It was autumn, and the rich old-lady tourists had mostly gone home for the year. *Going to be lean from here on in*, the blond boy thought morosely, leaning against a wall and sizing up the passersby.
He didn't want to be doing this. He would give practically anything for a chance to get a real job, something secure and financially sound, instead of risking his life and freedom out on the streets, plucking the marks, at night breaking in the houses and slipping out with valuables, then risking himself again to sell the damned things... But it was a lean time all around. No one could get employed without identity papers, and no one could get papers without an identity... which he didn't have. Which he *hadn't* had, in two, three years... since 14 years old. Since Emmett Howell... damn, don't think about that! Last time he'd tried for papers, last year in female phase, she'd learned about the warrant out for her arrest and fingerprints, and damned if he was going to risk getting caught in male phase. Assuming the fingerprints were the same, of course. But even if they weren't, what could he do? He didn't know how to go about getting papers... in the past, he'd been small and cute and adults had accepted his lack of ID at face value. But he wasn't small and cute anymore.
Around now he could use a nice old lady who'd feed and board a young man, as long as he kept out of trouble, was courteous and quiet and kept her garden weeded... Yeah, like things like that really happened. *Wake up, Berg, this is real life*.
He walked down the street, calculating eyes never still, raking over the buildings and passersby. He preferred straight pickpocketing or purse-snatching to burglary, since he didn't have to try to fence the stuff off for his living wage. There wasn't much, though-- people nowadays carried it mostly in credit, now that the post-war situation was stabilizing. He had an eye for who had cash on them-- cash-carrying marks looked nervous, kept reaching to touch their wallets or purses, to make sure they were still there. Like that was going to help them. He stopped and looked in a store window, focusing on a potential mark out of the corner of his eye-- a fat lady with glasses and a bulky pocketbook that she kept touching. Great. The nearsighted ones were best-- with his long hair, and when he shifted his walk, it was easy to fool them into thinking that a girl had robbed them. Of course, it was a lot easier the other way around-- people *expected* thieves to be boys-- but that was a technique for female phase, and right now he was male. Misdirection, that was the name of the game.
Berg Katse re-entered the flow of pedestrians, shifting his walk slightly and drawing looks from people-- boy? girl? what? *D, all of the above*, he thought at them sardonically, as he did every single time, and casually approached the fat lady. If she saw him at all, she thought he was a girl and didn't fear him. Her mistake. He reached suddenly, knocked off her glasses, and grabbed the purse.
"Help! Help, thief! Mike!" she howled, in an American accent.
A tall, powerful man came around the corner, and the woman was pointing Berg out. "That girl snatched my purse!"
"Girl, hell! That's a boy!" the American man said, and started after Berg.
*Shit*! Berg elbowed his way through the crowd, panicky, and broke into a straight run. His legs were dependable. Not like his arms, whose strength phased with the rest of him, his legs never gave out on him. He had a runner's physique, slim torso, long powerful legs, and he used them fairly often. He could get away...
Except that his pursuer was bigger, had longer legs, and was gaining on him.
The word "shit" began running through Berg's head in seven different languages, together with other assorted expletives. He *needed* this purse. He had the rent due in a week, had to come up with *$250 or else... He zigzagged through the crowd, leapt over a railing and into a courtyard, and kept running-- but his pursuer was gaining, gaining, and his own breath was coming harder, shorter, like a knife in and out of his chest...
Even with his legs turning to lead, he put on a desperate burst of speed, pushing himself to his limit. *I have to-- **have** to get away*... He heard the footsteps directly behind him, and tossed the pocketbook backwards. *Take it, take it, just let me be*!
"No, you don't, you bastard!" he heard the man shout-- barely out of breath! The footsteps were gaining-- he threw himself sideways, into an alley, and a hand landed on his shoulder. "Got you!" the American snarled.
Berg reacted without thinking, in sheer terror-- he whipped around, raked overlong fingernails across the man's face, then as the guy began to recoil brought his leg up and kicked the guy in the groin, as hard as he could. The American shrieked and fell backwards, and Berg ran desperately, abandoning the pocketbook. When that man recovered, Berg had to be very far from the vicinity, or else.
