by Derwin Mak

“That’s a nice dress,” the new customer said to Susanna.

Susanna smiled and slid a glass of beer to him. She wore a long red gown with a slit up to her hip. The women working at Club Mandy had to look glamorous and sexy.

She flipped her blond hair. “Thank you,” she said. “I wanted to look like a Hollywood actress. Let’s bring some glamour to this drab little planet.”

The customer wore a blue jumpsuit with the logo of the Columbian Off-World Company, a golden eagle holding a spade in its talons. The jumpsuit meant that he worked in the mines or the smelting plants, not in the company’s business offices. Susanna guessed that like most men here, he came to Southern Comfort for the high wages and would leave when his contract ended in two years. Southern Comfort offered nothing but a gray sky and an equally gray landscape. There was nothing to keep a man here forever.

    The miner took a sip. “You look like a movie star,” he said.

    He glanced around quickly, furtively checking out the other girls. Susanna thought, he's such a shy kid. Probably doesn't have much experience in bars like this.

Then he looked back at Susanna. “Uh, do you want to go upstairs?”

    “Ah, no. I’m flattered that you would consider me, though.”

    “Oh, I thought all the girls in this bar are working girls,” the miner said.

    Susanna shook her head. “That’s a misconception back on Earth. We’re all working, but not all in the same business. But that’s okay; you’re new here. I’m in bar and restaurant management.”

    She pointed at a woman who was eating alone at a table. “That’s Postie. She’s the postal manager of the mining camp, which means she’s Postmaster General of the entire planet.”

    “Wow, she’s pretty,” said the miner. “Is she a Thai ladyboy?”

    “She’s actually Filipina, and she prefers to be called a lady, not a boy.”

    “Oh, okay,” the miner said. “I went to a bar like this in Vancouver once. Just once. The girls were beautiful.”

    “It’s just the same here, only the chromosomes are different,” Susanna said, “and sometimes the anatomy, but some guys like that, some guys don’t, and some guys don’t care. It’s complicated.”

    “I was reluctant to take a job here when I heard that all the girls are XY-girls,” the miner said, “but now that I've been here two weeks, I’m fine with it. Every girl here is like a girl back home.”

    “Though you probably didn’t grow up next door to a girl like the one who’s coming at you now,” said Susanna.

    Crystal, a brown-haired woman in a tight black minidress, approached them. She had gotten her breast implants and sexual reassignment surgery four years ago.

Susanna whispered to the miner, “If you’re looking for personal services, Crystal is the girl for you.”

    Although Susanna and Crystal didn’t always get along, Crystal bought wristbands, thus helping Susanna meet her revenue quota. Crystal was sometimes difficult, but she never snuck guys upstairs without paying.

    Crystal sat down beside the miner, leaned towards him, and rubbed his thigh. “My name is Crystal,” she purred. “I’m from Colombia. Where are you from?”

    “Medicine Hat,” the miner replied. He gulped down some beer.

    “That’s in Canada, right? I hear it’s really cold there. But I know how to make a man hot,” said Crystal.

She rubbed the miner’s thigh again. He squirmed and looked back at Susanna.

    Crystal touched the miner’s chin and turned his face. “Don’t look at her. Talk to a real girl, not a bra stuffer.”

    Bra stuffer. The local slang for a crossdresser or CD. Susanna sighed. Crystal was still upset at her for throwing out a drunken customer before he had paid all his money.

When Crystal transitioned, she lived as a woman, her true nature, all the time. Susanna's life took a different course. She lived as a woman full time on Southern Comfort, but she sometimes reverted to a male identity on Earth.

    Susanna wished Crystal would see her as another one of the girls.

    After more of Crystal’s flirting, the miner finally said, “Yes, let’s go upstairs.”

    “Ah, great,” Susanna said. “Crystal, I’ve got your wristband.”

