Dale woke up feeling girly. Damn, not again. He checked his pectoral muscles, which had sagged and curved upward like a pair of canoes, and ran his right hand through his white and curly chest hair. Then he made a muscle. Powerless.
It was all the womanizing that was doing it, he was certain of it. Curse the womanizing. Dale reviewed what he’d eaten the night before and cross-checked the ingredients against the list he’d gotten from the Boyz. Looked pretty good, although who could say for sure? Buzz was the chemist, and even he strained to stay ahead of the subterfuge. There was only so much Buzz could test. Right now he was surely in the lab, bothering a beaker, teasing the precipitate with a thin glass stick, in search of the compounds in food and drink that had emasculated a nation. And not only the food: the mass-produced beverage bottles, too. They were made of a substance that leeched suspicious ions into the water. Drink enough of it and a man would start feeling the effects. If he was too far advanced, he wouldn’t resist them. He might even begin enjoying them.
Buzz and the Boyz helped Dale rig a reverse osmotic filtration system to his showerhead. It had been expensive. Pores, they’d realized to their horror, drank almost as much as lips did. Dale shuddered as he thought of his skin: millions of little mouths, ungoverned by reason, slurping down water laced with synthetic estrogen. He had, through meticulous measurement, determined that he’d lost four millimeters from his peter. He feared to examine the girth. Wasting away down there, as all men were. Well, there would be no more wanton washing. Dale had not showered in several weeks. He was pleased to discover that his personal odor was not wretched. It was a rough manly stench with notes of pound cake and rust. Only impurities fouled a man. Eliminate those and he might recapture his original troglodyte aura.
Not that it would be easy. It had barely been nine months since the women had taken over. Of course they had been in control long before that: through secret channels and compromises with flimsy leadership. But now it was overt, and feminization was the rule. Masculinity, already discouraged, would soon be outlawed. Millions of men, or former men, had already made their compromises — they were dressing and talking differently, adjusting their expectations and monitoring their actions, losing ground on the slippery slope that would one day tip them into the Womanizer. The Womanizer was the end to all things. Any man who entered the Womanizer, Dale knew, emerged, mere minutes later, a man no more.
Outside, snow fell on cold New England stones. Even this scene, which should have been bucolic, was no longer innocuous: weather modification drones had seeded the clouds with phenols and synthetic compounds that mimicked the effect of estrogen. The frost, too, was feminizing. Beyond the psychological trauma, gynecomastia had run rampant; Dale’s own breasts had swelled like Parker House rolls in the oven. The withering away of muscles, the shortening in the cock and ball area — all this a mere prelude to the inevitable dip into the Womanizer.
No true man alive knew what the Womanizer looked like or how it operated. Most of the younger ones never felt its kiss: they voluntarily shed their masculinity without much coercion at all. The machine was reserved for difficult cases. A few of the rougher Boyz doubted it even existed. They believed it a threat by the regime to hasten the voluntary shedding of masculine characteristics. And wouldn’t it be easier, Dale sometimes thought in his weakest hours, to give in to the pressures all around him and open up as Ferris had. Ferris: once one of the Boyz, lately in transition to territories as yet unexplored, last seen slinking, soft-shouldered, through the alleys of Manchester. But then Dale straightened up. He knew his obligation. He would be, if he had to be, the last man standing.
“Did you hear. They’re moving it.” This was Buzz.
“Where,” asked Rusty, busy scanning the news reports for subtext. “It’s always on the move.”
“Here, to New Hampshire. It’s coming here.”
Couldn’t be, there aren’t enough of us. Such was the consensus in the clubhouse. The Womanizer would stay in Boston or New York or one of the other population centers where there were still men to poach. A trip into these woods was a waste of time. No, you don’t understand, said Buzz; the Womanizer moves faster than you think. It can process hundreds in a day. Northern New England had become a problem area for the regime: here were hardy folk in the hills, tractor-drivers and maple-syrup sappers, manhood clutchers. Targets for forced feminization all.
Dale screwed the blue chalk atop his cue. He wondered about these tractor-drivers and tappers; all he’d seen in Manchester were the usual fairies. It seemed unlikely that the regime would bother cherry-picking in New Hampshire when there were still many strong options for gang emasculation elsewhere. But any discussion of the Womanizer unnerved him. He’d braved the poisoned snow to meet the Boyz because he’d felt himself slipping toward the pink, and needed manly camaraderie. He wanted to spend time in the secret basement room they’d decorated with pictures of tanks and drill bits and football fields, all chosen to bolster a man’s confidence in lean times. Instead: worry.