He took the Metro steps three at a time and leapt the final five at once, using the banister to swing himself down. Businessmen stared at him disapprovingly, but he didn't care-- reaching the bottom, he leaned against a wall on the free side of the turnstiles and gasped for breath. If that American came down here, and saw him... But it couldn't be helped, he needed the rest. His vision swam with the exertion, and his lungs were trying to hyperventilate. He closed his eyes and did breathing exercises, continuing them with his eyes open as he could not afford to miss anything, and slowly the pain abated.
He walked over and slipped into a crowd of people leaving the Metro, bumping into two people and lifting their wallets as he did so. Out of the Metro station, he flipped his hair under his windbreaker, so that at first glance it would seem shorter, and strolled casually into a cafe, where he ordered a coffee and pastry. In the calm of the cafe, he examined his catch, and his heart sagged with disappointment. One wallet contained 5 dollars and numerous credit cards, the other 30-- and numerous credit cards. None of which helped him, because the fingerprint ID on the cards was certainly not going to match his own.
*Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink*...
It was getting late. After his pastry, he ordered dinner-- too little of it, as usual. Perhaps his freakish metabolism was faster than ordinary people's, perhaps it was simply that he was a growing 17-year- old who never got enough to eat-- but Berg was always hungry, all the time. Always saving his meager cash for something he needed and couldn't steal, like a room for the night, and he never got to spend enough of it on food. If only he had more money-- if only there was an easier way to *make* money...
But he rejected that thought immediately. There *was*, in fact, an easier way to make money. Involved much less risk to his life, no more exertion than walking around all day-- or all night-- and doing as people asked, getting to spend at least part of the time in warm beds-- it was even a method he'd used before, albeit never voluntarily, and with his experience on both sides a method he ought to be damned good at... and it was something he would slit his own throat before seriously considering. Berg Katse would never be anyone's plaything, never again.
He finished the meal, left no tip, and took the Metro back to the part of the city he called home. As if anywhere could truly be his home...
For $250 a month one couldn't get much. Berg climbed the rickety, worn stairs up three flights, went to the end of the narrow, cramped hall and unlocked the door. He had easily the cheapest room in the house, no more than a bedroom and bathroom, the bed with an old, saggy mattress and musty covers, one rack of metal jerry-rigged shelves that some former tenant had left, and that was it. Berg flopped down on the bed exhaustedly and stared up at the water stains on the ceiling. He suspected he was being cheated on the room, but there were no pests and the heating worked, definite bonuses in late October. Of course, the landlord was a fat beer-bellied Fuhrer of a man, exactly personifying the stereotype of Germany that Berg had encountered in his travels, but Berg had been putting up with people he hated, because they were useful, all his life.
He opened the satchel by his bed, that contained all his permanent possessions-- his notebooks, Le Guin's *The Left Hand Of Darkness* in French translation, two books on masculine/feminine psychology, a dog-eared copy of *Europe on $20 a Day*, and his precious Walkman. Berg took out the Walkman, put in a tape, and set the headphones on. The Walkman was without a doubt the best thing he'd ever stolen, even if it did eat batteries and, on occasion, tapes. Without music to relax him, he might have given up the struggle a long time ago...
He lay on the bed, letting the music pound through him, erasing the day's exhaustion. His tastes were eclectic to say the least-- on this particular tape, he had classical, heavy metal, punk, art rock, Golden Ager stuff from the dawn of rock, all of it with one common denominator- it was emotional and it was loud. Some of it was even his own stuff-- back before they accused him of shoplifting, he used to go down to the electronics place and compose music on the floor model synthesizers, using his headphones so he could get the volume he wanted and hooking up the record jacks. Last year in female phase, there'd been an even better store for her to go, where they actually *let* her make music and she didn't have to sneak-- at least until she'd found out that the guy who'd been helping her wanted to sleep with her. Should have known better-- nobody gave something for nothing. He didn't have much of last year's stuff on this tape, though-- back then, she'd been into haunting, slow melodies. Nowadays-- he didn't know whether it had to do with being male or not-- he needed music to feed his violent hungers, to mirror the volcano inside him, and he had no more taste for the slower stuff.
Through the loud pounding of the music, he gradually became aware of a savage pounding on his door. He ignored it, until finally the door clicked open and the red, angry butterball of a landlord came in. Berg switched off the music.
