The Land of Neon and Northern Lights

The Story of a Girl

A futuristic city with tall buildings glowing beneath a night sky.

By Sapphire

Author's Note: This is an older story, originally written around 2017, that I wanted to leave up as a reflection on past work.

Frosted wind howled savagely and beat against the thick plexiglass shell covering a lonely maglev train station. Inside stood a single woman shivering even in a thick coat and standing beneath heaters that hummed lowly in the grim light.

It’s too cold, she thought, and was surprised at herself. With a Canadian passport buried in the silver bag on her arm, beneath scarves and gloves and estrogen pills, she wouldn’t have thought herself a stranger to freezing temperatures. Yet here she was. Standing on a tile platform as gray and featureless as the world outside, the monotony only broken by rows of plastic benches, Laura pulled her coat tighter around herself.

Outside the little station perched on a rocky hillside, the skyscrapers of Longyearbyen loomed above her. Covered in tempered, heated glass and blinking lights, they were part of an urban sprawl that had consumed the inlet in which Svalbard’s capital sat. Coming in on her flight and seeing it for the first time as clouds parted beneath the VertiPlane, it had seemed as if it had come out of a dream. But in this cold, it was almost something like a nightmare. Yes, in her thirty-six years spent in Vancouver, Laura Reed had never experienced a cold quite like this.

Laura’s thoughts were interrupted by a soft whirring in front of her, where the magnetic levitation tracks lay. They sparked and hummed with energy, and staring down at them from the raised platform Laura could watch lights begin to blink to life. Another train would be coming soon. Much like the one that had brought her to the station earlier that morning, she assumed, and left her here to wait; her instructions that she had received a week earlier ended at this station.

While she waited, Laura pulled out a black rectangle from her pocket and tapped a button on the back. In an instant, a screen came to life in front of her icy blue eyes, where only she could see. Her fingers began to fly over the keyboard on the other side of the rectangle. The chip embedded into her skull began to pulse as it searched for a wireless network, scouring the air around her for a connection. She knew that beneath the sleeves of her coat the lights embedded into her arms—who doesn’t want to look flashy these days?—would begin to blink.

For a few terrifying seconds, the indicator at the top right of her semi-transparent screen blinked red: No Wireless. For a woman whose life was at least as much online as off, connected at almost all times to the web of wireless and wired lines that spread across the planet, it left a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. Surely even in this remote part of the world, a country as advanced as Svalbard would give her wireless access?

Then, at last, a connection was established as Laura was bombarded with ads. Her fingers and eyes worked in tandem to swipe away pleas for her to visit the Longyearbyen Heritage .gif Shop or offers for a train ride up to the flourishing Russian city of Pyramiden. Why she’d want to visit a mining town, Laura did not know, but swiped it all away to check on any local news or updates. Even in a city with a paltry population of less than a million, surely something interesting was happening.

Lost in her adventures online, it was not until the heavy steel doors of the station began to groan and slide open that Laura looked up to see the next train coming in. Coldness rushed in from outside strong enough to almost knock her slim form over. The mop of messy almost-brown hair on her head blew and whipped everywhere, and for a moment there was chaos and blindness as she fought to turn off her wireless device and get the hair out of her eyes.

When she had managed to compose herself once more, a train had come to rest in front of her. Its sleek, gunsteel finished carapace gleamed before her. The screen in front of her eye, once more transparent, helpfully notified her that it was the six-o’clock train arriving eight minutes ahead of schedule. Ticket prices and route maps began to scroll before her until she flicked them away. She took a hesitant step forward, her hand moving toward what looked like a door—little more than a small slit in the side of the silver beast—though she could see no handle.

The train hissed at Laura, causing her to jump back, and the door she had spotted slid open. The interior was lit by a warm yellow light and contained, it seemed, not the usual train décor. Stepping within, Laura found it spacious and decorated like a moving ballroom: fine, fluffy carpets, plush couches, and the walls covered with what looked like real paint. Soft electronic music hummed in the background, completing a look that had clearly been obsessively followed.

