The city bus lurched forward as Clara sat down. She held the hood of her jacket up over her head as she looked out the window across from her. The daylight of the city was filtering through the buildings, casting shadows all across the streets. Clara kept an eye out the window as the sign for 54th street whizzed by. She still had some time to go.
Clara was thankful it hadn't rained like the weather forecast had said, since she still wasn't sure how her new parts would react yet. Pinching her thumb and forefinger together on her left hand, a menu pulled up in her vision. A small spinning circle graphic turned in the corner, then after a long moment turned into a red exclamation point, and the phrase "NO WIFI SIGNAL FOUND" popped up.
Frowning, Clara released her fingers, and the display dissipated. She looked around the bus.
Across from her and near the front was a man in sunglasses, arm clutching the hanging strap. Clara could see bright light flashing around the corners of the dark lenses, indicating that the inside of them were a display.
59th street passed by.
Next to him was an android, something Clara could tell by their grey skin. Their gaze crossed with Clara's, and she quickly looked away.
The bus passed 63rd street.
In front of Clara a woman was flicking the screen of her smartphone. She had a mechanical right arm clutched her midsection. Clara could see a orange and white kitten curled up in it. The woman looked down, turned her phone to the side and smiled, taking a photo of the cat as it yawned and snuggled up next to her.
Clara saw 71st Street zip by the window.
Clara looked up at the scrolling advertisements near the roof of the bus interior. Ads for implants, limb replacements, restaurants, food substitutes, and even total body replacements. She frowned to herself, knowing that all of it was out of reach.
78th street passed by. Clara pulled a cable, and the yellow light flashed on at the front of the bus. After a block the bus rolled to a stop, brakes hissing. The side door in front of Clara opened to the street. Keeping her head down, she descended the stairs. Turning down the sidewalk, Clara passed by several storefronts before she came to the apartment building. Searching in her pocket, she pulled out a business card. 2851 78th Street, the number on the building.
Walking up to the door, Clara turned to the panel of buttons. She looked through the list of names, and finally came to the button that had "T. Naich" next to it. She pressed it, and waited. After a bit, the speaker crackled to life.
"Hey, is this Tiffany? It’s Clara," she said.
"Oh! Hi Clara! I'll buzz you in."
There was a chunk from the front door of the building. Clara pulled open the door and made her way to the elevator. The doors opened right away, and she walked in, pressing the button for the fifth floor. The elevator lurched with a start, then groaned as it crept upwards.
A fluorescent light buzzed above Clara’s head, barely audible over the creaking and thumping. The dull beige paint on the walls were covered with scuff marks and graffiti. The metal doors were reflective, and Clara could see her reflection. She was bundled up in her jacket, covering up as much as she could.
The elevator stopped with a ding on the fifth floor, and the door opened.
Waiting on the other side was a tall man in a puffy winter coat. His eyes glowed an ominous blue, and Clara could tell that they were implants. Keeping her hood up, she scurried by him. Looking back over her shoulder, Clara could see the man still watching as she walked down the hallway. She increased her pace.
Finally, she came to the apartment labeled 512. She pressed the button next to the door, and heard a gentle, synthetic doorbell.
"Coming!" came a voice from inside. As she waited Clara looked over her shoulder nervously, hoping to not find anyone behind her.
The lock opened with a clunk, and the sound of a chain being undone. The door opened.
"Clara!" Tiffany said with a bright smile. "So glad to see you!"
Tiffany was tall and thin, her hair a gradient of deep orange going down to yellow at the tips. She had a smattering of freckles, and was wearing a teal tank top. Inside the apartment, Clara could hear soft pop music playing.
Clara scurried in. "Hi Tiffany," she said hastily.
After shutting the door and turning the lock, Tiffany turned to Clara. "Are you okay? You seem on edge."
"I-I'm fine. I just... someone getting on the elevator was looking at me in a really scary way."
"Big dude? Glowy eyes?"
Tiffany sighed in frustration. "That's Bleeqer. He lives down the hall. He's always suspicious of people who don't live in the building. I'm gonna have a talk with him, since he's always intimidating my customers." She motioned with her hand. "C'mon, let's go to my office."
Following Tiffany, Clara walked into the living room. The television was set to an internet radio station. A storage chest was up against the back wall. It had over a dozen drawers, each one with a thin strip of colored tape on the handle.. The coffee table had a tool set unrolled and spread out. Mostly screwdrivers, but there were several other tools Clara didn't recognize.
