a prison, a body
xviii. rowan. the years, the fear, the sleep
The camera in her cell was an inverted dome of glass, ostentatiously planted straight in the middle of the ceiling, a blue light blinking inside at a steady interval. It was a conspicuous device, impossible not to notice, and Rowan understood well why it had been made such. It was an application of the panoptic principle: the prisoner must be aware that at any moment, they can be watched, but must also never know when exactly. Such surveillance, to exert its power, had to be obvious. She had little doubt that there were other cameras concealed around the cell, microphones and whatever other exotic devices of spying that Galatea used, but the camera above her was meant to be seen, as much as it was to see her.
She had been thinking about cameras a lot over the past few days. She spent the moments of being moved from her cell to training or conditioning on surveying the ceilings and walls for the tell-tale marks of electronic eyes, and they were not hard to find at all. As far as she could tell, the entire facility was spiked with them to a degree that went well past excessive and into the realm of the obsessive. Whoever came up with this surveillance scheme—and her own suspicions were starting to hatch about their identity—could not settle for anything short of absolute visibility. The very idea that there could be a detail missed, a place obscured from the total electronic gaze, seemed to be an anathema to them. The transparent walls and translucent blankets she had grown accustomed to were just as much a product of that logic.
But she knew that already, did she not? The camera directly above her bed with its blinking, blue heartbeat never let her forget that from the very first moment in the bowels of the facility, she had lost any ability to remain hidden from sight. Privacy was not a part of the Galatea contract, and the total surveillance was something she had to live with, and under. She learned it well, within the first few days internalizing the omni-present gaze as an obvious, unavoidable fact of her existence. It almost faded from her attention.
And then, she learned about Helen.
Which cameras fed back to her? Which views were offered to her? How much could she see? Lately, each time Rowan passed by another electronic eye, she found herself wondering if, behind it, there was her friend. Somewhere, far away, looking at her.
The light above her head blinked at its measured pace, and she smiled to it, as warmly as she could. The odds were not in Rowan’s favour. Fifteen to thirty minutes each day; had she been any better at maths, she could maybe calculate the exact chance that Helen was tuned in right now, to watch her lie on her back on the bed, stare directly above, and talk.
“Hi, Helen,” she said into the quiet of her cell. “I hope you’re watching right now. It’s been another tiring day. They’re teaching me how to walk in heels, you know? You probably do,” she blushed slightly, “if you were watching.”
She imagined Helen, in front of her sticker-covered, battered Mac, looking at the screen, smiling in turn. Deeply, sincerely, she wanted it to look like that. A friend, receiving a message, reassured that things were working out, in their weird, twisted way. To think of Helen smiling to her right now, over the distance and digital silence, was soft and sweet.
But the idea was shot through with worry.
She recalled keenly the first days after learning of Helen’s surveillance, when each breath, each step, each little gesture, felt precarious. The unseen gaze stuck to her skin like a brand; she twitched and shied away from the cameras, even as she was reminded, over and over again, of the impossibility of hiding. Her mind ceaselessly served her the images of how her body would appear, of how she would seem when seen, and how the sight would be judged. Hiding was in her muscle memory, and even the eidolon’s commands could barely reign it in.
In the newly-found lucidity given to her, she feared that if that was to continue, the stitches holding the wounds in her brain shut would snap, so that they would be opened again, worse than before. But it was a different kind of fear than what she had grown with, one that gripped her, but did not swallow. One evening, when she was returned to her cell, she realized exactly what she had to do. Out of fear of what could return, she finally did what she had been always afraid of: took a few deep breaths, faced the camera, and spoke.
There were things she said then that she had never spoken of to Helen before. Little fears and large anxieties, small loves and burning desires. It was a confession of sorts, but not of sin as much of trouble. She admitted again to a kind of happiness that she knew was inappropriate, even as she could not care much for that. She admitted to just how much she had hated herself, not for any good reason, but just for the crime of being herself. The things that before would get stuck in her throat, in between stuttered sentences, in promises of talking at a better time that never came, finally flowed freely, spoken with conviction instead of panic, allowing them to stand on their own as statements, not desperate begging for love and attention.
There was, unavoidably, shame and embarrassment. There were sentences dropped in the middle, when she came upon the points where her voice wavered and broke, upon ideas that she had no words for. But however important were the things she danced and skirted around, in the moment, it paled compared to the long-yearned for exhilaration of the ice finally breaking.
Later, she would realize that there was no guarantee that Helen would hear any of it; that she wasn’t even sure if there really was a microphone hidden somewhere in her cell. But it didn’t, necessarily, matter.
