“Couldn’t we have handled this over the phone?” Helen grumbled as Hank packed their field notes into a lime-colored folder. “Did you really have to drag me here?”
She didn’t mean to sound like she didn’t like it here. On the contrary. She had been to his apartment a few times before; a small pad in a reasonably decent, if remote, part of the city, far more spacious and comfortable than its bare size would suggest. It wasn’t by chance, either. He’d sunk considerable effort into making it feel open and airy. Everything around her, from the shelves lining the walls, through slender furniture, all the way to the abstract album covert art framed above the desk they sat at had been selected for this purpose.
The fact that he pulled it off was a testament to his completely uncultivated and deeply enviable knack for interior design. Helen had maybe a third of his books and none of his prodigious collection of vinyl, and yet she always found them spilling out of the shelves, littering the desk and the floor. Then again, she also didn’t have Hank’s inherited money. She glanced at the vintage, vertical turntable at heart of the hi-fi system unostentatiously concealed in the nooks and the crannies of the room. He’d spent a year looking for it and then refurbishing it so that it would end up looking brand new. He’d put enough money into it to buy three new ones, and then some. The fact that he wasted his life in the non-profit sector, working alongside the likes of Helen when he had resources like that, never ceased to baffle her..
“I mean,” she added, waiting for him to stash the file somewhere where it wouldn’t stand out, “you’ve made it sound like we’ve had more to talk about than just a few preliminary observations. I really didn’t have to come over here just to look over those.”
“Yeah,” he looked back at her and smiled prettily.
He looked five years younger than his age, boyishly slender and golden-haired. There was a time, she recalled, when he’d grown out a pretty impressive, flaxen beard just to not get carded over and over again. But he’d left it behind to embrace what he had called his “andro” phase, and she had to give it to him: the look suited him. She remembered Rowan complaining about how easy he made it look. She winced, the brief illusion of a good mood gone in a flash.
“So, why?” she asked.
“Helen,” he replied, sitting back down. “I’ve wanted to talk.”
Oh for fuck’s sake, she thought, rolling her eyes in annoyance.
“Seriously,” she snapped. “Couldn’t you have just told me, this is some…”
“No,” he raised his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Look. Just—I’ll get us something to drink and we’ll talk, okay? Coffee? Tea? Wine? Let’s make it tea.”
“That’s it?” she said as he disappeared into the kitchen, raising her voice to get it over the whistling of the kettle. “You just wanted a heart to heart so you made it sound like a big work thing?”
“Yeah,” he shouted back. “I’m sorry for that!”
“Jesus Christ, Hank!”
She considered just getting up and leaving. What the hell was all that about? She really didn’t need her friends playing childish tricks on her like that, not with all the shit on her head. She felt her face flush, mute anger crackling in her gut. The feeling registered so uncomfortably familiar as to make her double-check. What was going on? This was annoying, sure, but why was she getting that worked up? She exhaled, trying to blunt the edge of frustration cutting through her thoughts.
“Seriously,” she said when he returned, dumping a pair of colourful mugs in front of them. “Couldn’t you have just asked me to talk?”
He looked at her with a mixture of amusement and concern.
“Helen,” he said softly, “the last three times I asked you to come meet, you said you didn’t want to.”
“We’re both overworked,” she replied, pushing a mug closer, hand half-wrapped around it, feeling at the heat. “You know that.”
“There’s overworked,” he continued, “and there’s falling asleep at the meetings and spending half of our interviews looking like you’re in bloody Narnia!”
She frowned and looked away. Guilt mixed into frustration. He shot her the sort of a smile that was supposed to say look, I’m just saying. Something nasty bubbled up inside of her.
“Hank,” she grunted. It surprised her how harsh her voice came out of her throat. “Come the fuck on, this is childish. You don’t need to play parent for me.”
