Unwanted Proof

Gender identity, that unprovable belief, is actually made provable for a brief moment thanks to an unexpected invention. But then the invention is destroyed and the inventor's assistant murdered.

Who would do that? Who would kill to keep gender identity unprovable?

a short satire

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Unwanted Proof

by Stephen Measure

Sara and Sally looked up from behind the receptionist desk as the door opened, and a middle-aged man entered the front lobby backwards, dragging a metal cart through the door, followed by a much younger redheaded woman, who was pushing the cart from behind.

The redheaded woman let the door close, and the middle-aged man turned to Sally and Sara as if to speak but froze when he saw them. Identical twins, Sara and Sally had the same lightly-tanned skin and blonde hair, although Sara wore it short and Sally wore it long. One wore blue and the other green, and the two women were both smiling at him with the kind of innocent expression that makes a good man feel guilty when he’s attracted and a wise man remind himself to double-check IDs.

The redhead scowled and shoved the metal cart into the man’s side. “Oof,” he said. “Watch where you’re going.”

“I was,” the redhead said. Pale caucasian skin, cheeks covered in freckles, her red hair drawn back in a lazy ponytail, she wore an oversized button-up shirt and jeans and looked to be in her mid-twenties.

“Welcome to Femina Laboratories,” Sara said to the pair.

“Unfortunately we’re closing,” Sally said.

“We close at six,” Sara said.

“And that’s in ten minutes,” Sally said.

The redhead looked down at her watch and grunted in frustration. “I told you we were late, Geoffrey,” she said.

Geoffrey, the middle-aged man, waved her objections away. “And I told you it would be fine, Veronica.” Geoffrey wore a plain t-shirt which hung loosely over dark jeans. He strode to the front desk and rested his hands on top of it. “I’d like to arrange third-party validation for an invention,” he told the blonde receptionists.

“Okay,” Sally said, “Unfortunately our Project Manager already left for the day.”

“She had to pick up her kids,” Sara said. “She always leaves early.”

“But if you come back tomorrow morning, you could talk to her,” Sally said.

“Tomorrow?” Geoffrey said. “You don’t want me to come back tomorrow. You’re going to want to see my invention right away. This is going to make Femina Laboratories famous!”

Sally and Sara rose in unison from their chairs and leaned forward to get a better look at the bulky contraption that lay atop the metal cart. It looked like an oddly shaped projector, with a glass lens on the front, a power cord and an on/off switch in the back. The only thing remarkable about it was that, because the middle was open, you could see a large red crystal that had been placed in the path of the machine’s light.

“What is it?” Sara asked.

Geoffrey walked back and rested a hand on top of the machine proudly. “This,” he said, “is proof of the unprovable.”

Sara and Sally’s eyes grew wide. “What can it prove?”

Geoffrey smiled at the twins, pausing for dramatic effect. “It can prove gender identity.”

Sally and Sara sat down and looked up at Geoffrey expectantly.

“You know what gender identity is, don’t you?” Geoffrey asked after an awkward moment.

Sara and Sally kept looking at him.

“Gender identity is where someone’s gender is different from their biological sex. It’s like where a man is a man physically, but he identifies as a woman, so he’s actually a woman. That’s what gender identity is.”

Sara turned to Sally. “See, that’s what Justine means when she talks about mansplaining.”

Sally nodded. Then she said to Geoffrey, “Justine is our boss. She hates when men mansplain.”

“Or talk,” Sara said.

“Or breathe,” Sally said.

“She hates pretty much everything about men,” Sara said.

The two smiled sweetly up at Geoffrey again. “We know what gender identity is,” Sara said. “One of our researchers is a man who identifies as a woman.”

“Brooke is a woman,” Sally said to Sara.

“Of course she is,” Sara replied, her right eyebrow betraying a slight twitch.

Geoffrey appeared flustered. He looked to Veronica, who placed her hand on the machine beside his. “If you know what gender identity is, then you know it has no actual proof. Someone says they are a gender, and you are expected to just take their word for it. Until now.” She patted the machine lightly. “This machine can show someone’s gender identity.”

Sally and Sara’s eyes widened again. “How?” Sally asked.

Veronica gestured at the opening on the side of the machine. “When you shine a light through the crimson crystal and illuminate someone, their gender identity becomes visible behind them.”

Sara and Sally looked at each other, their mouths dropped open.

“That is so awesome!” Sara said.

“Can we see? Can we see?” Sally said, practically bouncing in her seat.

Geoffrey spread his hands in front of him. “That’s what we’re here for!” he said.

Sally looked at Sara. “We just cleared Lab C. Let’s hook it up in there.”

“Justine will be mad,” Sara said. “It’s almost 6 o’clock. We’re supposed to be closing.”

“But we can see someone’s gender identity!” Sally said.

Sara smiled and nodded. The two stood and waved for Geoffrey and Veronica to follow them through the door behind the receptionist desk, which led into a long hallway. There was a room marked “Lab C”, a few doors down. Geoffrey and Veronica wheeled the metal cart behind the twin blondes into Lab C, placed the machine in the center of the room, and then unwound the long extension cord and plugged it into an outlet on the wall.

“Okay,” Geoffrey said. “Which one of you wants to go first?”

Sally and Sara looked at each other and they both shook their heads. They turned to Geoffrey.

“We don’t want to go first,” Sara said.

“It might fry our brains,” Sally said.

Veronica snorted and rolled her eyes. “Would it make a difference?” she said softly to herself.

Sara and Sally both looked at Veronica.

“We heard that,” Sally said.

“You have really pretty freckles,” Sara said.

They smiled sweetly at her.

Veronica flushed bright red and dropped her eyes to study the floor.

With a soft squeal of wheels, a man wearing a blue jumpsuit walked past in the hallway pushing a mop and bucket.

Sally and Sara looked from each other to the hallway and then back at each other again.

Sara elbowed Sally. “You ask him,” she said. “He likes you.”

Sally elbowed Sara back. “No, you ask him,” she said. “He likes you more.”

“That’s true,” Sara said. Then she called out into the hallway. “Frantz, can you come in here for a second?”

The squeal of wheels in the hallway stopped, and a moment later the man in the blue jumpsuit appeared in the doorway. He was small, very small for a man, and half-bald, with deep-brown skin and tired eyes. A flashy crucifix dangled from his neck. “Yes?” he said to Sara in a thick accent, smiling wearily at her.