"Want me to take your jacket?" Tiffany asked.
"Oh, sure." Clara carefully unzipped her coat, and took it off. Her synthetic hair was dark brown, short, and boyish. She had a longsleeve white shirt on that covered most of her mint green skin. The shirt was baggy and loose, covering the shape of her body. Clara handed her coat to Tiffany.
"How have you been?" Tiffany asked as she folded up Clara's jacket and set it on the couch. "I missed you at the last support group meeting."
"Oh, yeah," Clara said. "I was busy. I was getting my new voicebox installed and that was the only time they had available."
Tiffany nodded. "I was gonna say! I noticed the difference!" She pointed to her own throat to emphasize. "It sounds really cute!"
"Th-thank you," Clara said, relieved. "I'm still getting used to it." She absent mindedly rubbed her fingers along her neck, feeling the seams in her synthetic skin. "I still haven't used it at work."
"So you've just been like, mute?"
"Yeah. I told them I was having some malfunctioning issues and they pretty much left me alone on it." She looked to the side, annoyed. "Then they make jokes about how androids don't need sick days."
"Ugh," Tiffany said. "That's a bummer." She walked over to the storage chest. "Alright, what were you thinking of doing?"
Clara looked over Tiffany's shoulder. "I mean, I want something longer. Like, a lot longer than this."
"We talking like, shoulder length? Ankle length?" Tiffany motioned with her hands first to her shoulders, then down towards her feet.
"Well, maybe not ankle length," Clara said. "Maybe like..." She held up her hands to the midpoint of her torso. "... about here?"
Tiffany nodded. "That shouldn't be a problem." She started looking through the drawers. "What color you want to do?"
"See, that I'm not sure of." Clara pointed at her face. "I don't want something that would look bad with my skin."
"Oh totally. I would never let you pick something tacky." She pulled open a drawer and picked a bag out of it. Tightly packed inside was red synthetic hair wrapped up on itself. "Like, this? You'd look like a christmas wreath. Absolutely not."
"Eaugh," Clara said. "Yeah, agreed."
Closing the drawer, Tiffany opened up another one. "How about a dark, forest green? Keep things within the same color palate?"
"Mmmm, no. I already have dark hair and I kinda wanna get away from it."
"That's fair." Tiffany looked through another drawer, and took out another bag with light purple hair in it. "What about this?"
Clara perked up. "That... huh. Maybe?"
Tiffany walked over, holding up the bag next to Clara's face. She smiled and nodded. "Oh yeah, that looks really good. Roll up your sleeve for a sec."
Clara pulled the sleeve of her shirt up. Tiffany held the bag next to her skin. Clara's eyebrows raised.
"I... wow." Clara said in a hushed voice. "I kinda like that."
"Right? You'll look like a lavender flower. It'll be so cute."
Clara gasped. "Oh my god you're right."
"We doing it?" Tiffany said with a smile.
"Alright!" Tiffany set the bag down on the coffee table. Reaching behind her, she slid a stool into the middle of the room. "Have a seat so I can get your scalp plate off."
Clara walked around the coffee table, and sat carefully on the stool. It was wobbly, and she felt uneasy on it.
Tiffany thumbed through the tools on the table, picking up a small flathead screwdriver. "Alright, hold still." Clara winced as she felt the screwdriver head tuck between the seams next to her left ear. The sensation was like a pinch, then a release as one end of the panel popped upwards. Clara felt a tingle as Tiffany ran the screwdriver along the seam, prying the panel up. Finally, a pop noise rang out in the apartment as the panel came loose from Clara’s head.
"Alright, we're good," Tiffany said, carefully lifting the panel off. "Have a seat on the couch."
Clara stood up, and as she did she caught a look of herself in a mirror hanging on the wall. Her round head was exposed, and she could see the snaking wires and circuits that were underneath the panel. Feeling uncomfortable, she looked away and sat on the couch.
Tiffany sat cross-legged on the floor with Clara's scalp panel on her lap. She picked up one of the pointed tools Clara didn't recognize, and a paper plate that she set down next to her on the floor. "It's gonna be a little bit while I get the old hair out and re-thread the new in."
"That’s okay," Clara said. "Do you happen to have a hardwire hookup? My wifi has been kinda faulty lately."