“No,” he said calmly, or at least trying to play at being calm. “I’ve just never seen you act like that, okay? It’s so unlike you. Everyone sees that there’s something eating at you. Anna, fucking Professor Anna Rymińska, who is about as self-centered as a gyroscope, asked me and Barbs if you’re okay.”
“That’s none of…” her business, she wanted to finish, but—God, Helen remembered complaining so many times that Anna never bothered about her colleagues’ well-being and now she was angry that for once she had?
She sipped from the mug, the tea still scalding-hot. Then she closed her eyes for a second and exhaled heavily.
“Fine,” she murmured. “There’s some stuff on my head. I guess it’s wearing me thin.”
They sat in silence for a while, Hank eying her expectantly.
“It’s about Rowan,” she sighed finally, feeling yet another pang of irritation flash through. She didn’t really want to have this conversation. Not with Hank, not with anyone.
“Figured as much,” he said, a faint hint of self-satisfaction in his voice. “You’re still grieving her stupidity?”
“No, it’s…” she started to speak, but realized that if it wasn’t grief, then she didn’t really know what it was. Why couldn’t she stop thinking about her? Why had she agreed to surveil her, why did she make watching the life-stream of the violation of her friend into a part of her daily routine? Why was she unable to tear her mind away from it, even as she wanted to?
Hank—and others—were right. It ate at her. She spent hours upon hours digging through the internet just to find some more obscure information about Galatea, about Pygmalion, about Mircea Leon; it was what her thoughts drifted to any time there was an opportunity to and, sometimes, even when there really wasn’t. If there was a way to get rid of them, she couldn’t figure it out, not for the life of her. And somewhere, deep inside, it made her just plain angry. But why?
“I don’t know,” she said, feeling defeated. “I just don’t know, Hank, okay? It’s… nothing about it makes sense. Galatea doesn’t make sense.”
“What do you mean,” he said, urging her to go on. “What do you mean by that?”
“They are top of the world in novel surgical protocols, but also… did you realize just how much of the pharma industry is theirs, at this point? Just how much groundbreaking tech they’ve introduced? Whole new categories of psychoactive substances, actual suspended animation technologies… Hell they’ve solved bedsores—and it’s barely even advertised! You don’t hear about it. What do they put front and center: their fuck farms. But those don’t even make profit!” she spat out, voice raising to borderline shout.
“Okay,” Hank raised his hands in a defensive gesture. “Like?”
She breathed out heavily. There was a kind of a dam inside of her, behind which she kept it at all—all the frustration with Galatea and Rowan that she couldn’t share with anyone. And right now, the dam was crackling and leaking. When she opened her mouth again, she spoke quickly, furiously.
“Like,” she said, “I’ve seen some people try to calculate the operations costs and profit margins. It’s all approximations, but it’s clear that Galatea is dumping money equal to the budget of several small countries just into maintaining holiday resorts for deviant old men. No one has any idea why.”
“Porn industry is big,” Hank offered without conviction.
“Yeah, but even then—that’s just the operating costs, and to get it all off the ground, they had to do so much more. Even getting the legislation passed that allowed for their contracts. How many billions went into lobbying for that? And that’s all on a biotech firm that sprang out of Bratislava less than a decade ago, bought up a small start-up in Bucharest and within three years were the hottest property on the planet, actually influencing labour policy like some souped up Amazon.”
She swallowed a mouthful of tea. She was shivering just from saying it all out loud.
“I’ve seen some of their technology,” she continued. “It’s out of this world. And they are using it—you can’t even imagine the shit they are pulling out behind closed doors. It’s a pornographic fever dream. And… and it doesn’t make any sense.”
“So…” he said after a moment, voice soft. “You’re depressed at that? It sounds like you’ve been researching it a lot, it had to be rough.”
“No,” she said again. “Look… I have to show you something.”
Again, it was one of those snap decisions she knew she would end up regretting later. But right now, she needed to share this, throw the burden on the backs of her friends too, so maybe it would be easier on her. She reached for her bag, took out the laptop and opened it, bringing up the Galatea application window.