“Frantz, could you be a dear and go stand by that wall?” Sara said, pointing at the wall in front of the machine.

“The wall?” Frantz asked, confused.

“Yes, dear,” Sally said. She walked over to Frantz and touched him lightly on the shoulder and then pointed with her other hand at the wall. “Over there, please.”

“Pretty please,” Sara added, her smile bright.

Frantz nodded slowly and trooped over to the wall. Then he turned around and looked back at the blonde twins as if to ask, “What now?”

“Turn it on,” Sally, standing beside Sara once more, said to Geoffrey.

“Yes, turn it on,” Sara said.

“Turn what on?” Frantz asked. But Geoffrey had already flipped the switch and light burst out of the machine. Frantz slammed his eyes shut and raised a hand to block the light, uttering a shocked curse.

The rest of the room was silent.

“Do you see it?” Geoffrey whispered in excitement. He turned back to Sara and Sally and spoke in a normal tone. “Do you see it?”

Sally and Sara’s mouths hung open as they stared at Frantz. They turned to each other slowly and then exploded in unison.

“That is so awesome!” Sara said.

“So, so awesome!” Sally said.

The twins bounced up and down, hugging each other.

“It’s his gender identity,” Veronica said. Her blush was gone now and she spoke in an authoritative tone. “Do you see the light shade of blue? That means his gender identity is male.”

“I see it,” Sara said.

“I see it too,” Sally said. “It’s blue!” She smiled at Frantz across the room. “It’s blue, Frantz!” she said. “That means you’re a man!”

Frantz still had his hand raised in front of his face to block the light from the machine, but he peered from below his hand, looking from Sara to Sally in confusion. Geoffrey caught his eye and raised a finger, pointing behind him. Frantz slowly turned around and then jumped into the air, letting out a surprised squeak.

And the grayish-blue form behind Frantz leaped as well, matching his movement like a shadow—a three-dimensional shadow—cast from the machine. Frantz stared for a moment. Then he raised his hand, and the grayish-blue figure facing him raised a feature-less hand as well. Frantz looked back over his shoulder at Sara and Sally. He pointed at the grayish-blue figure. “It’s my soul!” he said.

“Actually, it’s your gender identity,” Geoffrey said. “You can see that it’s blue, which proves you’re a man.”

“You’re a man, Frantz! You’re a man!” Sally said. “It’s that wonderful to know?”

“What does a woman’s gender identity look like?” Sara asked Veronica and Geoffrey.

“It’s pink,” Veronica said.

“But how do you know it’s actually Frantz’s gender identity we’re seeing?” Sara asked. “Frantz is a man anyway. What if we’re just seeing his body?”

“We’ve tested it dozens of times on self-described transgenders,” Geoffrey said. He flipped the switch and the machine’s light turned off, the grayish-blue proof of Frantz’s gender identity vanishing from the room. “The pink and blue follows their gender identity, not their biological sex,” Geoffrey said. “It’s 100% accurate. Never a single false result yet.”

A series of sharp clicks began to sound down the hall, growing louder with each click. Sally and Sara looked at each other in excitement.

“You know who that is,” Sara said.

“There’s only one researcher who wears stiletto heels everyday to work.” Sally said.

Then the two turned toward the hall, smiling in unison. “Brooke!” they shouted together.

The clicking came quicker, growing louder and louder until a large brunette appeared in the doorway. Wearing stilettos that showed off long shaved legs and a white lab coat that couldn’t hide large shoulders and a prominent Adam’s apple, Brooke smiled at the blonde twins. “Yes, sweeties? Did you need something? I was just fixing to leave. I gotta catch my train.”

Sara hurried over to Brooke. “Come stand here for a moment,” she said, dragging Brooke to the wall while Sally dragged Frantz back toward the hallway.

“Thanks, Frantz,” Sally said as he left the room. “Isn’t it nice to know you’re a man?”

“What are y’all talking about?” Brooke asked. “Of course Frantz is a man. He’s the only man that works here!”

“Just stand there,” Sara said. Then she walked back to stand beside Sally behind the machine.

“Well, alright, sweetie,” Brooke said, putting a hand on a hip and striking a pose. “How’s this?”

“Turn it on!” Sally said, and Geoffrey flipped the switch.

Light burst from the machine once more. “Good heavens!” Brooke said, raising a manicured hand to block the light. “What are y’all trying to do? Blind me?”

“Look behind you!” Sara yelled. “Look behind you!”

Brooke turned to look and then almost tripped. “Oh my! What’s that?”

Just like with Frantz, the light of the machine caused a grayish three-dimensional shadow to appear behind Brooke. But this one had a slight hint of pink to it.

“That’s your gender identity,” Veronica explained.

“It’s pink,” Brooke said.

“Because you’re a woman!” Sara yelled.

“I’m a woman?” Brooke said, almost to herself. Then her voice rose in excitement. “Well, of course I’m a woman! That’s what I’ve been telling y’all all this time. I’m a woman. I’m a woman!” She clapped her hands and hugged herself.

“Your biological sex is male, but your gender identity is female. And this proves it,” Geoffrey said. “This is real, reproducible proof of your gender identity.”

“Proof?” Brooke asked. “I always told people I was a woman, but they always had to just take my word for it. You mean I can actually prove it now?”

“The proof is right there,” Veronica said. “Empirical evidence. It proves you’re a woman. Really, a woman.”

“Proof,” Brooke said to herself. “Proof,” Then she squealed in delight and ran to Geoffrey, coming dangerously close to falling over her heels on the way. “You’re keeping this machine here, aren’t you?” she asked. “It’ll still be here tomorrow?”

“I’m hiring your company to do third-party validation,” Geoffrey said. He turned off the machine and then shook her offered hand. “We’ll be here as long as it takes.”

“Oh, this is so wonderful!” Brooke said. “I can’t wait to show everyone. We can call the news. We can show the world!”

“Show the world what?” a feminine voice said from the doorway.

Everyone turned to the source of the voice: a slender woman with short raven-black hair, caucasian skin, ruby lips, and sapphire eyes who was leaning suggestively against the doorframe.