There was another reason Dale had come into Manchester. He was out of kerosene for the lamps and shells for the shotgun. Buzz had shown him how to keep his weapon safe during the Melt. They’d coated the whole thing from trigger to shaft with a heat-resistant compound he’d developed. When the magnet had passed overhead, those who hadn’t complied with the buyback mandate found their barrels limp. But not Dale. He’d been careful to hunt in the areas of the forest that Rusty had designated free from satellite surveillance. Yet he could see the arrows on the map on the clubhouse wall and knew what they meant: the safe zones were disappearing. In a few months there’d be nothing left.
“If the Womanizer is coming at you, what do you do?,” asked Cliff, their strongman, barbell in hand. “Run?”
“You can’t run,” said Buzz. “It is far quicker than you could ever be. Its engine is gyroscopic and it will respond to any movement you make, no matter how subtle.”
“So there’s no hope?”
“Well,” said Buzz, thoughtfully, “your only recourse is to playact. Convince the machine that you’ve voluntarily feminized and more radical methods of emasculation aren’t necessary. If you can project a feminine aura, you may be spared.”
So they practiced. The Boyz adopted a girly stance: toes pointed, lips parted in a pout, fingers delicate and splayed, backbone relaxed, gentle thoughts. Buzz led them through the exercises. Some of the Boyz, Dale noted, were more convincing than others. Those would have to be watched carefully. *This isn’t what I go to the clubhouse for*, thought Dale, this is merely deepening my feelings of endangerment.
Clubhouse ritual was what he depended on: the pledge to remain male no matter what, the rounds of dirty jokes and exhibitions of strength. Then they’d whip them out for the weighing. Any recession, no matter how slight, was cause for alarm. Buzz kept the figures in a leather-bound ledger. It was a great point of pride for Dale that he’d lost less mass than many of the others — Cliff, for all of his pectoral fortitude, had been withering away where it counted. He anticipated the exquisite vulnerability of peter exposure. Waving around there in the clubhouse air while Buzz calibrated the measuring devices, slipping it into the sleeve. waiting for the readout, the pencil scribble in the margin of the book, stealing a peek at the fractional numbers, and then the relief, the sweet relief, when the verdict came down. Proof of good living, contamination avoided, pure defiance.
By the time Dale left the clubhouse, the storm had stopped. The plow had cut a neat furrow into Lake Avenue and piled the snow by the cub in a great hump. Since the regime had taken over, the efficiency of city services had spiked. Littering had ceased, too, as had aggressive driving, cigarette smoking, public spitting, boom boxes, all good things. It was quiet on the street. To Dale it felt programmed, somnolent, nothing like the raucous Manchester of his youth. Back then he played the blooze with the Boyz for brewskis in the local bars. In theory they were still a band. No one had picked up an instrument in a long time. Now that Ferris had feminized, it occurred to Dale that they never would again.
Everything slipping off into sleep, everything tumbling into detumescence. This is how it ends for the Boyz: attenuation, an inglorious fade into dull twilight. With extra oomph he pushed open the doors to the hardware store. The interior, he saw to his dismay, had been redecorated — painted pastel and reordered for maximum legibility. Once it had been a forest of dowels and bandsaws, cutting edges glistening under harsh light; now the shelves were stuffed with various yarns. An easel prompted patrons to sign up for a crocheting class. Not even good old fashioned self-motivated crocheting!, grumbled Dale to himself, even crocheting required authorization and guidance now. What a world, what a plush disaster.
Kerosene had been moved to the back of the store. Dale elbowed his way past a newly feminized he-she and a neutered child. Both stared at him aghast. The register-runner had all the marks of a recent encounter with the Womanizer: she was still growing into her reformed body, unaccustomed to its rhythms and movements, shedding male characteristics but still not fully female, the whisper of a beard under her rouge. She paused before taking Dale’s money, filed it in the register, and then washed her fingers with a handi-wipe. The child, waiting behind him in line, pinched its nose and made a face. What are you all staring at, said Dale. I am not the freak. You. You are the freak.
The sporting goods shop had not been transformed. Instead the regime had slapped a padlock on the door. Through the front window Dale could see the case where the ammo used to be kept. It had probably been confiscated and melted. But perhaps something had survived the magnet. After letting the moment marinate, Dale applied the sole of his boot to the glass door. It did not budge an inch but he felt a terrific pain in his ankle. Ten, twenty years ago he’d have knocked it off its hinges; now, he could do nothing but injure himself. Angry, teeth gritted, Dale slapped both palms hard against the top panel. The dull thwack echoed in the street.