Sitting on one of the couches before her, and the only person on the train, was a broad-shouldered man who managed to look in charge and at ease at the same time. He wore a dark black vest the color of his braided hair with seamless pants the same shade as his vest. His eyes studied her carefully from a face wrinkled by time and worry. He extended a hand to her even as the train car rose above the track and began to shoot forward, never wavering while Laura fought to keep her balance.

“My name is Henrik Bergen,” he said when her pale hand met his tanned handshake, “and it’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Reed. I trust your journey here went smoothly?”

Laura smiled and nodded, placing herself on a burgundy loveseat across from Henrik, who leaned forward on a coffee-colored recliner. “The hospital gave me hell for taking the trip, but I made it up here just fine. Landed this morning and followed your instructions to the train station.”

She paused and waited for him to go on or to fill her in on what exactly he planned to do. Instead, he continued to stare at her thoughtfully as their train moved from the plexiglass station to the eastbound rail line. It took them rapidly away from Longyearbyen that was, even at three in the afternoon, awash in artificial light. The Arctic fall wore on and she could see from the train the endless, terrible drifts of snow in every direction beneath the dark, yet calming, night sky.

“Well, you mentioned that I was to come here in order to perform a gender-affirming surgery upon a young patient with a rare blood disorder,” she continued, aware of Henrik’s gaze, “so am I to presume you are taking me to see the patient now?”

Henrik smiled approvingly at her arrival to the point. He took out his own wireless device and tapped a few buttons half-hidden in the wall of the train. With a grabbing motion, he drew out a hologram from his personal device until the whirring display—which arose from beneath the floor near Laura’s feet—on the car “caught” it. The life-sized hologram flickered to life and showed, in the air between them, a picture of a young adult: by Laura’s guess only just past her teenagehood.

“This is my daughter, Else-May,” he said, with pride in his voice that he did not even try to hide. “She was, as they say in your country, trans-aware at a young age: four or so, as best we can tell.”

Henrik spoke in English that bore so little accent that he could have been from the Chi-waukee metropolis for all she knew, though so soft that Laura had to lean forward to listen. “This, of course, is fine. However, it was not the only, well, uniqueness that she was born with.” He reached on his wireless again and threw up pictures of medical documents for Laura to see. “Unfortunately, our…my daughter was born with Aplastic anemia: a genetic blood-borne illness.”

“Affecting every blood type of blood cell, yes, I’ve read on it before,” Laura said. She reached back in her mind to recall the many illnesses she been forced to learn in medical school. “Common treatment is a round of Hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. These days, we can treat it just fine. But you’re telling me…”

The older man, looking a bit shrunken now, nodded and lay back heavily in his recliner. He wiped his brow with a hand before going on: “Most of the time, yes, doctors can fix it. But not with Else-May. The treatment allowed her to live as well as a child can, but complications robbed her of strength; she requires a wheelchair now.”

Laura’s expression darkened. She could perform the surgery well enough; virtually any graduate out of medical school could. Performing one on such a patient, however, was not something she was normally prepared for. “I can see why you wanted a Hematologist,” she said.

“Yes, of course,” Henrik said. He waved his hands in the air, displaying various pictures of Else-May: a pretty young girl with jet black, close-cropped hair, chocolate eyes, and skin on the lighter side of vanilla. “My daughter, Else-May, is strong you see,” he continued, displaying pictures of her around various buildings—most often in a wheelchair but other times standing. “She helps me run the company, even. I can assure you, there will be no problems with the surgery.”

The last sentence had been phrased more like an order, and Laura leaned back in response. She looked again at the pictures. Despite Mr. Bergen’s insistence, the girl in them was not strong; her thin arms and gaunt skin stretched over her frame was a testament to that: Laura pegged her at just above underweight. To survive must have taken a strong spirit, Laura was sure, but during surgery the body cared little for that and more whether her heart and other organs would continue to function.

