01 of 15: The Machine at the Library
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This story is set, with permission, in dkfenger's Trust Machines universe. It's a prequel to his stories, however, and I've written it to stand alone for readers who haven't read them.

Thanks to dkfenger, clancy688, MrSimple, Karantela, Icaria, and JAK for feedback on earlier drafts.


It was early September — far enough into the school year that the teachers weren’t holding back on the homework, early enough that we still had some pretty nice weather. Which I was missing out on because I was sitting in my room doing homework, that Saturday morning when the world changed and only a few scattered people noticed.

The first inkling I had of it was when Mom called me and said, “Tyler, Andrew’s on the phone.”

I got up and went into the living room, where Mom was working on her quarterly taxes at the dining table. She handed me the landline phone. “Tell him you can’t hang out until you finish your homework,” she reminded me unnecessarily. I nodded and took the phone. Most kids my age had cellphones already — most kids my little sister’s age, for that matter — but not me or Sophia.

“Hi, Andrew, what’s up? I’ve got about another hour of homework before I can hang out, but then we can do whatever until suppertime.”

“Hurry it up,” he blurted, “and then get your butt over here to the library.”

“What? Why? I thought you were coming over after you got done there.”

He’d told me at school yesterday that he was going to get a ride into town with his brother, who had a weekend job as waiter at the Fisherman’s Cove downtown. He’d hang out at the library for a while and then walk to my house from there; we lived seven blocks from the library, an easy walk in this weather. (He had just turned sixteen after the school year started, and had a provisional driver’s license, but he didn’t have a car yet.)

“There’s something weird going on here,” he said. “I don’t know if I should even bother telling you on the phone, you won’t believe me... I’ll email you some photos. Just get over here as soon as you can, okay?” He hung up without waiting for a reply.

I procrastinated on the Geometry homework long enough to check my email. Andrew had sent several photos of a... big brown rectangular box, sitting out in front of the library. It was occupying some space that used to be lawn, accessible from the sidewalk connecting the different parts of the parking lot to the front door of the library. And there were several people crowded around it, looking at it. In the first photo, it was just a big box with no obvious features; there were some kind of markings in the middle of the wider face, but I couldn’t make them out. In the second, there were two big doors that had opened up in it, and a woman was stepping into one while another woman was peering into the other without stepping inside. I looked back at the first photo, and couldn’t see any seams or hinges where the doors would open.

The third photo showed a close-up of the markings in the middle of the broad face. There was a Venn diagram, with the intersection of all three sets glowing softly, and what looked like a slot. I couldn’t tell if it was intended to receive bills or coins or credit cards, or to print out photos or receipts or something, lacking any indicator of scale.

I couldn’t make head or tail of it. I thought about searching social media for posts about our town’s library, but decided the faster I finished my homework, the faster I could see the thing for myself.

Forty-eight minutes later, I was in the living room, saying, “I’m done, Mom. I’m fixing to go over to the library to meet Andrew.”

Sophia ran into the room. “You’re going to the library? I wanna go too.”

I rolled my eyes. I love my little sister, but sometimes I’d rather hang out with Andrew without her around. But Mom said, “I’ll take you later in the day, Sophia, after I finish this. Have you finished your homework?”

“Almost,” she pleaded.

“Finish it, and you can read or play games until we’re ready to go. Tyler, go ahead; be safe and have fun.”

“Bye, Mom. Bye, Sophia.” I was out the door like a shot before Sophia could wheedle Mom into changing her mind. I never could, but Sophia’s adorableness succeeded once in a while, and I didn’t want to risk this being one of those times.

In the twenty minutes it took me to walk to the library, I had a lot of time to think about what Andrew had meant, and what was up with that big box. You probably won’t believe me if I tell you that some of my guesses were surprisingly close to the truth; but I chalked those particular guesses up to wishful thinking and discounted them accordingly, so I was as surprised when I found out what was going on as anyone else who hadn’t been secretly reading transformation stories on the net ever since they figured out a way to circumvent the parental controls.

When I got to the library, I was surprised to see a couple of sheriff’s deputy cars in the lot. I could see the box over near the front door, and a couple of deputies standing by it; there were other people looking on, but not as many as there’d been in Andrew’s photos, and they were standing further off. I didn’t see Andrew. When I got close enough, I realized that the deputies were stringing “Police Line — Do Not Cross” tape around the machine.

“Stay back,” one of them said to me as I approached.

“What’s going on?”

“Members of the public are advised to avoid this thing. You can go around it to get to the library.”

I went in the library, figuring that was where Andrew must be, and looked around, first on the ground floor where the computer terminals and the reference books were, and then upstairs where the rest of the books were, but didn’t see him anywhere. I was about to go downstairs and look in the men’s room when a guy I didn’t recognize came up to me; he looked kind of like a jock, taller than me by six inches or more, and thirty pounds more muscular. He’d been talking in low voices with another guy a lot like him near the graphic novel shelf. Both guys were wearing T-shirts that had weird, abstract designs on them — not the kind of thing I associated with jocks.