She spoke, and then on the next evening, spoke again. Swiftly, it grew into a habit.
“It’s kind of disturbing how they do it,” she said, turning her eyes away from the camera for a moment. The blush had not receded. “They put me in those ridiculous boots and then pump me with chemicals until my brain turns all soggy and susceptible. I barely remember their instructions, or commands. I think it’s so that it becomes muscle memory. I liked it.”
I like it here—a phrase she found herself repeating over and over, and it was no lie. She had once read somewhere that in some cultures, there could be no real joy unless it was shared with friends. But she kept repeating those words for a different reason as well, one that lurked on the fringes of attention, one that was never far from her worries.
“I mean,” she continued, facing the camera again. “I wanted that. I was always so afraid of trying anything with myself, just because I thought I would fuck it up and make myself a freak. So in the end, I did nothing, and languished. Being forced to, and having the pain of this anxiety blunted, even with drugs? It’s lovely.”
“Even if it seems wrong.”
This could never be a conversation. Best she had was throwing messages in the bottle, hoping that one or a few would reach Helen, and preempt what Rowan feared. It would be so much easier if only she could know for sure why her friend decided to watch. If she could only confirm that it was what she desperately hoped for, and not what she was coldly certain was the real reason.
If only she could convince her. But to do so, she had to make a point of knowing how it all looked from the outside. Was it not all that Helen had? Rowan could only imagine how it would come across, but it was not difficult to see. It wasn’t the sweetest thought she’d had.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, actually,” she added, and it wasn’t exactly a lie, “about Galatea, capitalism, mental health, all those little intersections. I hope to share it all with you, some day.”
At first, after her release from the tank, she had assumed that her thoughts would now run ever straight, that all the pitfalls and traps they came to fall into before would now be averted. That, if push ever came to shove again, she would speak bravely and directly. And maybe, to a degree, that was the case. But however much she had changed, it wasn’t that much. She still danced around what she really wanted to say here, especially since just to think about it would invite a kind of discomfort she couldn’t exactly name.
“Anyway,” she said, stifling a yawn. All the tension of the monologue aside, she was just plain tired. “That’s it for today. When I come out, you’ll see me strut in the most preposterous stilettos, and, knowing you, remind me that they are almost torture implements.”
She worried that the last few words would come out as bitter, but why would they? It wasn’t that Rowan herself was unaware of how much fetishes were used to police women’s bodies.
“You’ll be right, of course. Good night.”
One of the signs of adjusting to her new life was how the way she looked at the drones changed. At first, and for a time after, she could not help but to swoon at their sight, and mentally put herself in their latex—if it was latex—suits. But as she spent more and more time around them, the rush of desire slowly weakened. That is not to say that looking at them—or imagining herself as one—lost its charm, but she could do more with it.
Presently, she sat on a stool in a changing room of sorts, and tried to puzzle out the gender of the person that was the drone carefully unlacing the absurd boots she wore to her training.
There was something subtly queenly about this entire entire scene; she, sitting, the relaxed look on her face a residue of the chemicals Galatea treated her with, and then the drone kneeling in front, silent but for the creaking of its suit as it worked to loosen the elaborate laces. It felt almost like being serviced.
In the porn she used to watch, latex usually seemed to highlight the anatomy, bring out the sex: each individual breast in its boob socking, the rubber lining the genitals as if painted out. But whatever Galatea used was different: it compressed as much as it revealed, rendering the body so much harder to identify with any set biology. Sure, sometimes she could easily see an outline of a bust—the drone working on her feet right was particularly well endowed in this regard—but more often than not even that remained ambiguous. Other sexual characteristics were of little help: the chastity belts they wore were sculpted to carefully blur the genital shapes, compress or bulk them up so that one could stare long, and still wonder. Their helmets and collars (pectorals?) obscured the shape of the head, the tell-tale tracheal signs. What was left was rarely clear enough for Rowan to look at a waist, or a frame of a drone and decide: this one is a girl, or this one is a boy.
It was sweet, and weirdly queer.
As with many similar things she had noticed about Galatea, she kept on wondering how Helen reacted to seeing those drones. Would she appreciate their apparent genderlessness? Would she see them as the ultimate objectification of the human body?
The drone gently tugged at her shoe and pulled it out, moving to the other feet.
The entire “spot the gender” game was, of course, bunk. She didn’t know anything about what the drones thought of themselves; if they thought they had a gender at all. She hoped she would find out about their mentality soon. She chuckled—it was one of those thoughts that she wished she could share with Helen, but that probably wouldn’t belong to her evening reports.