"Really? Is it worn out or something?"
"I... I think it has something to do with my new parts." Clara looked to the side, feeling embarrassed.
"Ouch. That's awful." She leaned over next to the wall, where a router was sitting on the floor with cables coming out of it. "But yeah, I do." She picked up a coiled yellow network cable, and leaned over the coffee table, handing it to Clara. "That should work, right?"
"I hope so. I haven't been able to check yet." Clara reached to her left forearm, and pressed on the underside near her wrist. With a click, a panel flipped open, revealing a small bank of ports. Picking up the network cable, she snapped it into her arm. Clara then pinched her forefinger and thumb together.
The menu popped up in her vision again, and in the upper right she could see the spinning circle graphic, which then turned into a green checkmark with the phrase "NETWORK OK" underneath it.
"Oh good," Clara said. "I'm connected."
"Good to hear," Tiffany said.
Manipulating her other fingers, Clara scrolled through a menu to her messages. She only had one new one; a mass email sent out by her boss reminding all employees of a store meeting that Saturday morning.
"Do you know what's causing it?" Tiffany asked. She was digging at the underside of the scalp panel, pulling the synthetic hair out with the pointed tool. She dropped the excised pieces onto the plate next to her.
"I mean, it may be the voicebox or..." she trailed off. "s-something else."
Tiffany grunted as she yanked out a clump of the synthetic hair. "I kinda know how you feel. Not exactly, but I've had stuff happen with my body during my transition."
"How do you mean?" Clara said. "...if that's alright to ask."
"Oh you're fine, I brought it up," Tiffany said, looking over. "Mainly my chest's been especially sensitive." She motioned under her breasts with the tool in her hand. "The slightest bump just kills me." She stuck out her tongue with a grunt of disgust. "I had to re-learn how to walk around my apartment so I don't run into things."
“Did you get surgery?"
"God, I wish," Tiffany said and she fussed with the scalp plate. "I can't afford that. I'm only on hormones." She looked up at Clara with a mischievous smile. "You know, biohacking."
"Aren't those expensive, too?"
"I have a hookup, actually." Some of the hair was stuck on the tool, and Tiffany pulled it out with her fingers, letting it fall onto the paper plate. "Met someone through our support group who's a regular at my job. Turns out she's a doctor and can get stuff for me direct, which is a godsend."
"Heather. You know, the blonde lady? Last time she had that blue top with the really ruffley collar?"
"Oh! Yeah, I remember her!"
"Yep. She's taking care of me. It's kinda grey market, so I can't talk to many people about it." She pointed at Clara with the tool. "So keep this between us for now."
"Understood," Clara said with a nod.
Tiffany reached over to the table, opening the top of the bag with the purple hair in it. Carefully she unfolded and laid out the strands. They were tied into bunches with small knots holding them together on one end. Taking a tool with a sharp metal loop, Tiffany poked it through the scalp plate. She threaded a lock of the hair into the loop, and then pulled it through. Poking the tool through the next hole, her other hand deftly scooped up a piece of hair, and fed it through the tool in one smooth motion. The tool was pulled back through, and then Tiffany punched it back into the plate.
Clara watched Tiffany repeatedly poking, threading, and pulling the strands through the scalp plate. A notification appeared in the corner of her vision. Pinching her finger and thumb together again, she pulled up the menu. It was a message from her boss.
Clara frowned. Her messaging software autocorrected her old name to her new one, but it was still a reminder of her status at her job. She looked over at Tiffany, who was engrossed in her work. Clara started composing a message, flexing and curling the fingers on her right hand to type.
She closed her right hand, and the message sent. Clara leaned back and looked around the living room. There were framed posters up on the wall, along with a dry erase board with a calendar. Half the days had appointment times written into them. The TV was showing an album cover on it; a musician Clara recognized as Langely. The song was called “Stargazer” and was a gentle, relaxing electronic track.
Clara’s attention was pulled away from the music when she got another notification.
Frowning, Clara unpinched her left index finger and thumb, making the interface disappear. She pulled out the network cable from her arm, throwing it down to the floor.
"You okay?" Tiffany said.
"Huh?" Clara asked, turned towards her.
"You looked a little irritated there."
"I mean, my boss messaged me asking me to come in tomorrow." She looked to the side. "I told her yes, but I really didn't want to."
"Your boss a jerk?"