“What is that?” Hank asked, seeing the logo and the loading screen.
She didn’t reply, just turned on the live feed.
There was no telling where the body ended, and the machine began. It hung suspended in a metal spider-web, hundred of little wires snaking around it. They wrapped and coiled around the thicker cables running from the bulky mask around its head, all the little pinpricks of electronics stuck over its skin, and from the strange devices affixed to its genitals. An occasional column of bubbles and the slight ripple indicated that it was submerged, drowned. The massive rebreather bolted over its face allowed it to live, but also made it look alien and inhuman. It couldn’t move; only sometimes its fingers would twitch in response to an unseen stimulus. But it was not enough to make the image look like anything but a still tableau. It made Helen think of those half-formed bodies suspended in glass vials in sci-fi movies she used to watch with her brother—not dead, but not alive either.
“What the fuck,” Hank whispered.
“She’s been like that for at least two days now,” Helen announced, staring at her friend. There was another camera, she knew, she could swap to. One that would allow her the view from inside the helmet, a look straight into Rowan’s vacant eyes.
“But that’s not a… That’s a she?” he asked. “Oh…” the revelation hit him quick and hard. “That’s Rowan. Holy shit, that’s Rowan.”
“How the fuck did you get access to that, Jesus Christ Helen, what in world...” he stared at her, wide-eyed. “What are they doing to her?”
She opened her inbox on her phone and found the email.
“The object was successfully installed in the programming tank,” she read, keeping her voice level. “No hostile reaction to tank conditions detected. Initial response to the susceptibility protocol positive. Overall stress level low. Overall mental state suitable for commencing principal programming.”
She put the phone away, the click of plastic on wood loud like a gunshot.
“It’s Rowan,” she said, feeling empty and sick. “Drugged up her nose and literally wired to some brainwashing machinery. And…” the words barely made it out of her mouth, “she wanted that, Hank. She actually wanted all of that.”
“Bullshit,” Hank growled. “No way. We both know that there’s no way she could have wanted that,” he pointed at the screen. “They deceived her. This is fucking criminal! You need to publish it, you need to…”
“I receive daily reports,” there was nothing more than she wanted but to agree with him right there. But she couldn’t. “She is happy. Do you understand? She is happy with what they are doing to her.”
“Do you seriously believe them?” Hank almost laughed. “They can write whatever, they are doing it so that you don’t, I don’t know, send the footage to the media. They are lying to you. Shit, I wonder if they outsource this tech to the CIA, some fucking MKULTRA shit…”
What was she to say to him? That she saw how hard it made her before? That she watched her friend cry out in numb pleasure as bored lab-technicians ran her through with electricity through a metal dildo screwed into her ass? That she watched her sleep well and deep in a little glass cage meant only for her? She knew what he would say to that—the same things she had. The same things she still did.
“Why would they lie?” she asked instead, drinking the last of her tea. The dam had broken and whatever nauseating feeling it had been holding back flowed freely, leaving behind a damp, empty sensation. She felt more sad than angry, and very sick. “I have this footage on my own, Hank. They gave it to me, unprompted. If you want, I can pass it all, and more, to you. Just download the files. They already handed me the smoking gun. So… what if they are telling the truth? What if she is really…”
“You’ve said they’re drugging her,” he murmured, still staring at the video, as if unable to look away. “It’s not hard to, you know, break someone’s mind. You know full well what the US got up to, back in Iraq and then… they lured her in, they stuffed her full of chemicals, and boom. Happy little death of the mind.”
“Yes, but…” she hated what she was about to say, she hated the fact that she felt like she needed to say it. “She knew. I’ve looked through the same catalogues she did, I’ve dug through the stuff she read through, I’ve talked with her just before. She wasn’t stupid. She knew what she was getting into. She wanted that,” she pointed at the screen accusingly, then allowed herself to slump. “She wanted that. And,” she added after a moment, “I just don’t get it. How could a woman want it? I’m trying to understand, and… I just can’t. I. Just. Can’t.”