    Crystal handed some cash to Susanna. As Susanna tied the wristband on Crystal, the XY-girl said, “He’s so strict with the rules. You would think that he would cut us working girls some slack for the business that we attract here.”

    “Oh! You want to be called by ‘he’?” the miner said, looking confused. "Or should I use zee and they?”

Susanna shrugged. Some people preferred gender-neutral pronouns. She did not. She hadn’t spent a small fortune on padded bras, laser hair removal, make-up, and voice training so people would call her “he.”

“I’m just another girl on Southern Comfort,” said Susanna. “Call me a girl, a she or her, not a zee or they.”

Crystal laughed, grabbed the miner by the hand, and pulled him upstairs.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

A little later, Susanna went upstairs to use the women’s washroom. She tapped her employee card on the door. The words “ACCESS DENIED” appeared on it.

“Oh, Crystal,” Susanna muttered. “You changed the locks on me again.”

Susanna should never have let Crystal work on maintenance and security. Most people on the frontier had multiple skills. Though Crystal was an escort, she also knew how to program building security systems. She was useful in reprogramming the locks when new girls came and others returned to Earth. She wasn’t so useful when she argued with Susanna.

She pushed open the door of the men’s washroom, which had no lock. Several men stood at the urinals, and they ogled and whistled at her.

But one of the men said, “You guys think that's a girl? It's not.”

Henry Salvo was a miner. He frequently took XY-girls to the private rooms, but that didn’t mean that he liked them.

“I don't know why there’s a women’s toilet next door when there’s only men on this planet,” he said as he blocked Susanna's path.

“Please leave me alone,” Susanna muttered.

“I should never have come here,” Salvo ranted. “You fruits are turning me homo.”

He raised his fist, but another guy, waiting for him by the wall, said, “Hey, he’s not worth the trouble. Let's go.”

Susanna walked past them and into a toilet stall.

When she left the men’s washroom, some escort girls pointed and giggled at her. Susanna shrugged and walked downstairs.

Police Chief John Dunford entered the bar with a girl. Susanna had never seen her before. She looked about twenty years-old, blond bob hairstyle, very pretty, wearing a short green dress.

“Who’s the new girl?” Susanna asked.

The girl held out her hand to Susanna. “My name is Helen,” she said. “It’s nice to meet you.”

As Susanna shook Helen’s hand, Dunford said, “She’s a Victor Robotics L-10, Military Recreation Model.”

Susanna gasped. Helen’s hand felt warm and soft, like a real human’s. She looked and moved so realistically. She had fooled Susanna.

“She’s also programmed for pleasure,” Dunford said. “I want to go upstairs.”

Susanna quickly tied a wristband around Dunford. Dunford slapped Helen on her butt and pulled her to the stairs.

He turned and said, “I don’t know why the Company allowed you freaks to come here. I would rather screw an android than a tranny.”

Susanna glared at him. The government couldn’t get decent police officers to work on Southern Comfort. That’s how they wound up with a police chief who insulted the girls by calling them “trannies” and who fondled his sex toy in public.

    “The men want us,” Susanna replied. “Without us, they would have nothing better to do than get drunk and beat each other up. Or straight guys would be jumping each other like in prison. Either would be bad for Company shareholders.”

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

Susanna closed Club Mandy and walked home. As she passed the Roman Catholic chapel, she heard the Filipina girls sing. The priest did not care that the girls had been born with boys’ bodies. He liked them because they were his most loyal parishioners. He had trouble getting people to come to church on this God-forsaken planet named after a liqueur. Coincidentally, Southern Comfort was also the name of an annual conference for transgender persons in the late twentieth century.

