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Caryatids by Christopher Barzak

The human body becomes increasingly malleable, its genes and tissues available for technology to alter at will. How might this effect the future of sex work?, asks Christopher Barzak, in this excerpt from his currently unfinished novel. — Scott Westerfeld, Guest Editor of Nerve’s Speculative Sex: The Science Fiction Issue

I‘m leaning against a wall in the Miro District when the Doctor comes by to say he wants me as a girl. I tell him there are plenty of girls, just look around, and I point to a few girls who sit in the center of the square on the edge of the stone fountain. The women gather there, safety in numbers. The Doctor says, “No, not a girl. I don’t want a girl. I want you as a girl.” He holds a needle up that’s filled with a green liquid. Looks like a fungus cocktail, but I know better. With the Doctor it’s never so simple.


I lift my chin and say, “What’s this one?”


“Nanomites,” he says. The sort that will rewrite my genes and reconstruct my body. I know queens who would near die for a shot of that stuff. It’s too expensive, unless you’re someone like the Doctor. Then you have all the money you want and you can wave stuff like this under our noses, make our mouths water. I’m not interested in being a woman though. I tell him, “Talk to Petra. She’s been saving for one of these modifications forever. Might as well help you and help her at the same time.” Petra is one mean-looking queen. Doesn’t look much like a girl. Shaves her face each morning but it’s covered with a shadow come evening. Has legs with more muscle than most. She’s ripped, but she thinks she looks all sweet and dainty.


“I don’t want Petra,” the Doctor growls. He grinds his teeth together. In the Miro District, I’m the boy voted most willing to try anything once. We’ve done business before, and the Doctor always has some fantasy to enact. Last time he grew wings out of my back. They were useless; I couldn’t fly. But they were beautiful, the way they unfurled and I could move them like arms and the feathers smelled like Earth mornings.


It’s been years since I smelled Earth. This place, Beroke, especially this city, Melas — it stinks like sewage. The whole planet is covered with phosphorescent fungus, except where they’ve got nanotechs terraforming. They’ve done that before, though, the terraforming. It lasts for a decade maybe, but the fungus just comes back. You can’t get rid of it. Only thing it’s good for is the juice sac inside its flesh, the main ingredient of a fungus cocktail. The Doctor is a fungus-head. He says he can understand this place when he takes it. He can hear the voice inside the planet. Each time he’s rented me, he’s ended up sprawled out on the floor unconscious or else dreaming awake, too tweaked to actually use me.


I shake my head. “Nah, I’m not up for that, unless you have another that’ll change me back.” Like I said, I’m not interested in being a girl. It’s hard enough being a boy in this world.


The Doctor reaches inside his jacket and pulls out another needle. “This will take care of everything, Lucius,” he says, and slides both needles back into his pockets. I can’t help but feel a little resentment. Like what is ever going to satisfy him? Wings? A boy inside a girl’s body?


But I nod anyway. He pays more than anyone. Already he’s slipping into my wrist node, smooth and sweet. The transfer fibers stretch forward from his index finger and find their way inside me, transferring enough credit into my account to live on for two months. His hand remains on my hand afterwards with a slight afterglow still lingering. The others hate it that the Doctor always comes for me. But I have a pretty face for a boy. Even after a few nasty encounters, it’s still damned pretty.

The Doctor doesn’t waste his money this time. Soon as we walk through the city, over the stone bridge that leads to his building, we hurry into the elevator and he has my hands pinned over my head and makes these snuffling noises, like a pig searching for a truffle, licking my Adam’s apple. He likes me to act like myself, a real boy’s boy, but pliable. Before the elevator lifts us to his floor — his floor, he owns a whole level — he takes out a needle and slips it under my skin. Then he pulls it out, no pain, just a pinch. A drop of blood beads up where he punctured me and inside I can’t feel the nanomites swarming, but they are doing just that already. The doctor gives me an affectionate peck on the cheek and rubs his face against mine, the stubble on his face bristling against my skin. Then the elevator doors open onto a marbled floor and a hall filled with pillars sculpted to look like women. Their arms hold up the ceiling. Caryatids, he calls them. They look tired, but pretty.


“Rest now,” he says. “The process will take a while.”


He shows me to his bedroom and I strip off my clothes and slide under his sheets. He doesn’t follow. Within a few minutes my eyelids flutter under their own weight.


When I wake again, it’s some other night. I have no idea how much time has passed. There are four moons framed in the window.


“Good, good,” the Doctor says. The room comes into focus. I sit up, feeling strangely out of proportion. The Doctor sits down on the edge of the bed and strokes my chest. I look down and there they are — my breasts — and the nipples stiffening under his fingers. It all feels, I don’t know. Different. I’ll just commit to different.