The chastity belts, and what they had to do with gender—now that was something she could mention. Maybe it would even interest her friend? She probably had to think a bit more about them, before rendering her observations to Helen. Hopefully, what they had planned for her for the rest of the day would allow for that.
“Hi, Helen,” Rowan waved to the camera, other hand dangling loosely off the side of the bed. “I hope you’re watching right now. Again, exhausted. It’s like holding a 9-to-5, imagine that, only, you know…” she smiled. “Had one of those paintball drills after the heels training. Getting really good results now,” she pointed at the two fresh bruises—one just above the elbow, the other around the thigh. There were more marks on her skin, but fading by now. “So I had the time to think.”
The drill was silence and darkness, and nothing but her own thoughts. The eidolon’s commands barely even registered to her as words; she found herself spasming in movement without even realizing that she had been spurred to it. Her mind could stay somewhere else.
“So, one thing I realized is how much I appreciate this,” she tapped the hard, plastic shell enclosing her groin. “I mean, it’s not any less uncomfortable than tucking was, and the result…” she raised her head a bit to give it a long look. “I don’t exactly have a mirror to make sure, but I guess there’s a bit of a bulge, so I’m not sure if it can fool anyone that it hides anything else than a dick, but it’s like, how to explain it...” she bit her lip. The complete phrases and ready-made sentences she prepared for herself in the quiet of the drill were all gone now, and she struggled, trying to find the words that would let her feelings be heard.
She really wanted them to be. Or, she was just that starved for the ability to talk to anyone, even if that someone was, probably, just some dumb, mute camera.
“I guess it’s that I just can’t get it off, so it’s a part of me now,” she finally conceded. “At least feels like that, and it’s not unwelcome. Beats what I had before.”
Besides—and that wasn’t something she would mention to Helen, but could not help but to think to herself—the entire chastity belt continued to be a constant, arousing presence in her mind. Just this reminder that she could not even touch herself without Galatea making it possible; it wasn’t just her kink, it was her kink executed exceptionally well.
“And, when I was thinking about it,” she picked up after a moment, realizing that she had unwittingly ended up stroking the hard shell, fingers splayed. She brought her hand up quickly, with an embarrassed smile. “When I was thinking about it, I just ended up trying to figure out the way I relate to my body here.”
And the way knowing you might be seeing it changed it, she did not add. There was a honeymoon period of sorts she had had before, when her body barely registered to her as a thing, when she was too exhausted by testing, by the emotional rollercoaster of her inner turmoil, or by the presence of the eidolon in her head. It meant forgetting about it for the most part, for better and worse. That was until, after a slower day, she’d decided to commit an evening to feeling herself out, just out of curiosity on how the body would feel now. The parts of it she had liked—like the slight hint of a waistline—were still as pleasant to notice as before. The skin that Galatea gave her was wonderful, too, smoother than she could ever get in her many attempts at defoliation, and without any hurt that she had come to associate with it. She was slim, smooth, pleasant to touch.
It was the first time she could run a hand over her body and come away with a smile, and when she realized that, it made her more terrified than she had been in a long time.
It was just a flash of horror: a few minutes at most of wondering if liking her body—a mannish body—meant that she had been cured. That what Galatea did, by mending the wounds inside of her, was to cure her transness.
It was just a flash, but as visceral as anything she had ever lived through, of thinking that one of the things in her life that was truly her own had been taken away from her, and that soon the memory of it would fade away like a bad dream, and she could think herself a man again.
It was the thought of Helen that had pulled her out of that crash. There were times, back in the world outside, when Rowan would try to cry herself into sleep over the fact that Helen, whom she had intermittently crushed on, was a dyke through and through, and that she couldn’t really judge her for not being into bodies like Rowan’s; after all, she had always believed that no one should get to police desire like that.
“It’s not bad,” she said, voice dropping a bit. “Really, I could be stuck with worse. And I know that it’s probably internalized transphobia speaking, or whatever else, but… I still wish you wouldn’t see me like that.”
It still hurt to know, and she still wished it would be otherwise. That Helen could see her for the woman Rowan wanted to be, or that Rowan could turn into a woman Helen could recognize. However bitter that yearning was, remembering brought solace.
“I’ve probably said too much,” she added, suddenly flustered. Had she? Had Helen known? She had to be blind not to suspect how much her friend was into her. “Anyway I still wait for them to shoot me full of hormones, you know,” she laughed. “What use is mad science if they’re not going to make me a…” she laughed awkwardly. “You know.”