“Hey, Tyler,” he said in a low voice, and I wondered who he was. I didn’t recognize him; our school had over 1200 students, and I didn’t know all of them, but I was sure I knew all the guys that tall who shared classes with me, plus a lot of my older brother Caleb’s friends and teammates. I noticed them for more than one reason.

“Yes?” I said.

“It’s me, Andrew.” I suddenly felt like my stomach was dropping out of my belly. “That’s Evan,” he said, gesturing to the other big guy, who came over toward us.

“Andrew Patton?” I said, gaping. “Evan Chastain?” Evan was a guy we hung out with at school sometimes, but he wasn’t a close friend like Andrew.

“Yeah,” Andrew said, grinning. “That thing out front changed us.”

“And it changed a bunch of other people,” Evan said in a somber tone. “And everything was going great until it killed somebody, and then the sheriff’s deputies showed up and shooed everyone away.”

“Killed someone?” I asked.

“Let’s go somewhere we can talk and not have to whisper,” Andrew said. “Do you want to check something out before we go?” He and Evan both had a couple of books tucked under their arms.

“N-no, that can wait... let’s go.”

We walked downstairs and they tried to check out their books. I say “tried,” because when they pulled their wallets out of their pockets, they found that their library cards — and money, student IDs, and licenses — were all garbled; none of the text was in English or even the Latin alphabet, and the pictures on the money were weird. I thought about offering to check out Andrew’s books for him, but I didn’t want to pointedly snub Evan by not doing the same for him, and I didn’t know him well enough to be sure he wouldn’t saddle me with late fees or worse, lose or damage the books.

So we walked out of the library and saw that a county maintenance department truck had arrived, and some workmen were unloading a roll of chain-link fencing.

“Too bad,” Evan said. “If that thing were safer, it could help a lot of people.”

“Tell me what happened,” I demanded.

So Andrew told me how he’d arrived there that morning, before anybody but the librarians (his brother’s work shift started half an hour before the library opened), and found the machine. A couple of other people were looking at it, too, one of the librarians and the old guy who ran the antique store down the street from the library. Nobody knew what to make of it, but after they’d tried touching the machine in different spots, the old guy touched the center of the Venn diagram and a slot opened up like I’d seen in Andrew’s photo. Then he put in a quarter, and the Venn diagram vanished, replaced by several icons — you know all about them, but back then their meanings weren’t as obvious as they seem now. They tried pushing different buttons and by trial and error got the doors to open.

The old guy and the librarian went in to investigate, and the doors vanished, and Andrew was left standing there, wondering what was going on, for several minutes. Another librarian arrived, and the earliest library patrons, and some of them came over to look at the machine; Andrew told them what he knew. Then the doors opened and two much younger, hotter-looking people came out. They told people what they’d seen and done, and before long other people were trying it out.

Andrew wanted to use it to buff himself up, but they’d told him you couldn’t design your own new body; you designed a new body for the person in the other booth, and they’d design yours. So he wanted to try it out with somebody he knew well, and took out his phone and called me. But Evan arrived at the library around then, and they tried it out together as soon as Andrew could tell him what was up.

Then, not long after they’d beefed each other up, a couple of women went in the machine and only one came out. She looked into the other booth and screamed. Andrew, Evan and the other spectators crowded around and saw a little doll lying on the floor of the booth, maybe six inches high, proportioned like an adult — kind of like a Barbie, but without that trademarked face or those ridiculous proportions.

Everyone was scared to use the booth anymore after that, and somebody must have called the sheriff’s department, because one deputy and then another showed up a few minutes later and started questioning everyone. After they’d answered the deputy’s questions, Andrew and Evan went inside and browsed while waiting for me.

By the time Andrew and Evan finished telling me all that, we’d walked across the railroad tracks and Main Street to the coffee shop, got something to drink, and sat down. I had to pay for their drinks because of the wallet fiasco.

“What all changes did you see people make to each other?” I asked.

“Mostly they were old folks making each other young again,” Evan said. “An overweight guy and his girlfriend made each other skinnier and hotter, and the girl had ginormous boobs after she came out, and she was chewing her boyfriend out for making them so big. But one time a couple of guys went in and one of them came out looking like a girl... judging from his reaction, I think he really was a girl. He didn’t stay like that for long; after yelling at his buddy for a while, he went back in with somebody else and got changed back into a guy, although he didn’t look much like he did before.”

And it could change me into a girl, too, I realized — if it didn’t kill me by turning me into a doll. I’d take that risk, but the sheriff’s deputies wouldn’t let me.

The fact that the machine was being fenced off even as we spoke, and that Evan was there, made it an easy decision to once again put off telling Andrew I was probably trans. I’d started to suspect it a couple of years earlier, and I was pretty sure by then, but I hadn’t told anybody yet, except for some friends I’d made online.