“So why me, then?” Laura asked, shifting in her seat and crossing her legs to rest one arm upon her knee. The train clattered around them, all but drowning out her voice until it sounded as small and weak as she felt for the mission ahead. “My specialty in Hematology is blood-borne disease, not genetic disorders, and I’m hardly a specialist in sexual reassignment surgery.” She bit her lower lip, afraid of the answer but knowing she had to ask anyway.

Henrik took a moment to answer. He rested his elbows on his knees, legs apart, and scratched his head with one hand while he looked away, embarrassed. When he looked at her again, the skin on his face was flushed. “It was at Else-May’s insistence that we find another trans woman to perform the surgery. With not enough who fit that description in Svalbard, we had to look abroad until we found, well, you.”

The answer hung in the air between them, thick with a history of self-loathing and doubt. Henrik let it drop and waved the holographic images away, choosing instead to recline in his seat and close his eyes. Laura, for her part, managed to look out the window beside her instead of staring down to the floor.

She watched snow banks clinging to icy black rock rush by while her brain tried not to dwell for too long on the idea. The pain of what she held between her legs and the ache she felt inside over it threatened to come rushing back if she didn’t stay distracted.

Outside, Laura observed the Longyearbyen suburb of Grumant slowly drift by. Its spires of steel and glass, hugging the shoreline, glittered and blinked in the setting light. Yet, rather than head toward that sign of wonderful civilization and its tantalizingly-distracting wireless network, the train turned away and continued southeast.

Laura watched her last taste of normalcy disappear beneath the horizon as the train climbed up and up into sharp, craggy mountains above, bearing her toward her destiny with a girl she did not know who had chosen her only for what she had happened to have been born with between her legs.

It took all of her strength to not despair at the thought.

After some time, the train climbed up toward the rim of a great mountain of gray and black stone. Jagged creases were scarred into the rock where glaciers had once pressed down but, as the encroaching tide of climate change overtook them, little dwelled there now but snow that was not nearly so present as it had been in a much colder world one hundred years before.

As the train reached the top of the mountain, which had been leveled as flat as a runway some time before, she stood from her seat to gaze in awe out the frosted window beside her. Down below was a cavernous mouth large enough to swallow an entire city. Roads carved into the mountain itself spiraled down, down into the mines that had once stretched deep into the pillars of the Earth. The metal frames of old equipment that lay scattered near the bottom of the shaft stuck up from the dark earth like memorials in a graveyard, guarding treasure that had long since been taken.

“This was not the first inland mine in Svalbard,” Henrik said, suddenly beside her, “but it was the first to put us truly on the map. My father’s father financed it—that was after Store Norske had folded—and our family has made our empire on the profits we gained here.”

“It looks like a wound,” Laura said in a voice just above a whisper.

“It is a price that we paid,” Henrik replied, just as loud. “Greatness always comes at a cost, and living here we are never allowed to forget it.”

Laura, nodding, continued to watch the mine as the train drifted by. She tried to imagine what it must have been like to work as great metal claws tore into the Earth, and how small one must have felt in so great an endeavor.

The train continued along the rim of the mine, on a track that must have been laid at great cost to Henrik’s family, and before long Laura was finally able to see their destination. She had known to expect a mansion—there were few who traveled to Svalbard without knowing of the Bergens—but she had never thought for a moment what it might look like. She supposed she had imagined that it would have been little different from the wood and brick abodes she had seen in her youth on the islands around Vancouver.

Instead, the “mansion” was more a pile of bare concrete, polished steel, and thick glass prefabricated buildings that looked like the ones she had once glimpsed in northern British Columbia as a child. They had been laboriously pushed together until they created one jumbled whole, covered in blinking lights. The only new construction was a tower that rose above the three story jumble, with a steel bulge on top for what was likely, in Laura’s mind, a study or bedroom. The entire structure sat right up against a sharp outcrop of mountain so close to the mansion it was if the two had merged, and the only other building around was a small stop for the train. Nothing beside remained but empty mountain.

“It must get lonely, all the way out here,” Laura muttered, stepping away from the window to ensure her bags were beside her feet. She gripped the handle of an old leather suitcase that smelled of love and home tightly.