“Justine,” Sara said. “Did you see it? We saw Brooke’s gender identity. It’s pink! She’s a woman after all!”

“I saw something,” Justine said. She turned to Veronica. “What did I just see?”

Geoffrey stood up straight and began to launch into an explanation, but Justine cut him off.

“She can speak, can’t she?” Justine said, nodding toward Veronica.

“Well, of course she can,” Geoffrey said.

“Then let’s let her,” Justine said, returning her full attention to Veronica. “I repeat: What did I just see?”

Veronica eyed Geoffrey nervously. He muttered something under his breath but nodded at her to go ahead. She turned to Justine and answered: “I believe you saw what the rest of us saw: Brooke’s gender identity. The pink color proves she’s a woman.”

Justine looked at the machine, lowering her precisely-plucked eyebrows. “Prove gender identity? That’s impossible.”

“Not anymore,” Geoffrey said, thrusting his chest out. “My invention has turned the impossible into the possible. You saw the results yourself. Proof, real proof, of gender identity.”

Justine continued to stare at the machine. “Gender identity doesn’t require proof,” she said. “Someone tells you what gender they identity as, and you believe them. That’s gender identity. Their word is all the proof you need.”

“But now we can prove it scientifically!” Geoffrey said. “We’re scientists! We don’t just accept what someone says. We prove it. That’s what science does. And that’s what my machine can do. It can prove someone’s gender identity!”

Justine turned an icy glare to Geoffrey. “Someone’s gender identity is their personal truth,” she said. “Their personal truth. It doesn’t require proof.”

“And now it can become objective truth,” Geoffrey said. “Scientific truth.” He folded his arms defensively. “Not just personal.”

Brooke walked to Justine and laid a large hand on her arm. “Don’t you see, Justine?” Brooke pleaded. “I’m tired of relying on my personal truth. This gives me a chance to objectively prove I am what I say I am. Isn’t that wonderful?”

Justine sighed and her icy glare disappeared. “I understand your interest,” she told Brooke. Then she addressed Veronica once more: “I assume you’ve done the necessary preliminary tests already? Both with those who identity as their biological sex and those who identity as a different gender?”

“We’ve tested over three dozen, I think,” Veronica said, looking at Geoffrey for confirmation. “In every case, the machine accurately showed their gender identity.”

“So they tell you their gender identity,” Justine said, “and then your machine shows you the exact same thing?”

Veronica nodded.

“Here’s what I don’t understand,” Justine said. “With respect, Brooke”, she nodded at the other woman and then she continued speaking to Veronica. “Your machine sounds completely unnecessary. All it does is confirm what someone told you themselves. Why not just take their word for it and not insult them by asking them to prove their identity? This is their identity. Why aren’t their words good enough?”

“With what other topic would words be good enough?” Geoffrey said. “With what other topic would we not ask for actual, objective, proof rather than just take someone’s word for it?”

“Yes, but this is their identity we’re talking about,” Justine said.

“Yes, and now we can prove their gender identity is a real, literal thing,” Geoffrey said. “Without proof, how can you know it isn’t just a fantasy?”

Justine turned to Brooke. “You’re not insulted by this?”

Brooke shook her head. “Proof would be wonderful,” she said.

“And think of the benefits to your company,” Geoffrey said. “Millions will jump at the chance to actually prove their identity, and every time someone questions the efficacy of my machine, they will be told how it was extensively tested at Femina Laboratories, putting your company’s name out there, free advertising that the entire world will notice.”

Justine shook her head. “It’s always about money with you men, isn’t it? Fine,” she said, waving a hand dismissively. “I see your point. Even if I think the machine is completely unnecessary, the world is full of idiots. Many would be interested, and the free publicity would be welcome.”

“I can get the test report published for sure,” Brooke said. “The publicity is guaranteed.”

“I already agreed to it,” Justine said. “There’s no need to push me anymore.” She looked at the machine again. “How does it work anyway?”

As before, she had pointedly addressed this question to Veronica, but Geoffrey answered anyway. “It’s this crimson crystal,” he said, pointing at the red crystal in the middle of the machine. “When you shine a light through it and you direct that light on someone, their gender identity is visible behind them.”

“It behaves like a shadow, I think,” Veronica added.

“Okay, but how does it work?” Justine asked impatiently.

“We … we don’t know,” Veronica said.

“But that doesn’t matter,” Geoffrey interjected. “There are lots of things in science we don’t fully understand yet. What matters is that it’s accurate. 100% accurate! In every case, it has given the correct result. Each and every time it shows a person’s gender identity, clear as day.”

“Impressive,” Justine said, still addressing Veronica. “But if you don’t know how the crimson crystal works, how did you know how to make it?”

Veronica looked at Geoffrey.

“You do know how to make it, don’t you?” Justine asked.

Neither answered.

Justine laughed. “Are you telling me that's the only crimson crystal you have? What? Did you just find it somewhere?”

Geoffrey sputtered. “It doesn’t matter where I found it. It works! 100%! That’s what matters!”

Justine raised her hands in exasperation. “Forget what I said earlier. We do science here, not magic shows!”

“But now we can prove I’m a woman!” Brooke said, pleading to Justine. “Don’t you understand how important that is to me?”

Justine rolled her eyes. “Fine, fine,” she said. Then she raised a finger at Brooke. “This is your project then, and I don’t want to hear anything about it. Magic rocks …” she scoffed. She looked over at Sara and Sally. “Has she filled out the paperwork yet?”

“Who?” Sara asked. “Brooke?”

“Of course not Brooke,” Justine said impatiently. She pointed at Veronica. “This one.”

“Umm …” Sally said.

Justine rolled her eyes again. “You two,” she said to Sally and Sara. “Take them to the front and have them fill out the project paperwork. If we’re going to be involved in this farce, I want to make sure we’re going to get paid. And you,” she said, pointing at Brooke. “Don’t you have a train to catch? Do you want to be stuck taking a taxi all the way home again?”

Brooke looked at her watch. “Oh dear!” she said, and she hurried out the door, her stiletto heels clicking down the hall. Justine vanished into the hallway as well.

“We better get your paperwork done,” Sara said to Geoffrey.

“It’s at the front desk,” Sally said.

Geoffrey nodded. “Can we lock the lab when we leave?” he asked.

