by Roger Ley
“Steampunk Confederation” by Roger Ley
Martin had never been comfortable being a boy. As a child he hadn’t enjoyed rough and tumble, camping, climbing trees or making campfires. His mother described him as ‘gentle,’ his father rustled his newspaper and tried to ignore him. The other boys derided him and occasionally beat him up. He was an easy target, being of medium height and light build. As he grew into his teens, he suffered the taunts of the football oafs, the noisy muscle-heads. He found it easier to spend most of his time alone in his bedroom. Thank God for the internet. He was still interested in girls but it was their makeup, their hairstyles, their nail polish, their clothes, their perfumes, it was all so self-indulgent, so narcissistic. It fascinated him.
Things were easier at university, staff and fellow students were polite, everybody tried hard to be PC, more tolerant of gender identity issues.
He had always liked numbers but not for their own sake, he enjoyed making use of them, and studied physics. He did his bachelor’s degree at Warwick and moved to Cambridge to do his master’s. That was where he met Estella.
Looking lost, she approached him in the college refectory. ‘Can you tell me the way to the Physics Faculty office?’ she asked. ‘I’m new here.’ She looked a few years older than he was with flaming red hair, blue eyes and nicely-dressed, classy but not too formal. There was something about her that captivated him.
‘Over there,’ he said, pointing vaguely. ‘Er, I’ll take you there, follow me.’ He was barely coherent as he took her to the faculty office.
A few days later he saw her in the refectory again. This time she was sitting at a table by herself. He took a deep breath and walked over with his coffee.
‘Do you mind if I join you?’
She smiled up at him. ‘My knight in shining armour, not at all, take a seat,’ she gestured at the one opposite.
‘My name’s Martin,’ he said.
‘You’re right, we haven’t been introduced, I’m Estella. You can tell me all about the place.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Who’s who in the faculty, the difficult personalities, the best places to eat, all that sort of thing. Local knowledge.’
‘Oh right, yes,’ he said. ‘So, you’re starting work here?’
‘Yes, I’m finishing my doctorate in particle physics.’ He was impressed.
They talked about everything he could think of because he was smitten and didn’t want the conversation to end. He’d never felt like this about a woman before, he didn’t know where the feelings were coming from.
Their relationship developed slowly. They met for a drink at one of the college bars several times, and eventually she invited him back to her flat for a meal. They went for walks or stayed in and watched films. It was during one of their Netflix evenings, as they sat side by side on the sofa, that Estella laid her hand on his thigh, then reached across to kiss him. She was tender, she stroked his cheek and led him to the bedroom. She left the lights off as they undressed, climbed into bed and made love.
‘The thing is, Martin,’ she whispered later as she snuggled into his back, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but I used to be a man. I had the hormone therapy and surgery several years ago. I should have told you before now, but there never seemed to be a good time.’
He laughed, ‘Well, you could say this isn’t the ideal time. Some people might get upset, but I don’t mind. I always knew there was something unusual about you, something exotic.’
He already knew a little about gender reassignment, but now he did the research, and as time passed and their relationship continued, he considered it for himself.
He’d experimented with makeup before he’d met Estella, and he’d sometimes dressed in ‘genderless’ clothing, but now he wore his hair longer and they had makeup evenings together. Martin helped her when she coloured her hair and was surprised to discover that she wore blue contact lenses. They talked about his gender reassignment, jokingly at first, but it soon became apparent that Estella was all in favour.
‘I know it would change our relationship but you’ll still be the same person,’ she said.
Estella was always sensitive about showing her body and preferred that they made love in the dark. He never saw her naked, she would wear a towel and shed it as she joined him in bed. In the mornings she dressed with her back to him. It was a foible, a peccadillo, he didn’t mind but wondered vaguely if she didn’t like her breasts or if she had some unsightly scarring.
He asked her about her work, she answered in generalities, speaking of Quarks, Leptons, Gluons and Photons, but never discussing the specifics of her research.
She laughed, ‘My sole purpose in life is to make you happy, Martin, to help you fulfil yourself.’
Estella worked for a different part of the Physics Faculty, it was housed off the campus in a building on an industrial estate a few miles away. He decided to visit her one day. As he walked up the access road, he noticed that all the windows on the ground floor were covered by steel shutters. There were security guards in the reception area, and they would not let him into Estella’s laboratory without the right pass. They telephoned her and she came out to speak to him. He thought she looked severe in her white lab coat and glasses.
‘I’m afraid it’s just not possible for you to come inside, Martin. You need clearance.’ She leaned forward and whispered, ‘It’s a government contract, Martin, they’re completely inflexible.’ She kissed him on the cheek and went back into the laboratory. As Martin was leaving, one of the guards apologised.
‘Sorry, love,’ he said, and Martin detected no irony in his tone. He smiled to himself as he walked away, the hormone therapy was working better than he’d realised.
A few months later he finished his master’s degree, and they celebrated at the local Balti house. They drank too much, and had a nightcap when they got back to her flat.
‘What do you think about time travel, Martin?’ Estella asked him groggily as they lounged on the sofa.
‘I’m not sure,’ he said. ‘Is it possible?’ Estella leaned over and kissed him, cupped him gently, murmured something incomprehensible and led him into the bedroom.
He woke up early next morning. The weather had been hot, and Estella was still asleep, lying naked on her back with the covers thrown off and her face turned away from him. He sat up and stared at her, she had an appendectomy scar three inches long, below and to the right of her navel. He had one that looked just the same, so did lots of people he supposed. It was the birthmark that bothered him, at the top of her left thigh, a port-wine stain shaped like Africa. He had an identical one of those too. As he pulled the sheet over her, she turned towards him and opened her eyes.
‘Sorry, Martin,’ she whispered, ‘we have to break it off. I can’t keep coming back to your time every evening, my boss is questioning the energy drain, and anyway, in another few years, you will have turned into me.’