Henrik tapped his chin, then shrugged and wiped condensation from the window. “I suppose one might feel that way, where you’re from. We are a big country with few people, and if you wander away from the cities you grow used to the isolation.”

“Does Else-May feel the same way?” Laura asked.

“Of course she does,” Henrik replied, perhaps a little too quickly.

The train at that moment pulled into a miniature station—really nothing more than a simple platform and resting bed for the maglev engines when not in use—and its doors slid open. Harsh, bitter cold swept into the car and almost knocked Laura over. Henrik stooped down to offer his arm to guide her, but Laura refused and stumbled out of the posh car behind him, immediately wishing she had taken his offer.

Laura’s boot-clad feet sank deep into the powdered snow in front of the mansion. Shivering, she strode forward, having to force the snow out of her way with every step, while Henrik confidently strode forward.

Sitting on a plump bench inside the entryway a few minutes later, Laura dripped and shivered as she listened to Henrik explain the mansion. It had, he told her, once been workers’ dormitories for the mine, but once it had shut down they moved the lot of them together and formed a single housing unit out of them.

“Though the tower you may have spotted near the center of the house is entirely new,” Henrik, added as Laura slipped off her wet overclothes. “It is exclusive to guests that visit us here, and is yours to use until the surgery in the morning. It has the fullest amenities and is, I can assure you, as good or better than anything you’d find even in Longyearbyen.”

“Thanks,” Laura grouched, shaking herself all over before gathering all her wet outerclothes into a bundle in her arms. Henrik led her through small, wood-paneled passageways lit by soft, orange light to an elevator right below the tower.

“And this is where I leave you,” he said with a sense of finality to his voice. “As I said, Dr. Reed, the tower is yours until the morning. I am afraid I have spent much of today on my feet, and will retire for the evening. If you need a meal, one can be brought to you or you can generate one in your room.”

Laura nodded, but stopped him before he could go by clearing her throat. “What of Else-May, Mr. Bergen?” she asked. “Don’t I need to meet her?”

Henrik gave her one last smile for the night. “If she wants to meet you, she’ll come to you, but I’m afraid it won’t work the other way around.” With that, he strode back down the hall, leaving Laura alone at the top of the world.

A few hours later, Laura emerged from the surprisingly spacious and high-tech shower room—complete with an instant makeup kit—wearing a light tank top and long bed pants which had been laid out for her upon arrival. The top even had the Bergens’ logo on the front, and when she wore it the logo shined as if it were a part of her.

While she dried her hair, Laura paced around the round bedroom she had been gifted for the night. Though underneath the surface lay modern amenities like instant network hookup, charging pads, and basic bio-scanners, the room otherwise would have fit into the world nearly a century before. Cotton sheets of deep blue on the bed, carpet rugs all over, and a computer desk that looked so primitive that she had been surprised it had even the most rudimentary of artificial intelligence. Laura wondered if it was a sense of nostalgia or rather that time simply moved slower up at the edge of the world.

While she pondered the answer and dried her hair with an overly fluffy towel, the door to the elevator in the center of the room slid open. A girl emerged out of the circular car, but not standing. Laura’s first look at Else-May was of a girl bound to an eggshell-white wheelchair wearing a bright red cardigan and a long, black skirt covering her legs down to her ankles.

Else-May was immediately recognizable from her pictures on the train, though seeing her in person was a wholly different experience. Though her skin was so pale it was almost translucent and pulled tightly over her wiry frame, her eyes and way which she held herself burned outward. She stared back at Laura defiantly, analyzing her just as much. The wheelchair, a simple plastic thing, rolled across the hardwood floor to Laura faster than she would have thought the girl could manage.

“So you’re the doctor?” Else-May asked quickly, almost like she was in a hurry to talk. She spoke first in Norwegian, then switched quickly to English and repeated the question.

Laura nodded and held out her hand to the girl, speaking in the same voice she gave every patient. “I’m Dr. Laura Reed, and I’ll be performing the procedure for you tomorrow. I bet you’re excited!”