    There were no XX-women on Southern Comfort. The original two colonies, Pale Blue and Petit Rouge, fought each other in the Great Slaughter decades ago. Petit Rouge’s President MacLeod, infamous for his disdain of women, created a bacterium that killed people with XX chromosomes and launched it at Pale Blue. The bacterium killed all of the Pale Blue’s women, but it also spread everywhere and killed Petit Rouge’s women too. Society in both colonies collapsed, and MacLeod’s own guards overthrew him. The United Nations put Southern Comfort under United States trusteeship with a Governor appointed by Congress. While the Earth nations argued over how to govern the planet, the United States leased mining rights to the Columbian Off-World Company. Starting with the uranium mine, the Company built all of the colony’s businesses and took over the government.

XX-women could live on Southern Comfort if they took antibiotics after getting infected, but none wanted to risk dying before the antibiotics took effect. The colonization restarted without women. Without women, many men quit their contracts early and went home. The Company tried entertaining the men with holograms of women, but that failed to stop them from returning to Earth. As a last resort, the Company recruited XY-women to the planet. The number of men who quit early fell by fifty percent.

    The Company built Club Mandy, inspired by an XY-girl bar in New York. Susanna had worked there before going to Southern Comfort. She would work here for five years and return to Earth with ten times the money she would have earned there.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

A crowd had gathered outside the Texas Chuckwagon. Susanna pushed through the people to see what was happening. She saw medics carry out a dead body on a gurney.

    “May I see her? Or him?” Susanna asked. A medic nodded and pulled the sheet away from the body’s face. Susanna gasped.

    She was Miranda, one of the Company’s office staff. She was the third girl strangled in the last two months.

    Henry Salvo walked by and said, “Another fruit killed. No big loss.”

    Police Chief Dunford and his android Helen walked out of the Texas Chuckwagon. Crystal ran up to them and said, “Someone is killing the girls.”

    She pointed at a security camera on the lamppost. “Why can’t you tell who it is when you have all these cameras?”

    Dunford shook his head. “Someone killed the victim inside a washroom stall. We don’t have CCTV inside the washroom out of respect for the privacy of you ladies. The security lapse is all for you girls.”

    “And men too,” Crystal added ruefully. “The last thing a man wants is for another man to watch him unzip his pants on video.”

    Susanna asked, “But can’t you check the video shot outside the washroom? You can see who went into the washroom with her.”

    Dunford shook his head. “There were so many people going in and out of that washroom that it’s hard to tell who could have killed her. It’s an all-gender washroom, so we can’t spot anyone unusual, like a man entering a woman’s washroom. There are seven hundred men people on Southern Comfort. Half the population must have been here tonight for the video rodeo.”

    “There’s a pattern,” Crystal observed. “Cherry, Diana, Miranda. They’re all XY-girls. The killer hasn’t killed a man.”

    Susanna felt uneasy. She didn’t think an XY-girl would kill another XY-girl. Could the killer be a man?

    “Chief, please do something,” Crystal pleaded.

    Dunford guffawed. “The best way to protect yourself is to leave. Jump on the next warp ship, go back to Earth, and spend a week in quarantine for the bacterium.”

    He patted Helen’s butt. “When we get more androids, we won’t need you so-called ladies anymore.

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

The next night, Dunford showed off his android to the other customers at Club Mandy. Helen laughed, talked, and moved like a real human.

    “I wish I could afford to get one for myself,” Henry Salvo said as he groped Helen's breasts. “I bet she’s much more satisfying and natural than the fruits.”

Susanna and Crystal watched the men admire Helen. They had called a truce because of their common worry about the android.

“That android is like a wind-up toy, just doing everything Dunford tells it to do,” Susanna said. “Aren’t the L-10’s supposed to have some artificial intelligence?”

“I don’t know, “Crystal said. “I thought they did, but this one is obviously just a programmable device. If it does have consciousness, I feel sorry for it. It has to live with Dunford.”

    “It won’t be long before we’re replaced by military-grade sex androids,” Susanna said. “They don’t need time off, don’t need food, don’t need money, and don’t need hormones. They’re the perfect girlfriends.”

    “I don’t want to be replaced by a toy,” Crystal complained. “In Bogotá, people treated me like a freak. But here, people treat me like a real girl.”