“The key to the room is back at the front desk,” Sara said. “We can get it with the paperwork.”

Geoffrey turned to Veronica. “You pack things up here and wait until we get back to lock the door.” He followed Sara and Sally toward the hallway, but then stopped and turned back to Veronica. Reaching behind his back, he pulled out a small revolver that had been concealed underneath his shirt. He held it out for Veronica.

“I don’t need your gun,” Veronica said, grimacing at it. “You’ll be less than a minute away.”

“Just take it,” Geoffrey said. “Just until we secure the room. Don’t you realize how much money this invention is worth?”

Veronica smiled at Geoffrey. “We’re going to be rich,” she said.

Geoffrey offered the gun to her again.

“Put it on the cart if that makes you feel better,” Veronica said. She unplugged the power cord from the wall and started rolling it together.

Geoffrey laid his revolver on the cart next to the machine and then followed Sally and Sara back to the front desk, where they handed him a clipboard with the needed paperwork. The blonde twins sat in their receptionist chairs while he stood in front of their desk filling out the paperwork.

Behind the receptionist desk, the wall was filled with pictures of women, each labeled with the designation “Researcher of the Month” and a date.

Geoffrey glanced up at the pictures. “You have a lot of women researchers here,” he said.

“We only have women researchers here,” Sara said.

“Justine only hires women,” Sally said.

“She doesn’t like men,” Sara said.

Geoffrey paused with his paperwork and peered down at the twins. “Isn’t that illegal?”

“No one cares if you discriminate as long as you only discriminate against the right people,” Sally said.

“But what about Frantz?” Geoffrey asked. “She hired him didn’t she?”

“Oh, Justine doesn’t mind hiring men to be janitors or other menial jobs like that,” Sara said.

“She thinks all men belong in menial jobs,” Sally added. “She says that’s why ‘menial’ starts with ‘men’.”

Geoffrey set down his pen. “I thought your boss was acting strange back there. Am I making a mistake bringing my business here? Will she even accept business from men?”

“Oh, she accepts business from men as long as they pay her. She wants their money,” Sara said.

“She thinks it’s poetic justice to use money from men to fund her off-the-books project to create a virus that will eradicate you all,” Sally said.

The twins smiled at Geoffrey sweetly.

Geoffrey looked from one twin to the other. “You’re joking, right?”

The twins kept smiling. Sara’s right eyebrow twitched. “Yes?” she said.

Geoffrey shook his head. “I’m going to be rich, so who cares.” Picking up the pen, he returned to the paperwork.

After a moment of silence, Sara turned to Sally. “This is so awesome,” she said.

“I know,” Sally said. “And you know what’s the most awesome of all?”

“What?” Sara asked.

“We finally get to prove if people really are gender-fluid!” Sally said.

“What do you mean?” Sara asked.

“Well, someone says they’re gender-fluid and we all just take their word for it. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?” Sally said. “It always seemed strange to me.”

Sara nodded in agreement. “Like, imagine if a man showed up and claimed to be from the gas company, and he said he was there to check for a gas leak, but he didn’t have a badge or credentials or anything, and we just believed him without asking for proof, and we let him wander around the office by himself.”

“We’d get fired for that,” Sally said.

“Well, you’d get fired,” Sara said, “but I’d have to go home too.”

“That’s true,” Sally said. Then she lowered her voice. “You know what I always wanted to do? Whenever someone claims to be gender-fluid, I always wanted to look them in the eyes and say, ‘Prove it!’”

Sara giggled. “You’d get in so much trouble for that!”

Sally giggled as well.

“Well, now you’re allowed to ask that question,” Geoffrey said. He set the pen down and handed Sally his completed paperwork. “Because now they can answer it with my machine.”

Sara’s eyes grew wide. “You can prove that someone is gender-fluid?”

Geoffrey smiled at the women. “Their gender identity shows as purple,” he said.

“That is so awesome!” Sally said.

“We can prove if people really are gender-fluid!” Sara said.

“Can you show us?” they asked in unison, giant smiles on their faces.

Geoffrey laughed. “I’ve done tests with three separate people who identity as gender-fluid. I’ll see if one or two of them can drop by the lab over the next few days.”

“That is so awesome!” Sally said again.

The sharp crack of a gunshot halted their conversation, the bang echoing back and forth in the lobby for what seemed like an eternity. All three of their faces drained of color as they stared at each other and then stared at the open door to the hallway.

There was the sound of running feet and then something heavy struck the floor and a woman yelled, “Help!”

Sara and Sally sprang to their feet, following after Geoffrey, who was already to the hallway doorway. The hallway was deserted, the only light coming from the open door to Lab C and a side corridor further away. Sally and Sara followed after Geoffrey, who sprinted into Lab C.

“No,” they heard him yell. “No … no … no …” They hurried through the door and found him kneeling in a circle of red dust.

His crimson crystal had been smashed.

Sally looked behind the machine and gave a startled shout. Geoffrey looked over and sprang to his feet. “No!” he screamed. He ran to Veronica’s body, which lay motionless behind the machine. “No!” He hugged her close. “No!”

“Help me!” a woman yelled again from the hallway. “I got him!” she yelled. “Help me!”

“That’s Justine!” Sara said to Sally, who nodded. They both ran out into the hallway, where they heard a commotion coming from the lighted side corridor. Following the noise, they turned to find Justine wrestling with Frantz, who was struggling to get away.

“Call the police!” Justine said. “I got him! Call the police!”

Sara looked at Sally and both of their mouths dropped open.

* * *

Detective Sturn held the door for Detective Ortez and then entered the front lobby of Femina Laboratories behind her. A large man with caucasian skin and gray-streaked brown hair, Detective Sturn towered over Detective Ortez, a short woman with light-brown skin and curly brown hair that flowed slightly past her shoulders. Detective Ortez fell in behind Detective Sturn as soon as they had both entered the room. The two detectives studied the room, but Detective Ortez divided her attention between studying the room and studying how Detective Sturn was studying it.

Two pretty blondes sat in chairs behind the receptionist desk. They were resting their chins in their hands, the same shell-shocked look on their faces. In one of the lounge chairs, a middle-aged man sat, his face buried in his hands and his shoulders shaking slightly. A police officer stood discretely nearby. Detective Sturn caught the officer’s eye and signaled him over.