"I've still got a week to come up with the rent," he said defensively.
"No, you don't-- not anymore. You think I'm gonna put up with your kind of pervert? Damned faggot! Forget the rent, you're out of this place as of noon tomorrow. I run a respectable place, damn you--"
"What are you talking about?" Berg sat up and stared.
"You think I don't know?" The landlord spat. "One of your neighbors told me about you and those men. Faggot whore! I don't need your kind--"
"Who? Told you what? *What* men?" Berg asked, outraged. "I'm not a whore!"
"No? You got that faggy hairdo, am I supposed to believe you're a rock star or something? Lots of people said they saw you, they thought you were a girl. You're gonna tell me you're not a fag?"
"I'm not a whore! I don't sleep with anybody!"
"Yeah? Then where're you getting your money from? I know you don't have a steady job-- where you coming up with the rent from?"
Berg saw he was trapped. He got the money from theft, not prostitution-- but if he said that, Der Fuhrer here would just turn him in. Once again, someone he didn't even know had destroyed him with malicious lies. He looked at the carpet in bitter and impotent anger.
"I don't need your perverted kind in my respectable house," the landlord said. "You got until noon tomorrow to move out. Go live with your faggy friends." The door slammed.
Berg stared after the landlord, his rage threatening to swamp his vision. *Fuck your respectable house*! It was cold outside, but he would not spend another night in this lie-infested place. In fury, he pulled the knife from his bag, and with methodical viciousness sliced the pillow to shreds, spraying cotton stuffing everywhere. *Everywhere I go-- everything I do-- always the same, always the same goddamn thing*! The rage built up in him, the volcano waiting to erupt, and he began slashing the bedsheets, holding them with his feet and hands as he drew the knife roughly through them, cutting them to ribbons. He tossed them onto the floor and plunged the knife into the mattress, drew long scores that spat out a foul-smelling stuffing, then knocked the mattress to the floor and did the same for the boxsprings. Stuffing littered the room, clung to his clothes and hair as he unscrewed the bookcase, took one of the metal supports and shoved it with all the strength in his thin frame into the boxsprings. He stalked into the bathroom with another support and brought it down on the tub, the sink, the toilet, cracking and crazing the ceramic and tile. His own face, effeminate and half-insane with his fury, caught his attention in the mirror. He stared at it for several seconds, transfixed, then smashed the support into it. The surface crazed, and forty Berg Katses stared back at him, their faces twisted with rage and despair. He smashed the support into the mirror, again and again, until he could no longer see them, then ran from the bathroom and flung the support through the window. It made quite a satisfying crash. *So much for your lies, bastard! So much for you*!
Calming, he realized that the butterball was likely to be back any second, what with all the noise. So he stuffed his Walkman into his satchel and ran to the window, pulling it open-- no sense cutting himself on all the broken glass-- and slipped through it, running down the fire escape and out into the night. The men's clothes that he'd painstakingly stolen remained in their drawers, left behind. He would find more, things to tide him over for the winter, and in spring time would turn round again and she would have to steal a new wardrobe once more...
Outside, bitter laughter bubbled up in his throat, and he gave vent to it, watching as it turned to puffy white clouds in the cold night. That would teach the damn landlord to cross Berg Katse. Maybe tomorrow he'd siphon gas out of somebody's car, make a Molotov Cocktail and wreck the place...
But before then, there was this night to get through, and he was cold.
The heat of his anger had dissipated, and he found himself wishing he hadn't shredded the blankets, but stolen them instead. The wind bit through his jacket as if it weren't there, leeching all the heat out of his thin body and making him even tireder than before. He headed for one of the homeless shelters, hoping for at least a warm floor to sleep on.
As he entered, though, one glance told him that it was *not* a good idea. The autumn chill and the tourists' departure had brought hard times upon a lot of people, not all of them savory, not all of them the sort a thin, feminine-looking boy wanted to spend the night with. He turned around and walked right back out. A block away, he remembered that they'd had a pot of hot broth, and he cursed himself for not getting any when he had the chance. But he wasn't going back now.