“Well, most people,” Susanna said, glancing at Dunford, “but I know what you mean. On this planet, XY-girls are treated like girls because we’re the only girls here.”

    Crystal said, “You’re not a girl. You’re a boy in a dress. When you go back to Earth, you’ll become a boy again.”

    “Yes and no,” Susanna said. “I can't explain it, but I can feel both female and male. Even on Earth, I was a girl half of the time. I know you think a person can only be one or the other, regardless of chromosomes and body, but I’m not like that. If I can't be male sometimes, I would be missing a part of myself. But when I'm here, I’m a girl. Why can’t you accept that?”

    Crystal shrugged and walked to a man standing at the bar. Postie, wearing her post office uniform, came and gave a parcel to Susanna.

    “Looks like another package of chocolate from your girlfriend,” Postie said.

    In high school, Susanna’s girlfriend Naomi dressed him in a prom gown and entered him in the school’s womanless beauty pageant, a fundraiser for the cheerleading squad. Susanna insisted that was the last time he would wear girl clothes, a wig, and make-up. But Naomi dressed him as a winged female fairy for Halloween. He did not resist. By Christmas, Naomi regularly made him dress like a girl for sexual role playing. The cross-dressing excited Naomi, and Susanna discovered that he enjoyed it too. By the time he graduated from college, he had his own femme wardrobe and could put on make-up by himself. He also did mundane chores, like shopping for food or walking the dog, en femme half of the time, often without Naomi.

    Dunford and Helen walked past them. The Police Chief whispered to his android, “Let’s go home, away from these freaks.”

    Postie shook her head and turned to watch Crystal. “Look at her flirt with that guy. Some sex workers like their work and some don’t. Crystal’s in the first category. She told me that she was never forced into sex work by pimps or poverty. She’s just horny. She dreamt her first bondage fantasy when she was twelve years old, tied up her girlfriend at nineteen, transitioned to female at twenty, became a pro dominatrix at twenty-one, and came to Southern Comfort as an escort at twenty-four.”

    Susanna nodded. “And she found the time and a government grant for hormone replacement therapy, facial feminization surgery, and sexual reassignment surgery by age twenty-two.”

    “The hormones and surgery sure have worked wonders on her,” Postie said. “Speaking of which, guess what? The doctors approved me for estrogen and a testosterone blocker!”

“Oh, wow, great! When do you start?” Susanna asked.

    Before Postie could answer, someone screamed from above. Susanna and Postie ran upstairs and saw an escort girl standing by an open door. She looked shocked.

    Susanna entered the private room. A woman lay still on the floor.

    “Oh my God, it’s Jessie!” Susanna cried.

    Postie knelt down to feel Jessie’s pulse. “She’s dead.”

    “She hadn’t bought a wristband for a room, and she’s not a sex worker,” Susanna said. “She’s an information systems engineer at the Company office. What was she doing up here?”

    Postie looked at the ceiling. “There are no security cameras in here.”

    “And none in the hall outside either,” Susanna added. “The men don’t want anyone watching them come and go from the private rooms.”

    “Everything to protect them, nothing for us,” Postie said. “Sometimes I wish I had stayed a boy.”

    Susanna picked up Jessie’s handbag. Estrogen pills spilled out of it.

    Diana, a truck driver, no surgeries, on estrogen. Cherry, a sex worker, with breast augmentation only, on estrogen. Miranda, an office clerk, with facial feminization surgery only, on estrogen. Jessie, a systems engineer, with facial feminization, breast, and sexual reassignment surgeries, on estrogen.

The only thing that the victims had in common was that they were all on estrogen.

“The killer killed Diana in her apartment, Cherry in a hotel room, Miranda in a washroom at the Texas Chuckwagon, and Jessie in a private room at Club Mandy,” Susanna observed. “The killer knows where there are no cameras.”

•••• •••• •••• •••• ••••

Story excerpts