“What’ve we got, Berryfield?” Sturn asked.

“Dead girl in one of the back rooms,” Officer Berryfield said. “Single gunshot to the chest.”

“And these three?” Sturn said, gesturing at them. “They witnesses?”

“Only to each other’s alibis,” Berryfield said. “They were all here together in the lobby when it went down.”

“Anyone else in the building?”

Berryfield nodded. “Just two: the janitor and the owner. We’ve swept the rest of the building. Doors are locked. No sign that anyone left.”

“So a good chance it was one of them?” Ortez said.

“Looks that way,” Berryfield said. He smiled at her. “Long time no see, Karla”

Ortez smiled back. “Three days as a detective and you act like it’s been forever.” She hugged him.

“Looks like we’ve got security cameras?” Sturn said, nodding at a small black camera in the corner of the lobby ceiling.

“There’s a few sprinkled through the hallways as well. Problem is, they’re all fake,” Berryfield said.

“Fake?” Ortez asked.

“Yeah, apparently the owner of the place is rather tightfisted with money. That’s the way the receptionists put it, in so many words.”

“Show us the scene,” Sturn said.

Berryfield nodded and led them back into the hallway and then into Lab C. The detectives spread out as they entered the room, both of them noting the details of the scene, although Ortez kept paying equal attention to Sturn and what he was paying attention to.

“Lab goons haven’t got here yet,” Berryfield said.

“Don’t worry, we won’t touch anything,” Ortez said. She pointed at the revolver lying on the floor. “I assume this is the weapon?”

“Sure seems that way,” Berryfield said. “Lab goons will confirm later.”

“Gun’s owner?” Sturn asked.

“Inventor-dude says it’s his,” Berryfield said. “He said he left it here for the girl’s protection when he went into the lobby with the blonde chicks to fill out the paperwork.”

“Inventor-dude?” Ortez said.

Berryfield shrugged. “That’s what he is.” He pointed at the machine in the middle of the lab. “Whoever shot the girl broke his machine.”

They gathered around the young woman’s body. Sturn bent to one knee to get a closer look. “Who is she?”

“Veronica Timmer,” Berryfield said. “Assistant to inventor-dude … and lover.”

Sturn looked up at Berryfield and raised an eyebrow.

“Tell me about it,” Berryfield said. “I’m in the wrong profession.”

Ortez snorted. “And about thirty pounds too heavy.”

“Hey,” Berryfield said. “This isn’t fat. It’s backup muscle!” He patted his prominent gut.

Sturn stood and looked around the room again.

“Do you think we’ll get prints from the gun?” Ortez asked Berryfield.

“I doubt it,” Sturn answered. He pointed at a yellow rubber glove that lay discarded against the wall by the doorway.

“I didn’t see that,” Ortez said. She looked embarrassed by the oversight.

“And any DNA from the glove will be useless,” Berryfield said.

“Why?” Sturn asked.

“It’s probably from the supply closet. One of the possibles is the janitor. Every glove in the supply closet has his DNA on it. And apparently a lot of gloves in the supply closet have the owner’s DNA on them as well. She’s a little bit of a neat freak and often redoes jobs herself.”

“Says who?” Ortez asked.

“Barbie A and Barbie B,” Berryfield replied.

Ortez snorted again.

“Miss me yet, Karla?” Berryfield asked, but Ortez just waved him off.

Sturn was looking from the gun to the glove to the body and back again.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Berryfield said. “But gunshot residue won’t be any good either.”

“Why not?” Sturn asked.

“When the first officers arrived at the scene, the janitor and the owner had been going at it for ten minutes. They were tearing into each other worse than two college juniors fighting over who is more woke. If either of them had gunshot residue on them, now both of them do.”

“Not helpful,” Sturn said.

“It is what it is,” Berryfield replied.

Sturn looked back at the machine. “So either the janitor or the owner came into the lab after the three left, shot the woman and broke the machine. Why?”

Berryfield shrugged. “I guess they didn’t like the machine.”

“What’s it do?” Ortez asked.

Berryfield raised his eyebrows. “This is where it gets weird.”

Sturn nodded for him to go on.

“Inventor-dude claims his machine could show someone’s gender identity. Barbie A and Barbie B corroborated that. They saw two people’s gender identity.”

“You can’t see someone’s gender identity,” Ortez said. “People just expect you to take their word for it.”

“But they did with the machine,” Berryfield said. “And inventor-dude claims he has tested it with dozens of people who can verify they have seen their identities as well. He says he has videos back at his office.”

“What’s this red dust on the ground?” Sturn asked.

“That’s how the machine was broken,” Berryfield said. “It had a red glass inside, some kind of gem. You shine a light through it and point that light at someone and their gender identity shows up behind them.”

“Sounds more like magic than science to me,” Ortez said.

“Potayto potahto,” Berryfield said.

“You would say that,” Ortez said. “You can’t even work a smartphone.”

Sturn bent over to get a closer look at the red dust on the ground. Then he stood and said to Berryfield, “Let’s have a chat with the Barbies.”

“I thought you’d never ask,” Berryfield said.

Ortez rolled her eyes.

After Sara and Sally had explained everything they had seen, the detectives dove into their opinions about the two suspects.

“Tell us about Frantz,” Sturn said.

“He’s really nice,” Sara said.

“He cleans the floors really well,” Sally added helpfully.

“How about his background?” Ortez said. “What can you tell us about that?”

“He’s an immigrant from Haiti,” Sally said.

“But he’s not one of those undocumented immigrants,” Sara said, her eyebrow twitching.

“Oh no,” Sally added. “Definitely not. He’s very documented. We have all his documents.” She paused. “… somewhere else.”

“And we totally pay him with checks and stuff,” Sally continued.

“Definitely, checks,” Sara said, with a twitch of her eyebrow. “Lots of checks. Definitely not cash under the table.”

“And you keep those check stubs …” Ortez began.

“Somewhere else,” Sally said, smiling up at her.

Ortez snorted in amusement.

“Has he ever been violent before?” Sturn asked.

“Frantz?” Sara said. “Oh no. Nothing like that.”

“He has a family,” Sally said.

“We’ve never met them,” Sara said.

“But we’re sure they’re nice,” Sally said.