Another thing I hadn’t told Andrew before, that hadn’t ever been relevant to our friendship until now, was that I was attracted to guys. But now Andrew and Evan were both seriously hot, which was making it hard to concentrate on what they were saying.

“Hey,” Andrew said when they’d finished telling me about all the people they’d seen transformed, “let’s see if anybody online knows anything about it. I posted those photos I sent you on Reddit a couple of hours ago; lemme check that thread...”

But his phone, when he pulled it out, showed the same kind of weird foreign language text and abstract icons that were on his T-shirt and the cards and bills in his wallet. Evan’s phone was the same.

“Look it up on your phone, would you?” Evan said to me.

I blushed as I said, “Ah... Mom and Dad won’t let me have a cellphone until I’m sixteen.”

“Seriously?” Evan said. “That sucks.” Andrew, who already knew about my parents' strictness, just nodded.


We wound up going back to my house and using my laptop to check for replies on Andrew’s Reddit thread and look for other news about the machine. That necessitated telling Mom and Sophia who these two strange guys were, and about the machine and most of what Andrew and Evan had told me.

Mom scolded Andrew roundly for getting into such a machine without knowing anything about it, where it came from, who made it or how it worked. She didn’t scold Evan directly, because she’d never met him before, but she gave the impression he was just as dumb as Andrew. When we finally escaped to my room and looked up the Reddit thread Andrew had started, we found over a hundred replies; most of them were random speculation, but a few later on featured photos other people had taken of machines like it — a couple in indoor malls, one on a courthouse lawn, one in a park.

They’d all appeared overnight in small towns around the size of ours or a little bigger in at least four countries (by the next day we knew it was a lot more). The redditors told about how they and other people had transformed each other and what had followed. Mostly people started out making each other younger and better-looking, then some started making more drastic changes — there were photos of furries that skeptics claimed were expert cosplay, but were supposedly transformed people; there were people with blue or purple skin and women with three or four breasts; there were dogs and wild animals like bears and wolves, posing calmly for the camera in a mall or in front of a courthouse, and videos of animals doing arithmetic for the camera to prove they were transformed people. And there were several sex changes. But eventually, the authorities stepped in and cordoned off the machines. In at least one case, it had been precipitated by someone getting changed into a pair of underwear.

Nobody had any idea where they came from. A bunch of people pointed out that the technology was way beyond anything we could do, or were anywhere close to being able to do. They talked about the lack of any text on the outside or inside interfaces, and the way money and ID cards got garbled in the process of transformation, and said the makers of the machines didn’t speak any Earth language. On the other hand, the green and red buttons inside had meaning not just for Earth, but for a specific range of Earth cultures. Some drew the obvious conclusion that aliens had introduced them, others thought it must be humans from the future or from a more advanced alternate timeline. Almost all the speculations you’ve heard in the last few years, we saw in that one Reddit thread six hours after the first machines were discovered.

It was hard to keep the disappointment off my face as I thought about the chance I’d missed. Andrew and Evan, of course, thought I was regretting not getting to bulk up into a six-foot hundred and seventy-pound stud, and I didn’t disabuse them of the notion. Finally, after we’d overdosed on Reddit and Twitter and Tumblr (hashtag #vennmachine showed up pretty early, along with some others based on proposed names that didn’t catch on), we played video games for a while, and Andrew and Evan borrowed our landline to call home and tell their parents where they were and what had happened. That led to a whole mess with them trying to prove to their parents who they were that I’m not going to get into here. My big brother Caleb got home from football practice in the middle of that, and my dad not much later.


I fell asleep that night scheming about what I could do with a set of wirecutters and a trusted accomplice. My choices basically came down to Sophia or Andrew. I was pretty sure Andrew would be okay with me being trans; I’d have to tell him after I transformed, anyway, if I didn’t tell him first in order to get his help to transform. I hadn’t told him yet because... well, I was a coward. And I’d talked to people online who told me that friends they’d known and trusted for years had turned on them, said and done the most horrible things, when they came out. I’d been figuring I couldn’t actually do anything about it until I was eighteen and not living at home, at the soonest, so there was no urgency about telling my friends. But now — I had to tell somebody in order to change, and then I would have to tell everybody why I’d changed.

Sophia would be delighted to have a sister. She’d complained often enough, when we were younger, about only having brothers, especially after Dad tore me a new asshole one time for playing dolls with her. But even though the neighborhood between our house and the library had some of the lowest crime in the area, I wasn’t sure I wanted to take my little sister out after midnight and make her an accomplice to breaking and entering. Taking the risk for myself was one thing, but I didn’t want to risk Sophia getting hurt or arrested.

Caleb was obviously not an option, nor were Mom or Dad. I thought Mom might be slightly more likely to be okay with me being trans than Dad or Caleb — but I wasn’t anywhere near sure enough to tell her, or ask for her help breaking the law to get at the machine that could give me the girl body I needed.

As it turned out, all my scheming was unnecessary.


Announcement

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