"I mean," Clara sat up, leaning forward. "I'm not out at work. It's why I haven't shown them my new voice yet, and why my boss was using my old name to message me right now." She frowned. "I don't know, it kinda hit me a little hard. Like, I want to be mad at them, but it feels unfair."
"Where do you work, may I ask?" Tiffany said, still threading the hair.
"The secondhand clothing shop over on 36th street and Lexington."
Tiffany looked up, lost in thought. "Ohhhhh, Becker's Basement right?"
Clara nodded. "Yeah, I work in the back doing all the sorting of the clothes they buy from people. I kinda prefer it, so I can keep to myself."
"Is that how you've been able to keep from talking?"
"Yeah, people kinda leave me alone back there." She frowned. "I'm... feeling kinda tired about it though."
"Well yeah," Tiffany said. "You're taking steps to become your best self. It's just that right now you're in the inbetween stages, what with your voice box and this." She held up the scalp plate, which was more completed than Clara was expecting.
"I've... gotten other work done too."
"Oh? Can I ask what?"
Clara stood up, and pulled her shirt tight across her torso, revealing the shape of her chest.
"Very nice," Tiffany said, an impressed look on her face. "Is that what you meant before?"
Letting go of the shirt, Clara nodded. "It's probably what's messing with my wifi, and I don't know how to fix it." She sank back onto the couch. "I wish I could afford a whole new body."
"You can do that?"
"It's the easiest way for androids to transition. You just get your consciousness put into a new body. But it's way more expensive than I can afford." She pulled her legs up under her. "So I just have to get mass added to my body when I can afford it."
"Mass?" Tiffany set down the scalp panel on her lap. "What do you mean by that?"
"My body has a basic frame everything's built on top of. And it can't be changed without everything falling apart eventually. So if I wanna look more feminine I have to add mass on until I get the shape I want." She frowned and looked to the side. "It's... kind of annoying."
"Cuz you'll be learning how to navigate your house just like me?"
"I mean, I guess. But instead of just boobs I'm gonna be fat too."
"So? Fat can be cute. Hell, I wish I had the metabolism to be fat. I'd be developing these a lot faster." Tiffany lifted up her chest and let it bounce downwards. She then sucked on her teeth in pain. "Ahhh, shit! Goddammit!"
“Tiffany!” Clara yelped. “Are you okay?”
She breathed heavily through her nose as she gritted her teeth. "I deserved that. I wasn't thinking."
Clara's concern melted away and she started laughing.
"What?" Tiffany said through her own chuckle. "What's so funny?"
"Did you do that on purpose?" Clara said.
Gently rubbing her chest, Tiffany gave Clara a pained smile. "It got you laughing, didn't it?"
Clara leaned forward, looking over the coffee table as Tiffany got back to work. “Hey, do you mind if I get closer and watch?”
"Oh, by all means." Tiffany said, patting the floor next to her.
Carefully, Clara stepped around Tiffany and sat on the floor. "So wait," Clara said. "You said you have another job?"
"Yep," Tiffany said, not looking up as she threaded. "I work at a deli a few blocks from here."
"This doesn't pay enough?"
"I mean, it pays well but I don't get enough business since I only have word of mouth. Hell, I don't even have a storefront, and that would cost a lot to get going."
Clara leaned back with her hands on the floor. "That's upsetting."
"Eh, it's fine. I'm tryin' to save up. I mean, alongside my transition."
"Do..." Clara trailed off. "Do your coworkers know?"
"Oh yeah, I'm out to them." Tiffany shrugged as she picked up another strand of hair. "They're cool about it."
"Oh, totally. I mean, it was terrifying to tell them. I spent about 20 minutes in the bathroom getting up the nerve to do it." She looked up, a warm smile on her face. "But I'm glad I did. Sure I get a few people being shitty about it. But I feel a million times better than when I was keeping it secret."
Clara looked down at the carpeted floor. "Huh."
Tiffany threaded the last bit of hair, and triumphantly held up the scalp plate. "Alright! Let's get this back on."
Clara got up off the floor, and sat on the wobbly stool again. Tiffany walked behind her, and Clara felt her setting the plate down over her head.
"Now bear with me here," Tiffany said. She held out a larger screwdriver, the bright orange handle facing outwards. "I gotta force the panel back in and it might feel a little rough."