Else-May stared at Laura’s hand for a moment, then sniffed and rolled past her, towards the edge of the round room where Laura’s bed for the night lay. Above it was transparent aluminum windows that gave a stark glimpse of the deathly white wastes outside. Snow was piled so high and packed so thick it formed a bridge from the mountainside right to the windows of the tower. The girl tapped a few buttons on a control pad on her chair and panels built into the walls quickly flickered to life.

The imposing ice and cold outside was replaced with a simulation of a massive field of deep green grass swaying in the breeze as far as the eye could see. Above them was nothing but bright blue sky and the sun shining brightly.

“So you’re the one who’s here to give me a pussy,” Else-May said flatly before Laura had recovered from the girl taking control so quickly.

Laura’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. She tried again and was able to squeak: “Well, um, yes I guess that’s technically correct.”

Else-May turned her chair around and raised an eyebrow at Laura. “You must have come a long way, huh?”

Laura nodded. “From Canada.”

“And it must have been expensive.”

“Well, yes, almost certainly, but—”

“So expensive that my father’s probably giddy to get it over with. To make his little girl an actual girl whether she likes it or not.”

Laura held up her hands in defense. “Hey, hey, slow down. You’re telling me you don’t want the surgery?”

Else-May was quiet for a little while. She folded her hands in her lap and looked past Laura, toward the simulated rolling green hills far beyond them, covered in tall trees and brightly-colored flowers.

“What I want and what my father want are different things,” she said.

“Then what is it that you want, exactly?” Laura asked in return.

Else-May responded by rolling forward in her chair and, suddenly, grabbing Laura’s arm. She flipped it over and held it out for both of them to see. Besides the active lights near Laura’s wrist where her wireless implants had been installed, all it showed was her pale skin.

Laura started to ask what her point was, but Else-May cut her off by running a finger quickly up the underside Laura’s arm from wrist to elbow. The whiteness exploding into bursts of color like flowers in bloom as the implants Laura had installed—some cosmetic and some not—all came to life at once. She tried to jerk her arm away, but Else-May didn’t let it go; her grip was far stronger than Laura would have thought.

“See, for so long I was dedicated—no, obsessed—with the perfect body,” Else-May said, gently running a finger over the lights as if Laura was not even there. “Because this was the body nobody expected would survive past childhood, so I was going to stick with it. No body upgrades; not even these common ones. I had to be perfect.”

Else-May finally let go and Laura snapped her arm back. She gently rubbed her wrist and the lights blinked out one by one, the only light once more coming from the simulated sun overhead. Else-May, meanwhile, ran a hand through the electronic grass swaying beneath her feet.

“Father told me I was right, and that it was a perfect body, and I believed him. But if I’m so perfect, why do I have to get surgery to change that? Why did he spend years preparing me for a surgery as soon as I was an adult to give me a body part I didn’t already have? I think that if I’m perfect already I shouldn’t need any surgery to improve me.”

Laura’s mouth dropped open as what Else-May was saying began to dawn on her. While the girl talked, she was painfully aware of the bar just at the top of her vision waiting to be activated and bring up the electronics inside of her, a symbol of what the girl apparently hated.

“Well, you’re on, ah, hormones aren’t you?” Laura asked softly, gesturing to the girl’s chest.

Else-May wrapped her cardigan tightly around herself. “That’s different,” she protested. “Hormones are natural. If my body decided to start making estrogen one day on its own, this would happen. Peeling the skin back to implant electronics or ripping me up down there is me changing my body, not allowing it to take a different natural process.”

The girl had clearly done her homework, Laura saw. She looked down at her arm and bit her lip, then back to Else-May who stared plaintively at her, as if begging the older woman to agree with her.

Laura bit her lip. “It’s not really the same thing. You can love your body and still want to change it to make it even better.” She held out her arm again, lights strobing on her wrist. “I have all these but I didn’t even get the bottom surgery. Never thought I’d need to. If I can do that, why can’t you get the surgery but not mods?”

“You didn’t get the bottom surgery?” Else-May asked in surprise, evidently taken aback.