“Do you think Frantz would have a reason to break Geoffrey’s machine?” Sturn asked.

“Why would he do that?” Sara asked. “That’s just more work for him. Who do you think will be cleaning up all that red dust?”

“And the blood,” Sally said.

They both smiled at the detectives sweetly.

“The machine supposedly proved gender identity. Would that upset Frantz?” Sturn asked.

“Why would that upset Frantz?” Sally said. “The machine proved he’s a man.”

“That’s right. We saw it. He’s a man. We’re witnesses,” Sara said.

Sturn glanced at Ortez and then looked back at the twins. “And Justine?”

“She’s our boss,” Sally said.

“She’s your boss,” Sara corrected Sally.

“That’s right,” Sally said. “Sara doesn’t work here.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Berryfield said. “No one said anything about you not working here. If you don’t work here, why are you here?”

Sara shrugged. “I come here because I’m bored. Justine doesn’t care as long as she doesn’t have to pay me.”

“Justine thinks we share the same brain,” Sally said.

“She doesn’t know we heard her say that,” Sara said.

Berryfield looked utterly confused, but Sturn just shrugged. “Has Justine ever been violent?” he asked.

“Justine? No,” Sara said.

“Well, not until she was wrestling in the hall with Frantz,” Sally said. “That was pretty violent.”

“But that’s because she thought Frantz was the murderer,” Sara said. “So that’s pretty normal.”

“Do you think Justine could have killed Veronica?” Ortez asked.

“Justine kill a woman?” Sally said. “Justine would never kill a woman.”

“Now if it was Geoffrey that had been murdered on the other hand …” Sara said.

The twins glanced at each other. Then they turned and smiled at the detectives.

“So, she’s a feminist?” Ortez asked.

“Saying that Justine is a feminist is like saying the sun is kind of lukewarm,” Sara said.

“That means yes,” Sally said. “Really, really, yes.”

“Some feminists are not fans of transgenders,” Ortez continued.

“That’s right,” Berryfield said. “I’ve heard that before. What are they called? Turds or something?”

“They’re called Terfs,” Sally said. “Trans-exclusionary radical feminists.”

Sara smiled at Officer Berryfield. “You’re not very good at mansplaining,” she said.

“What?” Berryfield asked.

Ortez laughed.

“Justine isn’t a Terf,” Sally said.

“How do you know?” Sturn asked.

The twins swiveled their chairs in unison to face the wall behind them. Sara pointed at a picture of Brooke.

“See this woman?” Sally asked.

The detectives and Officer Berryfield all leaned closer to look at the picture of Brooke. “Researcher of the Month, March 2019,” was written in the plaque below.

“That’s no woman,” Berryfield said.

The twins spun their chairs around to face him. “Yes, she is,” Sara said.

“We saw her gender identity.” Sally said. “Her body is male, but her gender identity is female. The machine proved it.”

“The machine which was broken,” Ortez said. “Is there a reason why Justine wouldn’t want Brooke to have proof she is a woman? Some sort of compensation issue?”

Sturn shook his head. “I don’t see how. Maybe something personal against Brooke?”

“Count the pictures,” Sara said to the detectives.

“What?” Ortez asked.

“Count the number of times Justine picked Brooke as researcher of the month,” Sally said.

The detectives studied the pictures. There were a few dozen, all women, with at least a dozen different women appearing at least once, and Brooke’s picture was there at least a third of the time.

“Justine loves Brooke,” Sara said.

“Why?” Sturn asked.

“Because Brooke is a good researcher,” Sally said.

“And because she cut off her male parts,” Sara said.

Sally nodded. “Mainly because she cut off her male parts.”

“What?” Berryfield exclaimed, his eyes wide.

“Justine doesn’t like men,” Sara said. “And Brooke didn’t want to be a man so bad she cut off her male parts.”

“Snip, snip!” Sally said.

The twins smiled innocently.

Berryfield’s face turned green and he hurried outside.

“Thanks for your time,” Sturn said to the twins.

“Can we go home now?” Sara asked. “The Bachelorette is on.”

“Not yet,” Sturn said. “We might have more questions.”

Geoffrey wasn’t any more helpful than the twins had been.

“What do you mean you just found the crimson crystal? Where did you find it? At a garage sale?” Ortez asked in exasperation.

Geoffrey avoided her gaze. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try us,” Sturn said.

Geoffrey was silent for a moment. Then he gave himself a brief nod and started talking. “There was a bright light and then a loud boom. I thought … I don’t know what I thought … but I went outside to investigate and that’s when I found it. A meteorite had fallen into my yard. I’m not sure how big it had been originally because I don’t know what it was made of, but it left a three-feet-wide crater on impact.”

“How do you not know what it was made of? Didn’t you have it tested?” Ortez asked.

“It disintegrated,” Geoffrey said. “I touched it gently with a stick and it just fell apart and blew away. The only thing left was the crimson crystal.”

“A gem just fell out of the sky that let you see people’s gender identity?” Ortez said.

“You don’t understand,” Geoffrey said. “I could have made millions, millions! But now it’s gone. There was only one crimson crystal like that. Now it’s gone, gone!”

“And Veronica is dead,” Sturn said.

“Veronica,” Geoffrey said softly. He buried his face in his hands and refused to answer any more questions.

Berryfield returned a few minutes later, looking less green. He prepped the detectives on their talk with the two suspects. Standing in front of Justine’s closed office door, Berryfield said, “This one is something else.”

“Can’t handle a woman?” Ortez said. “You’re getting soft.”

Berryfield shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “We don’t have any female officers on patrol around here tonight. Everyone that reported to the scene was a man, and I kid you not, every second sentence out of this one was some complaint about our ‘male gaze’ or our ‘male privilege’. You have no idea how long she droned on about the patriarchy and how horrible it is.” Berryfield turned to Sturn. “Did you know you’re part of the patriarchy, Sturn?” Berryfield asked. “Apparently all men are. Somehow, someone forgot to send my membership card in the mail. Anyway, you’d think that when someone was murdered in her building that she’d be a little more cooperative, but apparently that’s asking for too much from Ms Ice Queen.”

“You’re just full of nicknames tonight,” Ortez said.

“It’s what I do,” Berryfield said. “But just wait. You’ll see.”