“Dale!” A high voice hissed. “What are you doing?”
He turned. In the shadow under an awning stood a figure he recognized as Ferris. Only it was Ferris by no means. It wore purple lipstick and a shag wig, a bra, red heels, a frilly blouse. Ferris. You look ridiculous. This isn’t you. Come back to us. You’re a man, Ferris. You’re one of the Boyz.
“It’s not Ferris anymore. It’s Frances.”
“Francis? See that’s not even a girl’s name.” He didn’t know what he was doing; he was like all the rest of them, caving in to pressure, trading their identity for social currency. You took an oath with us, Dale reminded his old friend, you swore that you’d never give up your birthright.
“I know. I know I did. And I meant it when I said it,” said Frances, “but I also didn’t. There was something moving in me. I know what you’re thinking. It wasn’t the water, and it wasn’t the estrogen in the food supply, and it wasn’t the radio waves from a transmitter, and it wasn’t hypnosis, and it wasn’t the state. It was always me. A woman was in me, scratching at the walls of my body to get out. Always I was a woman underneath.”
What sweet relief to put down that burden. She’d realized she didn’t want to be strong and assertive. She wanted to be tender, and caring, and empathetic. She wanted to feel a polyester dress on her bosom and nylons on her legs; she wanted to be pretty, lovely, desired. She knew Dale felt it too. She could see the craving on his face. She could see it in the way he stood.
“I can see it.”
Frances sighed. Okay have it your way. Cross your arms all you like. But please, Dale, don’t go banging on gun shop doors. This whole block is monitored; they’re going to pick you up. Look the sun is going down over the Merrimack. Stay off the streets tonight. Things are… being put in place now. In order. Please, get out of town. It’s already growing dark.
About this Frances was right. Although it was only four thirty, night was already sweeping like a great black drape over the town of Manchester. It would be hard to ride once daylight had disappeared: it would grow colder. There would be patches of black ice on the road. Dale strapped the kerosene to the rack on the back of his bicycle and poked toward the bridge. The weight on the frame made the back tire swivel and Dale hunched over and squeezed the handlebars to steady himself on a road made slick and grey by runoff from the snow.
The streets by the river were nearly deserted. Brick buildings and smokestack factories, still handsome after years of weathering, threw long shadows over the pavement. A salt wind blew cold over the banks. Dale wished he had company on the road. But he knew that things were not orchestrated in his favor: rush hour was perfectly synchronized, coordinated by satellite, with no room for unruly vehicles. Without dropping the kerosene tank he raced into the fading sun. He charged down a tight alley between tall walls. The last pink beams of sunlight tickled the brick.
Ahead of him he saw a shadow; movement, a metallic prod bent and then withdrawn. It was a feeler, a probe, a long rod with a silver ball on the end — something alien that had tucked itself into the alley, slipped around a corner, nosed its way toward him before suddenly retreating, pulled back, collapsed in on itself like an old TV antenna. Dale hit the brakes. What was it? He had never seen the like in Manchester. The probe retracted and then disappeared behind the brick walls. It had moved with the quality of levitation. Even as it scraped the walls, it made no sound.
Dale wheeled around. No way would he go through the alley. Kerosene be damned: he’d charge back the way he came and find a route bathed in streetlight. Yet he found that the alley was too tight to navigate easily. He could not reverse direction — all he could do was hop off of the seat and wheel his ride back to the place he came in. His tires squeaked against the snow. One hand on the seat and another on the handlebars, Dale hit the street, turned, and awoke to stupefaction.
It was a machine — one large enough to fill a city block — but it quivered with the pulse of a great beast. Eight long metal legs, each adorned with metal feelers atwist, attached to a long black cylinder slit at the top like a beer can slashed with a knife. From the aperture a viscous solution bubbled and steamed and dripped down its smooth sides. Six lights blazed from its front, and oil from its tail sizzled on the street and blackened the snow. Yet it moved in complete silence. Its great metal toes barely scored the street; it levitated, and its lights swiveled, and Dale was at once blinded and dazzled by them. Atop the cylinder, just before the great slit, sat a cockpit bubble. And behind the glass shield of the Womanizer, one hand on a great pink lever, sat Buzz.