“Never saw the need,” Laura said. “I’m as much a woman with or without it, don’t you think? I may get body mods and hormones but I’m not any less perfect for it.”

“But that’s just it,” Else-May shot back. “I feel like I’m perfect already and don’t need anything else. Maybe it makes sense to you because you didn’t think your body is right, but mine is fine.”

“My body is perfectly fine,” Laura said indignantly.

“Oh yeah? Then why’d you cover yourself in lights and come all the way to tell me what to do with mine?”

“That’s not the same thing! Why are you so obsessed with wanting a perfect body anyway? It’s ridiculous!”

It wasn’t until that Else-May wheeled herself away that Laura realized she had been yelling. Somehow, the girl had gotten a rise out of her enough to make her pant like she had just run a race. In her shock, she didn’t even see what Else-May was doing until it was too late.

Else-May had taken Laura’s mod remote she’d left on the desk beside the bed in her hand and thrown it at the glass above the bed. She must have had more strength than Laura thought, because the glass shattered and cold wind immediately rushed in, howling in Laura’s ears and nearly knocking her back on her rear. The simulated grass field died immediately and was replaced with the overbearing whiteness and dreariness outside.

Before Laura could stop her, Else-May stood up from her chair and walked toward the gaping window frame. She was on shaky legs, and stumbled across the floor, but managed to get on the bed and climb out into the snow packed right up against the window without cutting herself.

The cold wind rushing in and snow drifting onto the floor, after a moment, snapped Laura out of her stupor. She rushed forward and climbed out of where the window once was.

Broken glass cut up the bottoms of her feet but, at the moment, she didn’t notice or care. Instead, her eyes were focused on Else-May, who lay just outside the window. She was curled into a ball and, though it could only be faintly heard over the wind, sobbing.

Laura reached her and, not entirely sure what to do, picked Else-May up in her arms and held her close. For a little while, she had forgotten just how frail and weak the fiery girl was; Else-May weighed hardly anything and lifting her was astoundingly easy.

Holding her close, Laura could hear her talking between sobs. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she said, repeating herself again and again. “I didn’t know what I was doing… I’m just so scared. I wanted to be perfect for so long I don’t know what I want anymore.”

Laura nodded and continued to hold the sobbing girl and gently rubbed her back. “It’s okay, shh, it’s alright. You’re right, you can be perfect any way you want. You’re fine, I promise.”

Whether Else-May took that as reassurance or not, Laura didn’t know. She quieted down and instead clung quietly to Laura while her tears dried. Eventually, though Laura didn’t know how much time had passed, Henrik showed up at the window.

At first, he seemed upset and angry, but seeing the two of them he quickly quieted down. Together, he and Laura took the very cold Else-May back to her wheelchair and out of the room, leaving the mess behind for another time.

An hour later, Laura sat at a sparse table in the Bergens’ kitchen. It was, naturally, furnished with only the finest and high-tech equipment, as the advertisement had helpfully chirped into her headgear when she’d had the refrigerator make her a glass of chocolate milk. She sipped it in a mug with the family’s company logo on the side, waiting for Henrik to return. One of her bandaged feet tapped the ground impatiently and her eyes darted over the sights of the room again and again.

At last, Henrik emerged from the hall opposite the table and stood over Laura. For the first time since arriving there she really noticed how huge and imposing he was, even in a crumpled suit and faded tie wrapped lazily around his neck. In the dark hours of the night, alone in the house with him now, Laura began to have second thoughts about coming on the trip at all.

Henrik’s face remained stern as he stared down at her. Laura had expected him to be angry, but when he spoke it was in a heavy monotone, which somehow felt more threatening. “Else-May is asleep in her room, at last. I wrapped her up and set the auto-doctor to monitor her for cases of hypothermia. Now would you like to explain to me why exactly, the day before the biggest surgery of her life, my daughter in your care somehow ended up outside in the snow without her chair?”

Laura gulped. The cuts on her feet—sealed now with medical adhesive—began to throb. “It’s a bit more complicated than that,” she said.