Sturn glanced at Ortez. “I guess you’ll be doing the talking,” he said.

Ortez grunted. “Sure, give me the easy one.”

Justine sat behind a large carved wooden desk. She leaned back in a tall leather chair that likely would have cost the detectives a week’s salary. She was pressing an ice pack against her forehead, and her shirt was wrinkled, its top buttons broken off and exposing a considerable amount of cleavage, but all things considered she looked remarkably good for someone who had been wrestling so intensely shortly before.

She was a dangerously attractive woman, and Detective Sturn felt immediately drawn to her on a primal level, but he was no fool. She was incredibly alluring yes: her athletic build, her makeup composed just so, seemingly undisturbed by the wrestling match; but her allure was the allure of a praying mantis. She was the kind of woman who didn’t doll herself up to attract men, she dolled herself up to taunt them. Any man who fell for her lures would likely end up the same way as the male praying mantis: missing his head.

“It’s simple really,” Justine said after Ortez asked her to tell what happened. “I was in my office, preparing to head home for the day, when I heard the gunshot. Now, I know what I should have done: I should have hidden under my desk and called the police. I don’t know what I was thinking, but this is my lab. Someone was shooting a gun in my lab. And I guess part of me just wasn’t going to let that happen, and before I knew it, I was out in the hallway, and that’s when I saw him.”

“Frantz?” Ortez asked.

“He burst out of the lab, and right then we met eyes, and I saw something wild there, something mad. I’ve never seen that before,” Justine said. “Not in him. Not in anyone else.”

“Why did you chase him?” Ortez asked.

“Well I couldn’t just let him get away, could I?” Justine said. “He shot someone in my lab. In my lab!”

“How did you know he shot someone?” Ortez asked.

“You didn’t see the look in his eyes,” Justine said. “It was like he was a wild beast at the moment, and I just knew, I just knew. And I knew I couldn’t let him get away with it.”

“So you tackled him and held him until the police arrived?”

“That’s right.”

“Why would Frantz do something like this?”

Justine was quiet for a moment. “I’ve been thinking it over since it happened,” she said. Then she lowered her voice. “You know he’s from Haiti.”

“Yes …” Ortez said slowly.

“They are such violent people, the Haitians,” Justine said. “The crime in their country, you know, it’s horrible.”

“So, he’s a violent person because he’s a Haitian?” Ortez said. Her voice had taken on a dangerous tone. Sturn grunted a warning at her.

“Oh, I’m not saying anything racial,” Justine said. “I’m talking culturally. He was raised with violence like it was mother’s milk. How could I not have expected him to snap in that way? I really should have seen it coming. I almost feel guilty about it.”

“But then how could you have hired a janitor on subsistence wages and paid him under the table?” Ortez said. Sturn grunted another warning.

Justine’s eyes narrowed. “Who told you that?” she asked.

“We could check your books if you like,” Ortez said.

Justine was quiet for a moment. “I have disagreements with our immigration laws,” she said. “And at times I choose to act in civil disobedience to those laws. People are not illegal,” she said. “It’s wrong for our country to treat them that way. As a privileged individual, it's my responsibility to help the marginalized, so I try to help where I can, but sometimes my judgment is faulty and I help the wrong person, as in this case.”

“So you did it out of the goodness of your heart?” Ortez said. She was about to say something else but Sturn, tired of his grunts being ignored, put a heavy hand on her shoulder. Ortez flinched slightly under the weight. She took a deep breath and continued in a more level voice. “So you claim his background makes him prone to violence,” she said, “but why would he attack Veronica? What is his motive? And why would he want to destroy the machine? Why wouldn’t he want people to be able to prove their gender identity was real?”

“I’ve thought about that as well,” Justine said. “He’s Catholic, you know. Have you seen that gaudy crucifix he wears around his neck? Now, I’m not positive about this—it’s just a theory—but as I’ve been sitting here trying to think why he would do it, a question occurred to me: What would the Pope think if a Catholic let gender identity be proven? That would practically prove Catholicism was wrong!”

Ortez raised an eyebrow skeptically. “I don’t know about that.”

Justine continued: “And, I don’t know if I should mention this or not, but last Pride Month he was the only employee who didn’t wear a rainbow ribbon to work.”

“You require your employees to wear rainbow ribbons?” Ortez asked.

“We don’t explicitly require them to, no,” Justine said. “But why wouldn’t he choose to? What does that say about him?”

“And how about you?” Ortez asked. “What do you think about gender identity?”

Justine raised her eyebrows, “I don’t understand what you mean,” she said. “That’s like asking what I think about photosynthesis. Gender identity simply is. What am I supposed to think about it?”

“What do you think about Geoffrey’s machine?” Ortez asked. “What do you think about being able to prove that gender identity is real?”

Justine waved her hand. “Oh, that. I thought the whole idea was silly. Gender identity is how you identify yourself. Proof isn’t necessary. People declare what gender they identity as, and then we affirm their identity. I see no reason why some machine should be brought into the picture. It seems completely superfluous to me.”

“So you have no problem with gender identity?” Ortez asked.

“Absolutely not. That’s like having a problem with thermodynamics. It simply is.”

“And you have no problem with proving someone’s gender identity?”

Justine shrugged. “It’s always interesting to prove things, but frankly I find the whole idea a little insulting, don’t you? It’s like carding a seventy-year-old woman when she wants to buy wine. You already know the answer because they already told you the answer, and that should be good enough. Why insult them by demanding proof? It’s their identity we’re talking about. You got all the proof you needed when they told you what gender they identified as.”

“But someone might not believe them,” Ortez said. “Someone might want proof.”

“I suppose that’s true. Some people can be so cynical and untrusting, that’s unfortunately true. And there’s always the financial angle too, although I’m almost ashamed to admit it. Being the lab that tested the machine would have been very lucrative. It’s a pity that Frantz destroyed it. There was only one crimson crystal, you know. Without that, the machine doesn’t work.”

“What a pity,” Ortez said.

Finished with Ms Ice Queen, the detectives turned their attention to the other suspect. Frantz had been placed into a large supply closet, which had been emptied of supplies. After the detectives entered the large closet, they asked the officer standing guard to step outside. Then they watched as Frantz paced back and forth on the other side of the closet, rubbing his crucifix while he muttered something to himself. He didn’t seem to have noticed they were there.