He leered down at Dale, lifted the bubble, and spoke. Been looking all over town for your ass. Actually, that’s a theatrical exaggeration, don’t mind me, he said, stepping down the hydraulic staircase to street level. I knew where you were all along. We can track individuals with peerless accuracy. Even in the woods.
Dale’s first impulse was to run. Forget the bike, dart back down in the alley and head for the buildings by the river. Then he remembered what Buzz had told him about the engine, and the way the metal tendrils had wrapped around the brick corners of the alley. The probes rose from the Womanizer like hair stood on end; their sway governed not by the wind currents but by the machine’s own internal calibrations. Four had swiveled in his direction and were sniffing the air around him. With a wave of his hand Buzz dismissed them and they retracted back to the cylinder.
“So you — you’ve been in league with them all along,” said Dale, his voice shaking.
“All along? Heck no. Only for the last forty-eight hours.”
Rusty’s research had demonstrated that there was no place left to hide. He’d no choice but to cut a deal. It had been Buzz who’d invited the Womanizer to New Hampshire. By no means was he in control of it — he was merely its temporary guide, and he’d been granted a kind of immunity from its feminizing depredations. It was a myth, he said, that the regime wanted all masculinity stamped out. No, they needed men, not many, a select few, only the best, for breeding, and other manly tasks, but mainly breeding. This was, Buzz reminded him, all part of the masculine imperative: it was essential for a man to remove competition for females by any means necessary and spread his genetic imprint far and wide. Cooperating with the Womanizer made him more of a man. All it asked of him was the rest of the Boyz.
“Geez, Buzz, and I always thought you were the smart one. Don’t you know. This crazy thing is going to turn on you the moment it gets through with the rest of us.”
“Oh I doubt that. I very much doubt that.”
Will you look at him, thought Dale, he really does think that the State recognizes his genetic superiority. How smug can you get. Well maybe you cornered me like the old rat I am. But you won’t get all the Boyz. They’ll scatter deeper into the hills. They’ll keep the drumbeat going. They won’t cooperate. They will not conform.
“Dale, I hate to tell you this because I like you, I really do. You’re a swell fellow. Remember when we were young and we’d cruise around and dream. All the wild stuff we were going to do, us and the Boyz. But Dale, listen, there aren’t any Boyz anymore. Yeah. I got them all. You’re the last one. You complete the set. I can see you don’t believe me. Very well.”
From his pocket, Buzz extracted a flat red disc ringed with concentric circles. With his thumb he flicked it open, like a vanity mirror, and prodded and diddled the rubber surface with his index finger. The belly of the cylinder began to ripple, as if it was not metal but a porous membrane. Dale watched its oily surface wrinkle and shimmer in the streetlight. High on the wall of the cylinder a top corner of a flap came loose and rolled downward like the lid of a can of sardines. A hole opened in the chassis. One at a time, dazed and softened, hair braided or plastered to their foreheads by clear fluid with amniotic thickness, out stepped the Boyz.
Or those who used to be the Boyz, anyway. Dale barely recognized Rusty and Cliff and the rest, so transformed were they by the forced feminization experience. He knew that this wasn’t it, either, not close to it: they’d keep changing, mind and body, to fit their new forms. Yet the dismay and confusion felt by Dale was nothing compared to the pure contempt on the faces of the former Boyz. At once he could see himself through their eyes: he was disgusting, misshapen, malodorous, inconveniently priapic, poorly manicured, guilty of leg-spread and crotch-airing, of space-hogging, of loud-voiced declamation and various toilet-seat misdeeds. Air him out, shave it all off, get him straight. Into the Womanizer! Throw him into the Womanizer!
Emergency. Dale threw a leg over the crossbar of the bike and stomped on the pedal. But he’d forgotten how much the kerosene weighed. The bungee cable on the rack snapped and the tank, still tangled in the cables, listed to the side and dragged him down. Dale’s rear tire slipped, scooped ice, pitched him sideways out of the saddle. This was it; the tumble he’d always feared. His brittle old bones would not survive contact with the cold tarmac. His head would pop and splatter like a water balloon dropped from a tenth story apartment. Dale braced himself for the crash.
It never came. Instead he felt himself lifted up, hoisted into the air, like a splinter plucked from skin and tossed, wet and bloody, down the drain. One probe had scooped up his back leg and wrapped itself around him tightly. Another slid with astonishing precision down the front of his shirt. So gently was he carried that none of his clothing tore. He could not deny it: the thing handled him with care. And then Dale was twenty feet off the ground, looking down into the steaming cauldron atop the cylinder, watching the bubbles pop and the ichor drip down the crags where the metal was torn, held, poised on the lip of the high dive. Then, with a click, at the rude sound of a horn, the tendrils retracted. Buzz had thrown the pink lever. Like a rock, Dale dropped, with a splash, into the deep, churning pool of the Womanizer.