That yearning, that yearning—it was still there. She just couldn’t recognize it now that it did not have those barbs and hooks driven through her flesh, this companion fear bordering on certitude that she could never really make it, that she could never really start making it. That she would be forever stuck, a failure of a man, but not really a woman either, and that she couldn’t even have the wherewithal to make her home in those between places some people were so comfortable with.
When she spoke about the politics of transgenderism to her students, when she wrote about them for her work, she kept nurturing this fragile hope that one day she would be able to live them, as well. But there was always a part of her reminding her that she shouldn’t, couldn’t, and wouldn’t. Not in a year, not ever. Never had she seriously considered an alternative: that there would be a time in her life when she was not bleeding all over her insides, and still wanted to, with a deep, committed yearning, to be a different body.
“I just keep hoping,” she spoke up again, fighting through a layer of embarrassment. “That they start working on my body more directly soon and you’ll find looking at my naked… form,” another nervous chuckle quit her mouth; it was like trying to hit on someone over the internet, only even worse. “That you’ll like it more. And, you know, that’s that. Good night.”
But that wasn’t that, she realized as she waved to the maybe-present-maybe-not Helen. It wasn’t just that she was anxious to become an object of her friend’s lesbian desire. There was something else that she was hoping for, and the thought alone was uncomfortable enough for her to just try to catch some sleep instead.
Exhaustion, as ever, proved a trusty helper.
After the heel training ended, one of the lab technicians—a man whose looks reminded her a bit of the photographs of young Levi-Strauss she’d once seen in an old textbook—leashed her and energetically shoved her into an elevator, headed up.
“Hey,” he mouthed into his phone during the sluggish ride. “Which theaters are in use today? We have some tests to run. C7?”
The words meant nothing to her, but she felt a bit excited anyway. It was something new. Over the past few days, the never-ending repetition of training and strange drills focused around the eidolon had started to grow a bit routine. She wondered what the corporation planned for her now.
“Okay, great,” the man exclaimed. “All systems are hooked up? Fantastic. And please make sure that the tourists don’t walk on us, okay? I don’t want to deal with that again. Sure. Bye.”
He pocketed the phone and flashed her a frankly flamboyant smile; must have been a habit.
Tourists? She knew that ultimately, her destination was to work on what Helen had charmingly termed “fuck-farms”, but she hadn’t thought—even if it seemed obvious in hindsight—that the facility she was in was directly integrated with some of that.
The elevator finally reached the required floor. When the doors swung open, they revealed a view that Rowan immediately realized belonged to backstage of sorts.
The people rushing around the brightly-lit, sparsely decorated corridors weren’t just the lab-techs or wardens; many wore the futuristic livery of Galatea clerks she remembered from the corporate center back in the city. Drones shuffled in and out, too; in the brief moment before her handler pulled her out of the elevator, she spotted one with a tray filled with drinks, making its way quickly and purposefully towards some unseen party. People shouted and chattered, and a distant, thumping sound underlined the idle noise of all of this business.
The tech tugging on her leash broke her off the dumbstruck fascination; she was led through the crowd, frantically swiveling her head about to catch as many details of the place she knew she was destined for as she only could. She watched a muscular, tall woman, a shiny rigid shell labeled “SECURITY” compressed around her chest running down the corridor, shouting about how she did not care that “this guy was a vice-minister”. When the door to her left briefly opened, she saw a glimpse of a row of bodies, their heads mounted through a wall. She overheard two men in Galatea livery praising someone for tipping well. She captured a short look of an amphitheater of sorts, people bustling around a sling, mounting a drone’s body on it...
Another door swung open, and she found herself in a backroom, large screens covering a wall, displaying another theater, empty and quiet. Her handler threw a few greetings to a cranky-looking woman tending to the equipment here, then began to strap Rowan into testing gear. Her senses were taken away one by one, and she faded into the dark, thinking of the distant thumping of music, of drones with drinks, of people being used, of vice-minister sex tourists being served, of how she was destined for this, and how Helen would disapprove of it all.
But before she could dwell on this particular thought, a rosy scent hit her, and her thoughts dissolved into raw, pulsating desire.
The blue light above blinked in, then out, then in again. Rowan had been watching it flicker for some time now, long enough for the emotional storm of the day now past to quiet into plain, human tiredness. It would be enough to close her eyes to fade away into deserved sleep. But instead she lay on her back, hands behind her head, turning words around her head and trying to compose them into an explanation.
“Hi, Helen,” she whispered finally, staring straight on. “I hope you are watching.”