That was it. The simple, bitter admission of defeat. Days of watching, of thinking, of chasing after Galatea’s shadow had brought her no closer to finding a reason why. She fell further in her chair, feeling very tired.
Hank noticed. She saw him tear his eyes away from the screen and look at her, as if about to say something. But he didn’t. Instead, he shook his head sadly and reached into one of the desk’s drawers, taking out a box emblazoned with the logo of Emerald Dreams. Despite herself, she smiled.
“Maybe that’ll help?” he suggested.
“Yeah,” she nodded. “Thanks, Hank.”
They sat on the narrow balcony, tightly wrapped in their jackets. The vast spread of high-rises ahead warded off the worst of windchill. Perhaps the view they had wasn’t the best—from his apartment, Hank had the great pleasure of watching rows of dour, concrete towers roll out towards the horizon, and little more—but at least the air here was surprisingly fresh. The sounds of the city came in distant and muted into an almost reassuring soft rumble.
They smoked in silence, reclined in plastic chairs. Helen shook off the ash into a jar half-filled with cigarette butts and watched the smoke haze about, quickly dispersing in the cool air. It wasn’t calm that she was feeling, not precisely, but the parts of her that were all worn down and raw were, at least momentarily, numb. It wouldn’t last, of course, but right now it was everything she could have asked for. She took another drag.
“It’s fucked up,” she observed, without heat.
“Yeah,” Hank agreed, without asking for details. “But I guess it makes some amount of sense.”
She doubted it, but said nothing. He smothered his smoke and spoke again.
“I knew her, you know.”
She remembered introducing him to her, during some event. A movie night, if she remembered correctly, something that the feminist film club on the campus organized. They were watching Bloodsisters, and there was a discussion afterwards. Hank was one of the few guys attending; everyone, including Rowan, had thought that Rowan was another. He’d ended up hitting on her a few weeks later, complaining afterward to Helen that “he” hadn’t even realized that “he” was getting flirted with.
“Has she ever weirded you out?” he asked.
“Plenty times,” Helen shrugged. “Mostly all of this nerd stuff.”
“Heh, yeah,” he chuckled. “But that’s not what I’m talking about here. I have a few other trans women friends, and… none of them are like she was. If you know what I mean.”
He spoke in a way she recognized quite well. She sighed.
“Just be blunt, okay?”
He said nothing; he looked out at the building ahead, frowning.
“Okay,” he repeated. “It’s—I have those friends. They are transitioning, they transitioned, they did the entire thing. And they are happy for it. I’ve watched them change, and work for that change. But Rowan? What has she done with herself, after coming out?”
“Not much,” Helen agreed quietly. It wasn’t a big secret. It was one of those things that Rowan would cry out about when they talked, about how she was fake and phony for how she handled her transition. Helen fed her the lines about how it was okay to take your time, but even that had started to feel hollow after the fourth or fifth time.
“She bought herself a dress. Wore it twice, I think? Finally settled on a name, after you refused to call her Robert anymore,” Helen winced; she’d suggested Rowan after the woman herself spent two weeks agonizing over a name. “Wrote and published a paper about trans femininity. Had a fight with her family. That’s not much for a year and a half.”
“So it’s weird. She didn’t even try to go on HRT, or get anything done formally.”
“Maybe she didn’t want to,” Helen murmured, without much conviction. “You know it’s just as valid to be trans without any of that.”
“Yeah,” Hank grunted. “You can. And if you are happy with it, power to you. But you know she wasn’t. What she was was stuck and miserable. If…” he cut off abruptly.
Helen waited for him to continue, even as she knew what he was about to say. She hated it, almost as much as she hated the fact that it wasn’t just him who was reaching this conclusion.