Completely submerged in the viscous solution, Dale fought for the integrity of his person. He closed his eyes, shut his mouth, sealed his nostrils with the back of a heavy paw, clenched his buttcheeks. Better to suffocate than to transform. He’d seal himself of, he would, he’d make himself seamless, like a pebble. Dale counted his holes and plugged them. Then, to his astonishment, he felt his pores open. Thousands upon thousands of hungry mouths, each lapping its full. Betrayed by his own skin and its little apertures, each one fronting a tiny wormhole, sipping, then guzzling the genderfluid, Dale opening up all over, juice gushing into his bloodstream, penetrating the barrier to his brain, turning him inside out. To his horror he felt it working: hips broadening and tipping, as if his pelvis was taffy, pulled and stretched on both sides. He felt his strong jaw dissolve like sugar candy under a faucet. The hairs on his chin sucked back into his face, the forest on his chest felled, his breasts enlarged by a great upwelling of fat, his nipples flattened and widened to silver-dollar size.
For a few desperate, thrashing seconds in the bath, he believed his pecker had been spared. Then the withering began. Whittled on all sides, compressed and crunched down, the old flagstaff shortened, testacles a-shrivel, retreat accepted by the mothership of the body. Chemicals, surging through him and around him, reshaping his unruly genital, molding and polishing with a sculptor’s care, until all that was left to clutch was a white oval nub.
Dale was, at first, mortified. Yet a funny thing happened as he was refashioned: he found himself minding it less and less. At first he’d expected pain; when that hadn’t come, he began to develop a diagnostic curiosity about the changes as they occurred. Soon he took, he had to admit, a kind of satisfaction in the efficiency of the alterations, those quick snips, the cleanliness with which his most prized characteristics were rubbished by the Womanizer. In fact Dale began to wonder why he’d ever valued them at all. What purpose did this identity serve, either to him or to anybody else, other than to isolate him? His competitive urges fell away — his need to blast the biggest buck, harvest the antlers, make the loudest bang. No longer did he care to piss his initials in the snow. To leave no mark: to serve selflessly, this, Dale felt, might better knit him to others, and bestow upon his life meaning that had heretofore eluded him.
So it was when Dale finally parted the membrane, squeezed back into the lamplight of the New Hampshire evenings with a spurt of goo by the great contractions of the machine. Dripping, but smiling, lithe and flexible in his new body, he turned to find Buzz, alone on the sidewalk, his hand resting on the long cylinder. He was surprised to see Dale and not a little horrified. That’s natural, thought Dale; poor man, burdened by his own expectations, his mad desire to excel and prove himself fittest. What a horrid onus. Dale felt just awful for him.
“Look, Dale,” said Buzz, a grimace across his face. “I’m sorry it had to come to this.”
“Oh, don’t be.”
“I — truth is, I always thought you were the manliest of all. The one with the real cojones. It… it hurts to see you like this.”
“It’s okay, Buzz. Relax.”
“But you know how it is, Dale, there can only be one king.”
“Whatever you like.”
“You’re not sore?”
With a big smile Dale approached him. Buzz flinched a bit at his advance, rallied himself, found his courage and stood up straight. Even after his spine had contracted, Dale still towered over him. He reached out a hand to shake. But instead of pressing the flesh, Dale tucked the nail of his middle finger under his thumb, brought it to Buzz’s solar plexus, and administered the gentlest flick.
Buzz fell backward as if he’d been yanked by a pulley. There to catch him: a nest of tendrils. His ass fell into the latticework. A probe wrapped around his neck, and two legs lifted him up above the pool. Dale mounted the hydraulic steps to the capsule and settled down in the chair. Once he was satisfied that Buzz had seen the rippling fluid beneath him — once he’d taken a good long gander at the froth and felt his filthy manhood slip between his fingers — Dale palmed the pink joystick and let his old friend fall.
Soon, thought Dale, masculinity would be nothing more than a bad memory: a foul noise from a past that had been tidied up. That would be as welcome as church silence after a day of babble. Behind him he could hear the fluids churn. With no malice, eager to hasten the day when the apparatus would no longer be needed, Dale released the brake, pushed the thumb button, and drove the Womanizer into the snowy hills.
– Tris McCall