He leans in and kisses me. His tongue finds its way into my mouth quickly. The Doctor is a good-looking man. He has brown hair and green eyes and his nose is sexy. Not too big and not pug- or beak-like. He has full lips and his breath usually smells good, even though he takes too much fungus extract. He takes care of himself. Probably his body teems with nanomites that keep him looking young and healthy. I could do a worse trick. Sometimes I even let myself imagine he’s someone who loves me. But only for a little while. I’m not stupid.





    We lay back in bed and explore my new body. My hips are round and my skin is soft as a baby. I have this long black hair that Petra would fucking die for. Maybe I’ll cut it off and save it for her before I become a boy again. And down there — something is suspiciously absent. Or maybe not absent, but present in a way I’ve never experienced. I reach down with one finger and feel the new space inside me, moist and warm. My body shivers.


The Doctor shimmies out of his pants and his dick is hard already. He doesn’t waste any time; he’s probably been hard like that for hours. He gets right on top and puts it in me. It hurts at first, but then things get smoother. His body crashes into me over and over. I think this must be what erosion feels like, a slow effacement, waves slapping against land, taking a little bit of earth with it each time it pulls away again.


The Doctor’s face floats above me, his eyes wincing, his teeth gritted. Sweat beads on his forehead. I pull his face down and kiss him while he moves inside me. His dick pulses inside me, pushing my cunt apart as it grows even bigger, moving blindly, trying to find me, the me he’s hidden. But the Doctor won’t find him under all this woman. Even though his body presses against me more desperately, even though he bites at my shoulder and squeezes my left breast hard enough to hurt, I feel protected. I’m usually the one who does the fucking. But here I am, on the bottom, raising my hips to meet his thrusting.


I even cry out, “Oh, God.” I haven’t said that word in years — “God,” I mean. And I notice now my voice has changed. I’ve heard my voice played back to me before, and it never sounded like the voice I heard inside my head, my secret voice, the one no one but I ever heard. It’s like that, but even more different — I sound like a girl, all soft and cotton-y.


“Hello,” I say to the air. “Nice to meet you, dear.”


The Doctor is asleep beside me, his chest rising and falling, his lips parted for breathing. I want to go again, but he looks worn out already. I stick the tip of my index finger between his lips, just barely, and tap his two front teeth. He doesn’t wake up.


I put my hands to my throat and feel no Adam’s apple.

We spend several days having sex and dozing. At one point I climb on top of him, knees straddling his waist, and lower myself onto him, taking him in slowly. Oh, what luck, what incredible luck this is. I put my hands on his chest and grind into him. He says, “I can see you in there, little boy blue. I know you’re in there.” He calls me little boy blue because of

my eyes and the usual state of my emotions. He reaches up to clasp a hand around my mouth and chin, but I push his hand away. I ignore him. My hair falls over his face.


I don’t even see him any longer. I’m concentrating on this body, how it feels and how it’s working. I’d grown so used to the old one, and the positions with which it was familiar. I feel like I’m alone here. The Doctor is just another piece of furniture. Or it’s more like it’s me and this body, this fabulous woman around me. The two of us are figuring things out together, laughing a little, because sex is funny when you think about it. Too many people, like the Doctor, think sex is embarrassing. They pay people like me to do the things they’re ashamed to ask of their lovers.

I stay for a week before he grows bored with this fantasy and tells me, “All right. You can go now.” He jacks into my wrist node once more to tip me, but there aren’t any fingers lingering on mine afterwards. One week of work and I’m set for months. As he escorts me out, he gives me the other needle.


“I suppose next time we meet, you’ll be a pretty boy again, Lucius.” He pats my back like a friend — like a father — and ushers me into the elevator. He wants me gone because he’s starting to feel guilty and he probably has a patient waiting to see him and he can’t concentrate on this patient or even himself when he’s feeling guilty. He’ll come for me again when he’s forgotten that feeling.


Before the doors close, I take one long look at the women holding up the ceiling, their hair curling around their shoulders. Caryatids, he calls them. Tired but pretty. I don’t think I could carry all that weight by myself either.


I walk down the avenue towards the Miro District. I’m wearing a silver evening gown that’ll make Petra salivate. High heels that match even. When I reach the square and see the girls gathered around the stone fountain, a few notice me. They look up and wave me over, so welcoming and they don’t even recognize me. I move towards them. I open my purse to make sure the needle in there is real and not imagined. Then I snap the purse shut and join the girls. For a while, at least. You know, safety in numbers.





Christopher Barzak and