“I don’t want to question her gender, but,” he started, only confirming suspicions. She tensed. “But look—if you are right, if she really wanted all of this… stuff to be done to her… it’s pure porn. It’s the kind of things you find on really creepy websites for guys with really creepy fetishes. And…,” he hesitated, glanced at her looking for signs of encouragement or reproach. She gave him neither. He sighed, then continued. “And maybe you’re right, maybe no woman could want to end up like she did, but maybe she just had this fantasy of this being done to her as a woman, this very masculinist…”
“It’s autogynephilia,” she interrupted coldly. The sickening feeling was returning. “You’re suggesting that Rowan’s autogynephilic.”
“You know it’s offensive,” she threw the words out, bitter and angry. “You know no one is taking this theory seriously outside of the gender critical psychos, you know that…”
“But it does explain it, doesn’t it?” he asked, and she shut up.
It did, she thought to herself, didn’t it?
She decided to take a walk back home. It was a long way, and the wind was only getting worse, but even if it took hours she needed it. She would fall behind with her work, but for once, it could wait. She zipped up the jacket high, stuffed earphones in and put on a loud and fast playlist from her phone. An interchangeable midwestern punk band blasted a deafening wail into her ears, the white dude at the mike wailing about solitude and depression. It was just about perfect to set the pace.
The city spread around her, vast, grey and lifeless. Concrete towers raked the leaden sky; an endless trail of cars zoomed past her empty sidewalk, clouding her in the faint smell of catalyzed emissions, dirt and road salt. She was the only pedestrian she could see; no one in their right mind wanted to walk by roads like that. She cranked up the volume, allowing a song to roar into her head. It was loud enough to spur her into a half-jog, but not to drown out her thoughts.
She hated the idea of Hank being right. No, she knew he wasn’t. It was some old, dumb bit of transphobic pop psychology, and she was genuinely ashamed to even try to apply it to Rowan. But it did check out—it really did. Hell, Rowan wasn’t even into men, so… maybe there was merit to it, maybe she…
“Some friend I am,” she mouthed to herself. Not only had she spent the last week just glued to the screen, watching Rowan’s intimate violation like the feed was some kind of porn site, but now she was doing the one thing she knew she was not supposed to, especially not towards someone as close to her as Rowan was. But if it wasn’t that, then what?
In a few weeks, maybe a month, the spring would come over the city, with warmth and rain, and put it to bloom. Bare sidewalks would blossom; the greenery would scurry over all the hideousness of old metal and concrete. But right now it was the dead season between, and the city appeared to her as some inhospitable, barren planet, its life trapped in vast habitats maintained by ever-hungry infrastructure. Without the cars, the grid, without the heating, this place would be a wasteland.
It made her think of the guts of the Galatea complex, of the windowless corridors and laboratories filled with arcane machinery—and of the bodies fed into them. Maybe that was the appeal of it, maybe it was just some statement on the human condition in the post-industrial hellscape of the modern world. Maybe Galatea was just a symbol.
No, she realized. Galatea was a symptom, not a symbol. And so was the fact that people—people like Rowan—could be lured into its hands and then exploited, human fuel for the furnace of capitalism. That made sense; if Galatea’s actions seemed pointless and excessive, it was just an appearance. There had to be a logic to them, some greater design. A piece of infrastructure, taken in the absence of everything else, had to appear absurd. But it was just a matter of shifting perspective, surveying the greater picture.
There had to be a reason why Mircea Leon sold his life’s work to an unknown firm, there had to be a reason why this firm had exploded into Galatea, there had to be a reason why it chose to build fuck-farms and populated them with mind-broken drones. There had to be a reason why it was so assured of itself as to allow her to see it all.
There had to be a reason why her best friend, who should have seen through it all, had instead given herself in. There had to be a good reason why she lost Rowan.
There had to be one, because the alternative was to admit that Hank had a point.
“Couldn’t we have handled this over the phone?” Helen grumbled as Hank packed their field notes into a lime-colored folder. “Did you really have to drag me here?”