Clara's fingers wrapped around the seat of the stool to steady herself. “I’m ready.” She winced as she felt Tiffany tapping on the plate with the handle of the screwdriver, vibrating through the framework of her body. The tapping traveled around the edge of Clara's head, until the plate was securely in place.
"Alright, lemmie just untangle and fluff it up a bit," Tiffany said. She picked up a wide hairbrush off the coffee table, and started running it through Clara’s hair.
Clara perked up. While the hair was synthetic, she could feel the brush tugging on it. She then felt the foreign sensation of hair touching the back of her neck.
"There we go," Tiffany said, flipping the hair up and letting it flutter down. "Go check yourself out!"
Clara sprung up and ran over to the mirror. Her eyes widened and she gasped.
The synthetic lavender hair cascaded over her shoulders and midway down her torso. She ran her fingers slowly through it, feeling the hair tug at the roots. She pinched and rolled the strands between her thumb and forefinger.
"How is it?" Tiffany asked.
"It's perfect," Clara whispered.
TIffany chuckled to herself in glee. "Told you it'd look cute!"
Clara was idly playing with her hair; twisting, flipping, running her hands through it. All the while, an excited smile was growing on her face.
"Did you need it trimmed or styled?" Tiffany asked.
"No, this is good." Clara said, still running her hands through the strands.
"Well, if you change your mind I can do a follow-up and we can get you a new look."
Clara stopped and turned towards Tiffany. "Oh, that's right." She reached behind her, checking the back pocket of her pants. "Hang on, my wallet's in my coat."
Tiffany shook her head. "Nuh uh. Your money's no good here. This one's on the house."
"What?" Clara's jaw hung open. "N-no! This is your... I... you have to let me!"
Tiffany took both of Clara's hands in her own. "No, Clara. I insist."
"When Heather started helping me with hormones, she wouldn't let me pay her. And when I asked her why she told me that I needed them more than she needed the money." She smiled and chuckled to herself. "She told me that the one thing she wanted me to do was pay it forward and help someone else who needs it."
Clara idly pinched some of her hair, and pulled it into her vision. "I... wow." She looked back at Tiffany. "Th-thank you."
Smiling, Tiffany leaned forward and gave Clara a hug. "You're welcome," she said as she stepped back. "Us gals gotta stick together, right?"
Clara smiled and nodded.
- - - -
Clara pulled open the glass door to the library, keeping the hood of her jacket up. As she hurried down the side hallway to the meeting room, a woman in a beige sweater was removing the doorstop and putting up a sign that said “SUPPORT GROUP MEETING: DO NOT DISTURB”
“Wait!” Clara said. “Wait, I’m here!”
The woman looked up. “Oh! You’re just in time. Try and find a seat and join the circle.”
Clara slipped by her and into the room. The table set up against the wall had a tall coffee dispenser, and an almost empty donut box. A little over a dozen people arranged into a circle sat down on folding metal chairs. As Clara took a seat, she saw Tiffany sitting across from her. Tiffany lit up and waved. Before Clara could say anything, the woman in the sweater spoke up.
“Alright everyone, thank you for coming to this week’s support group. There’s a few new people this time, so we’re just gonna go around and everyone introduce themselves. Name, metatype, pronouns, and a quick bit about yourself.”
In Clara’s vision, a notification popped up. She pinched her fingers, putting up her display. Across the circle, she could see Tiffany with her smartphone out.
Several chairs down from Clara a man with spiked black hair and a nose piercing stood up.
“Hi, my name is Kevin, I’m a human, my pronouns are he/him, and this past week was my six month anniversary of starting testosterone.”
Clara flexed her fingers on her right hand to quickly type out a response.
The person next to Kevin stood up. Half of her face was metallic, and her right eye was glowing yellow.
“Hey! I’m Molly. I’m a cyborg, my pronouns are they/them, and this week I finally was able to apply to have my gender marker on my ID changed.”
Another message from Tiffany.
Clara looked to her right, seeing her turn was next. She rapidly typed out another message.
Clara unpinched her fingers. Rising to her feet, she then took off her jacket, a smile on her face. She was proudly in a dark blue skirt and a white button up shirt. Her purple hair was brushed and tied up into a high, puffy ponytail.
“Hi everyone! My name is Clara. I’m an android, my pronouns are she/her...” She paused, her smile growing wider. “And I came out at work this week, and it went better than I ever imagined.”