arcade. The redheaded stripper."
I blushed, remembering the incident, and Rita turned to give me a curious stare. I had never told anyone about that episode except Don.
She leaned close and whispered something to him. This time she blushed. She looked over at us. "She's Don, all right. I have to believe it now."
"Don't call me 'she,' " Don snapped.
"I still say it's impossible," Russell said. "Something like this violates all the known laws of physics. Maybe we've all been hypnotized or drugged."
Rita shook her head, making her thick black hair dance around her shoulders. "I don't think so. This isn't how hypnotism works."
"How do you know?" Don got up and poured another two fingers of whiskey. She almost dropped the bottle when she picked it up to pour. She was drinking way too much, especially if her body wasn't used to it, but I could hardly blame her.
"Remember, I took a course in clinical hypnosis last semester."
Hypnosis hadn't been my second thought, but it was close enough not to matter. "Suppose the, uh, entity inside the gate stole your, or Don's, thoughts and transferred them into another body?"
"I didn't see any entity, and I'll guarantee you I'm still me, even if I am in this fucking female body." Don slugged down his drink and endured another coughing fit. I couldn't help notice how his breasts jiggled with each cough.
Rita gave him an odd, almost angry stare. He should have known better than to say something like that, but I guess I might have, too, under the circumstances.
"How can you guarantee that?" Russell said.
Don plunked her glass down on the bar, her soft red mouth trembling as she fought back tears. She leaned away from the barstool she had been propping her arm on and wobbled a step or two toward the bathroom. "Because I have to piss, God damn it, and I don't know how!" Her features twisted and I thought she was about to cry.
Rita rushed over and led her to the bathroom, keeping an arm around her waist.
For a moment after they left, Russell and I sat in dead silence. Then Russell spoke up. "Hey I wonder if there's anything on the news about this?"
I don't know why we hadn't thought of that sooner.
"On!" I told the wall screen. The screen lit up and we were looking at a shot of a bright green arch. A mob surged around it, held back by policemen. I noticed immediately from the buildings in the background that it wasn't the same gate we had seen on campus, not unless it had moved in the meantime.
The volume came up and we heard a newscaster's voice, shaking with emotion. "You are looking at the gate that a young woman passed through shortly before police arrived. She vanished, but now a man who appeared naked on the other side is claiming to be that same woman. He says his sex was changed by the gate."
And that, of course, is how the term sex gates came into being.
Copyright © 2003 by Darrell Bain and Jeanine Berry
Posted June 21, 2013
Science fiction reminicient of Heinlein, Clarke and Assimov. Written about people's lives in extreme circumstances with viable solutions to difficult problemsWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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