“Well I’d just love to hear your explanation.”

“You see,” she began, desperately fumbling for words, “it was Else-May who came to me. She talked to me about how she had been having conflicting thoughts over the surgery tomorrow and wanted to talk to me about it.” Henrik didn’t respond, so Laura continued after a moment. “Seeing as she’s my patient I had no choice but to advise her on how I thought best.”

Henrik crossed his arms. “And what exactly do you think, Dr. Reed?”

“That Else-May is unprepared to have the surgery and I would recommend at least a temporary stay if not cancelling the entire surgery altogether.”

Again, Henrik did not respond right away. Instead, he placed one fist on the table and used the other to grip the table’s edge tightly while he leaned towards Laura until their faces were only centimeters apart. “What you mean to tell me is that you managed to get my daughter to give up on a surgery she has wanted her whole life right as I pay to have you brought in all the way from Canada? That I have wasted a fortune on this entire venture because of your opinion?”

Laura stood, her back erect even if he legs were shaking, and stared Henrik straight in the eye. “I may be out of line, Mr. Bergen, but I will not excuse ignorance of your own daughter. She came to me specifically about not wanting the surgery at all, and that you forced the entire idea upon her.”

“Me?” Henrik snapped. “Are you accusing me of not knowing my own daughter as well as a doctor who’s known her for all of a day, and that you are now the expert on what she wants and doesn’t want?” To punctuate his last point, Henrik slammed his fist on the table.

Laura did not back down. She couldn’t. A spring of threats and taunts and violence from her life came welling up and she knew she could not physically stand down now. “You wanted a trans woman for the surgery? Well you got one, and maybe I do know better than you for your daughter. You may not like it, but it’s the truth.”

“Truth? The only truth is that you have no idea what you’re talking about and will proceed with the surgery tomorrow and that will be final!”

“As your daughter’s physician, I call the shots and if she doesn’t want it she isn’t getting it!”

Henrik’s nostrils flared and his eyebrows rose. “This is my house, and in my house you will do as I say or I’ll—”

“Stop it, both of you!” rang a cry from behind the two adults, almost nose to nose in their anger. Henrik and Laura turned as one to see Else-May standing in the dimly-lit kitchen entrance, rubbing one eye with her hand. She wore a battered long shirt and tights, and her hair was everywhere but straight, but most notably she was standing on her feet with no chair in sight.

“Else-May, honey, what are you doing here?” Henrik began, rushing to his daughter’s side to help before she held out a hand to stop him.

“No, I’ve been listening to you both and I’ve heard enough. Neither of you are going to get to decide what’s best for me.”

“But honey,” Henrik said, “I only want what’s best for you, this argument is for your sake…”

Else-May ignored him. She stumbled, clutching the wall as best she could, over to the table where Laura had been sitting and managed to collapse into an empty chair. She sighed heavily and looked to the both of them before rubbing her eyes with both hands.

“I know you two both want what’s best for me,” she said, looking down at the kitchen table as she spoke, “and I’m sorry for all the trouble I’ve caused. But this is a decision I have to make for myself. I can’t let anyone decide but me.”

“And have you decided?” Laura asked, shooting a furtive glance Henrik’s way.

Else-May paused for a moment, then nodded. “Yes, I have. While I was in the snow and after, all I did was think about it long and hard. I want to get the surgery.” She held a hand up before either of them could reply. “But not because of anyone else. I’ve been told all my life that it’ll make me perfect, but that’s not true.”

She tapped her fingers lightly on the table’s hardwood surface. “I’m not perfect. I need to change. I want to change. But even new body parts won’t make me perfect. I don’t know what will, and I’m going to have to figure that out. But I know that the person I eventually want to be, who I see myself as being one day, is a woman who has something different down there and for that I want the surgery.”

Henrik and Laura looked to each other and nodded. Just like that, it was if the wind had been knocked out of both their sails. Henrik slumped against the wall of the kitchen while Laura sat down heavily in her seat at the table.

“Just like that?” she asked.