Despite the cold, there were the usual people in the park, young lovers, rapists, bums, thieves. Berg didn't fear the thieves-- his satchel was filthy and battered, his clothes were clean but quite worn and never exactly rich material, and it was all too obvious that he had nothing to steal. He feared the rapists a bit more, and kept his hand firmly on the knife in his jacket pocket. Usually something about him, perhaps his taut wariness and evident street experience, kept them away, but he didn't take chances. It was how he'd survived 17 years.
He cut across the manicured grass, into the woods by the bridge, and curled up in a pile of dead leaves. It wouldn't be the first time he'd spent the night outside, even in the cold-- compared to Changing in the icy chill of winter, this was practically paradise. But something was gnawing at him, and he couldn't sleep, despite his exhaustion. Something was wrong.
Finally, he sat up, and realized what was wrong.
Nothing was ever going to change.
He faced the facts for the first time in years, seeing his future-- or lack of one-- clearly. Nothing was ever going to change. When he was a child, he'd dreamed of being older, grown-up, capable of getting a job, going to college, having a career-- had dreamed of being a musician, a performer, making audiences love him, worship him, want to be him... But he was never going to get a job. He was never going to get into college-- he couldn't get himself into high school nowadays, how was he going to get into a university, with no money and no records? Genius wasn't enough-- it had never been enough. He had an IQ of 280, but it wasn't going to get him a job, or a future, or a life...
With painful clarity, he saw the problem-- people. He could continue as a thief-- but if he was ever going to make any *real* money, he needed connections, helpers, people to fence things with. People. He could push drugs, but he needed people to supply him, people to buy from him. Any endeavor he tried, he'd need other people-- and every time, the Change would force him to break his ties, to find a new home. He could never get identity papers to last longer than a year. He could never do anything significant with his life, because everything needed people, and people were Berg Katse's enemy. The eyes of humanity... The males and females of this Earth would not suffer a hermaphrodite to live among them, and he could not do more than eke out a miserable, hand-to-mouth existence without them...
It would be different if his gender were stable, male or female. There were other drifters in the world, people without papers, they survived. But how could he, when every year would turn him into a stranger, force him to rebuild somewhere else? How often could he run? What kind of life could he have, running all the time?
Answer: The kind he'd had so far. A miserable, hand-to-mouth existence, exactly. Living day to day, in daily fear that tomorrow he would not eat. Up till now he'd been hoping, vague dreams that it would be different, someday, sometime in the hazy mists of the future... but it would never be different. There was no use cursing his changeable body-- he'd done that for years, it hadn't helped him any. There was no use doing anything at all.
Abandoning the satchel, he walked out onto the bridge over the river. It wasn't so high-- 40 feet-- but high enough. The dark water seemed to hold the promise of oblivion, beckoning him... and he felt tears burn his eyes.
When oblivion came, what then? He would be gone, he would be *not*-- Berg Katse would cease to exist, and would anyone notice? Would anyone care? Just another anonymous statistic, floating in the dark water-- that was all he was, all he could ever be, he would never make a mark on the world, all his talents and genius going for naught, forever and ever--
A sob tore out of his throat, and he pulled himself halfway onto the railing. Let oblivion take him-- he would never know that he was forgotten, he would cease to exist and the pain of knowing that he was nothing in the world's eyes would be gone...
What? He fell back off the railing and stared around himself, startled. Had he heard someone call his name? But that was ridiculous-- who knew his name? The only ones who had ever learned his true name were either dead or long behind him, years in the past. He gripped the railing and prepared himself again to jump.
"BERG KATSE. STOP!"
That was unmistakable. Eyes wide and terrified, he stared around himself again. "Wh-- who's there?"
"DO NOT BE AFRAID, BERG KATSE."
He could almost see a shimmer in the air in front of him, an almost- light, like the colors of an afterimage from staring at the light. A sense of mixed terror and awe overwhelmed him, and he fought the urge to go to his knees. The voice spoke again, a deep rumbling inside his head. "AWAKEN, MY CHOSEN ONE. THERE IS NO NEED TO TAKE YOUR OWN LIFE. A GLORIOUS DESTINY AWAITS YOU!"
"Wh-- who are you? How do you know my name?"
The shimmer had definitely begun to glow, creating the shape of a flame-creature in Berg's vision. "I AM X, AN AGENT FROM ANOTHER WORLD. 17 YEARS AGO I CAUSED YOUR BIRTH, SO THAT ONE DAY YOU WOULD SERVE ME."