It was the second time she’d started speaking, and just as before, she went silent immediately afterwards.She wanted to make her piece sound sensible, as if spoken by someone who had a grip, by someone who wasn’t embarrassed and ashamed.
“I don’t know if you watched earlier today,” she tried. “And…”
What she wanted to say was and I hope you weren’t disturbed.
“And…” she paused again. She knew what she wanted to say now, but had no idea how. “But…”
She took a deep breath. She knew the point to reach, and even if she could not get there immediately, she could at least start at the beginning and work her way up. Like Madlaine up her god-damn mountain.
“But if you haven’t,” she exhaled, “after the training, they put me to some tests and… it was unlike anything I have lived through. They… put me in a room,” she began, already conceding to the fact that she would be blushing like a schoolgirl the entire time, “gagged, blindfolded, the works. And they put me on a long leash, a few of them actually, so that I had some way to move. Like, you know, a dog on a chain,” she chuckled, then cursed herself immediately for using a very inappropriate metaphor. You shouldn’t treat animals like that. “And then…”
Her voice trailed off. She frowned. How to say that then they’d flooded her with enough stimulation, chemical and otherwise, to make her go completely nuts trying to push herself over the edge, pawing and clawing at her shielded groin, trying every rub and squirm she could figure out in an increasingly heated frenzy?
She didn’t even know that one could lust as hard as she did then, outside of those weird fantasies she had so cherished. She didn’t even know that cut from all of the other senses, she could experience her body as a boiling cauldron about to burst, and that the feeling of not being allowed to would drive her to something so absolutely wonderful.
“They made me put on such a show,” she decided finally. “You… I...”
She stopped just short of blurting out I hope you saw that. But she did! Just.
“I think it must have been such a sight,” she smiled. “Just watching someone thrash about, mad with desire, trapped in it.”
It was enough to say that out loud to force her to stifle the urge to try to touch herself; not that she could, and she probably shouldn’t while addressing a friend like that. But the memory of the day still throbbed in her head, like the after-sound of a concert reverbing long after the music had stopped.
“And then, at the end, when I had to… to...”
She gasped just remembering the moment when the eidolon spoke to her a single command: beg. How had it to look, her kneeling, blinded form, saliva dripping from the corner of the mouth, moaning intelligible pleas through a gag towards an audience she couldn’t even see, the pleasure of obeying the eidolon rocking her to the bone.
She couldn’t describe it, but she had to try.
“I have never felt as much inside my body, as good with it as then, and…”
She reached the point she had been working towards. All that she had to do was just say the thing that had been at the end of tongue for days now. But no words came. She repeated the “and” a few times, always coming short of following through. Each time the word turned around in her mouth, it turned more sour, until it tasted of rancid bile.
Eventually, it had to burst.
“I know you think it’s wrong,” she said suddenly, maybe even accusingly. Her face contorted in fear and fury. “I know! I know you, and I know that you are… Helen, I know this is fucked up!”
She remembered the times when she’d listened to her friend judge her. Sometimes openly, and sometimes just by implication, by a sidelong glance, by a suggestion that maybe she should reconsider. She remembered the guilt that had never really gone away, that not even the tank had unlatched from her soul. And, at the end, she remembered how she could never really face Helen about any of it.
Maybe she wasn’t facing her right now, but it didn’t, necessarily, matter.
“The entire world’s fucked up,” she continued, voice tense, but she’d begged enough for one day—this was a declaration. “So let me have this, okay? This joy that I have, this pleasure, this fucked up desire that is my own, and… and yeah, I know, we should ask for better, we should not let ourselves be seduced, we should be better than our desires, I should…”
She paused, and gathered her thoughts. She was starting to ramble again, and she did not want to.
“I know you’re a fighter,” she did not avert her eyes. “But I’m not. I want a better world, but I also want a better life. And, no matter how wrong that is, I’m finding it here.”
She stared at, through, the camera with what she could only hope to be defiance. It was good that she could not see Helen now; if she had to watch her face harden, if she had to see pity and compassion in her face, she could have never issued this challenge. But the camera was just a blinking light that would take everything in silent indifference.
The taste of bile left. She panted in exhaustion, but felt lighter, better. But that was still not it. She turned her head away from the camera, to move herself to sleep. She could throw her anger at the silent judgement she knew was out there; but that was the easy part. To say, out loud, that when she begged to come into the dark and quiet, she imagined Helen as the one who aloofly, cruelly denied her, sprawled on the cushioned seat of the amphitheater? To say, out loud, that more than she wanted Helen to accept these, her desires, she wanted Helen to share them?
No, that could never work.