Else-May nodded. “I’m sorry if it’s not as big a deal as you or my father wanted, but laying in my bed after all that… all I could think about was that it wasn’t the surgery or change I was afraid of. Just who I was going to be.” She gave them both a small, toothy smile. “But now I know, and I decided without anyone being there to tell me what to do.”

Laura couldn’t help but smile at that. Else-May rose from her seat after a little while and walked to her father, who took her hand in his and led her away into the recesses of the mansion, leaving Laura alone to find her own way to bed and prepare for the next day.

By the next evening, Laura was absolutely exhausted. The surgery had gone well with few complications, just as Henrik had declared it, and Else-May proved to be even stronger than either of them had believed. Now, Laura watched over the girl as she rested, covered in bandages almost from head to toe, in a hospital gurney designed especially for her.

The room, at the far west end of the mansion, had been converted into a sterile surgery room. Bleached tile floors colored ugly puke green stretched from one end to the other in a room dominated by a large gender reassignment machine in the middle that was in the process of being automatically cleaned by a robotic assistant Henrik had provided. Laura sat on a stool in front of Else-May’s bed and noticed Henrik outside the door—which had a large viewing window—anxiously pacing in front of it.

Laura waved to get his attention, then indicated he could come in. The surgery had been over for a couple of hours, and so Laura figured it was about time to talk to Henrik again. She had barely seen him since their fight the night before, as most of her day had been the preparation and then execution of the surgery.

Henrik, somehow, looked much smaller in the surgery room as he nervously wiped his hands on his old, faded pants nervously. He hadn’t even worn a suit, but rather a faded sweatshirt with his company’s logo on it. “How did it go?” he asked quickly, practically blurting it out.

“The surgery, I am happy to say, was a complete success,” Laura said, glowing. Sure, most of it had been the machine’s work, but she could afford to take credit for something good for once, she thought. “Your daughter is going to make an easy and full recovery within a week or two. Until then she will just need plenty of bed rest and to take her medication. I’ve filled out a complete summary for you to look over at your leisure.”

“Right, right,” Henrik said absently. He bent over the bed and gently smoothed back the hair on his sleeping daughter’s head. He smiled when he looked at her, more genuinely than she had seen him since they had first met.

“I apologize for my behavior last night,” he said, not taking his eyes off his daughter. “I suppose after so many years speaking with doctor after doctor who told me Else-May would never be better, I suppose I stopped believing them.” He swallowed hard and his eyes blinked rapidly. “I suppose I started to think only I knew what was best for her…more than she did herself. And that was wrong.”

For a moment, Laura thought he might cry, but he managed to regain enough of his composure to avoid it. “After Else-May’s mother left from her condition and her being trans… well, I only wanted even more to know what was best for my daughter. It must have been too much.”

Laura gently laid a hand on his shoulder. “You cared about her with all your heart. Maybe it wasn’t perfect, but it’s more than other people in her life, and I’m sure she’ll be thankful for that.”

Henrik sighed and at last turned away from Else-May, his hand on his cheek as if he were deep in thought. “What has it been like for you, being trans in public for so many years?”

“In public? Why do you ask?”

“Because the time is soon coming to when Else-May won’t be kept cooped up in here all the time,” Henrik said, nodding toward a window on the far wall of the room where, just beyond, the wider world lay.

Laura tapped a finger to her chin and took a moment to answer. “I won’t say it hasn’t been difficult,” she said. “Even in these times not everyone is the most understanding or accommodating of trans people… but I could never imagine going back to who I was before. It was hard at first, yes, but the more I am myself the easier it has become. I have chosen who I want to be and no one can take that from me, and that’s the best feeling in the world.”

Henrik smiled—genuinely smiled—and looked back to Else-May again. “Do you think she will feel that way? Do you think she will love and be loved by the world as herself?”

Outside, wind brushed the newfallen snow into a gentle flurry. It was a clear day, with a bright and shining sun in a sky as blue as a robin’s egg. Laura smiled herself—she couldn’t help it—and nodded. “Only time will tell,” she said, “but I think the world is ready to meet Else-May Bergen.”