"Caused my birth?" Berg whispered. "If that's true, then-- why am I the way I am? Why does my body change, back and forth, from male to female?"
"I AM PLEASED. THAT IS AN EXCELLENT QUESTION, AND ONE YOU NEED BE TORMENTED BY NO LONGER. YOU ARE A MUTANT, KATSE, CREATED BY ME TO BE A GENIUS. I TOOK HUMAN TWINS, A BOY AND A GIRL, AND PUT THEM TOGETHER IN THE WOMB TO BE A SINGLE GENIUS MUTANT. YOUR INTELLECT AND YOUR CHANGEABILITY COME FROM THE SAME SOURCE."
"But why?" Berg asked, half-whispering still. "Whyever did you make me a mutant?"
"BECAUSE I NEED ONE SUCH AS YOU. KATSE, I HAVE COME TO BRING THIS WORLD UNDER MY CONTROL. BUT I AM NOT HUMAN AT ALL. I NEED A LIASION WITH HUMANITY, A PERSON TO SPEAK WITH MY VOICE, TO ACT AS MY HANDS AND FEET. I HAVE CHOSEN A GENIUS, A SUPERHUMAN, FOR THIS TASK.
"THIS IS YOUR DESTINY, BERG KATSE. JOIN ME, AND WORK TO CONQUER THE EARTH AS MY SECOND-IN-COMMAND. I WILL GIVE THIS WORLD TO YOU, AND YOU WILL BE ITS RULER. YOU WILL NO LONGER NEED TO HIDE FROM HUMANITY. YOU CAN STAND BEFORE THEM AS THEIR CONQUEROR, MY CHOSEN ONE, A SUPERIOR BEING."
Berg's heart pounded, and the world took on a strange and bizarre clarity, as if he were seeing it for the first time. To be a ruler--! From having no future at all, to this most glorious of destinies!
*I am not a freak. I am a superhuman. I'm destined to rule over humanity*... He stepped back from the railing, numb with ecstasy and disbelief. *There must be a catch, some trick, I'm dreaming, things like this don't happen to me*!
He did kneel now, trembling. "My lord," he whispered, feeling it appropriate address for the being who created him. "How am I to go about this?" If this were a dream, the explanation would make no sense...
"I AM BRINGING TOGETHER AN ORGANIZATION TO ACT AS YOUR TOOL, CALLED GALACTOR. THE FIRST STEP WILL BE FOR YOU TO JOIN IT. UNDER THE TUTELAGE OF ONE OF MY AGENTS, YOU WILL BE TRAINED TO TAKE CONTROL OF GALACTOR. THEN, WITH THE RESOURCES OF A VAST AND POWERFUL ORGANIZATION BEHIND YOU, YOU WILL WAGE WAR AGAINST THE NATIONS OF THE EARTH, USING TECHNOLOGY BEYOND ORDINARY HUMAN COMPREHENSION, UNTIL THEY CAPITULATE AND YIELD TO YOU."
It made sense. It made enough sense that Berg could accept it. Perhaps he would suffer for this tomorrow, when he woke up, if this were indeed a dream... but for now, he could not bear not to accept it as reality. Already he knew that if it were *not* true, the disappointment would be so awful that he could only complete what he had almost begun, here on the bridge... but if it were true... Oh, it *had* to be true!
"Yes," he said, still whispering, but gradually his voice grew in power and strength. "Yes, yes, my lord! I'll do it, I'll do whatever you ask, if this is my destiny." Tears of happiness welled up in his eyes. "I freely give myself to you, if that is what I was made for..."
"OF COURSE YOU WILL. YOU ARE, AFTER ALL, A GENIUS." X laughed, and Berg laughed with him, the unbearable tensions of 17 years of hiding already easing. "GO INTO THE CITY, TO THIS ADDRESS, AND TELL A MAN NAMED RITTGER WHO YOU ARE. HE WILL TRAIN YOU IN THE NECESSITIES OF YOUR NEW LIFE."
The vision vanished, but Berg felt as if he would never be truly alone again. He was the chosen one of X. He was going to rule the world. Delirious with joy, he almost sang as he walked down off the bridge, heading into the city.
And took the first step down the path to madness...