“What’s he saying?” Sturn asked Ortez.

“He’s speaking in French, not Spanish,” Ortez said.

“But can’t you get the gist of it?” Sturn asked.

Ortez sighed and concentrated on Frantz’s words.

“I think he’s saying the Lord’s Prayer,” she said.

Sturn nodded. Then he spoke loudly, “Frantz, we’d like to speak with you.”

Frantz froze, raising wild eyes to look at them. Suddenly he darted for the door, as if he could get past a man twice his size. Detective Sturn raised his left hand and grabbed the smaller man, holding him gently. “Let’s just have a chat,” he said.

“I can’t go,” Frantz said, struggling against Sturn’s grip. “I can’t go.”

“You can’t go where?” Ortez asked.

“I have a family!” Frantz said. “I can’t go!”

Ortez nodded in understanding. “We’re not immigration, Frantz.”

Frantz paused in his struggling and looked at the two of them, but apparently he didn’t like what he saw because he muttered something under his breath and tried to wiggle out of Detective Sturn’s grip again. Sturn pushed him gently back to the other side of the large closet.

“I can’t go! I can’t go!” Frantz wailed.

“Listen, if you did nothing wrong, there’s no reason for immigration to be involved, do you understand me?” Ortez said. “Isn’t that right, Detective Sturn?”

Sturn shrugged. Then he nodded. “Why would we need immigration? We’re just chatting here.”

“Why don’t you tell us what happened?” Ortez said.

Frantz looked from one detective to the other, visible shaking, but he didn’t try to make a run for it again. Holding his crucifix for support, Franz answered in a thick accent: “I was mopping when I heard the gun. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. When they started moving, the boss tackled me. She wouldn’t let me go. Then I got put in here.”

Sturn leaned forward. “Did you shoot Veronica?”

Frantz’s eyes grew wide. “Who is Veronica?”

“The redheaded woman,” Sturn said.

“No, no, no. Why would I shoot anyone?” Frantz said.

“How about the machine?” Ortez asked.

“Which machine?”

“The machine in Lab C,” Sturn said.

Frantz nodded in recognition. “It showed my soul,” he said.

“Right, it showed your gender identity,” Ortez said.

Frantz nodded again. “I have a man’s soul,” he said with satisfaction in his voice.

“That’s right,” Ortez said. “Does it bother you when someone has a different gender identity than their body? Would it have bothered you if the machine showed that you, a man, had a female gender identity?”

Frantz frowned. “Why would the machine show me with a woman’s soul? I have a man’s soul.”

Ortez looked at Sturn and gave a slight shrug.

“Did you want to destroy the machine?” Sturn asked.

“Why would I want to destroy the machine?” Frantz said. “It showed my soul!”

After speaking with Frantz, the detectives huddled in the hallway with Officer Berryfield. “So what’s the plan, boss?” Berryfield said to Detective Sturn. “We’re already pushing it as it is. Anything else and we really should be bringing them in, otherwise we’ve got to let them go.”

The three paused as Veronica’s body was wheeled out of the lab and then down the hall to the backdoor, avoiding the lobby where Geoffrey still grieved.

Sturn turned to Ortez. “What do you think?”

Ortez shrugged. “Justine is a piece of work, but I don’t see a motive there. The problem is I don’t see a motive for Frantz either.”

“He sure does seem excited about something though,” Berryfield said.

“For good reason,” Ortez said. “How would you like to be deported even though you did nothing wrong?”

“If he came here illegally then he came here illegally,” Berryfield said. “That’s something wrong.”

Sturn held up a large hand to stop the argument.

“How about you,” Ortez said to Sturn. “Do you have any ideas?”

“Just one,” Sturn said. “A bit crazy,” he said, “but it’s been a crazy night.” He leaned toward Ortez and whispered something in her ear. Her eyes brightened and she gave a small smile. “Do you really think?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” Sturn said. Then he turned to Berryfield. “Tell Justine she can go home, but ask her to come by Lab C first. We have one last question.”

Detective Sturn was facing the far wall of Lab C when Justine entered the room. She scowled when she saw Detective Ortez wasn’t there, but apparently the prospect of going home was sufficiently enticing that she deemed to address a male.

“I was told you had a final question before I could go home?” Justine said.

Sturn waved her over. “Come over here and take a look at this.”

Justine hesitated for a moment, glancing at the red dust and blood that still lay on the floor, but then she walked over beside him and looked at the wall. “What am I supposed to be looking at?”

Just then, Detective Ortez entered the room with Geoffrey.

“Did you get it from him?” Sturn asked Ortez.

Ortez raised her hand quickly, something red in her hand flashing briefly before she closed it again.

Justine stood up straight. “What is that?” she asked.

“It’s the backup crimson crystal,” Sturn said. “Geoffrey kept it in his car. It turns out the machine isn’t broken after all.”

Geoffrey looked up sharply at Sturn, but thankfully he remained quiet.

“I don’t understand,” Justine said.

“Go ahead and install it,” Sturn said to Ortez.

She walked to the machine and then turned her back to Sturn and Justine as she fiddled with its insides. Then she dragged the cord to the wall and plugged it in before turning back to Detective Sturn and nodding her head.

“You can turn it on now, Geoffrey,” Sturn said.

“What’s going on?” Justine said, her hands now clenched into fists. “You said there was only one crimson crystal!” she said to Geoffrey.

Geoffrey looked from the machine to Detective Sturn and back again.

Sturn stepped away from Justine, leaving her standing alone in front of the machine.

“You told me there was only one crimson crystal!” she said again. “There wasn’t supposed to be a backup one! You weren’t supposed to know how to make more!”

Geoffrey looked at Justine. Then he looked at Detective Sturn. Detective Sturn nodded. Geoffrey’s eyes narrowed and he walked toward the machine.

“What are you doing?” Justine said. She was shaking now. “The machine was supposed to be broken!”

Geoffrey reached the machine. He raised his hand to flip the switch.

“STOP!” Justine screamed, and Geoffrey froze. The whole room stared at her.

“Just stop,” she whispered, looking down at the ground, her raven-black hair falling in front of her face.

Sturn winked at Ortez and she smiled. “What’s wrong, Justine?” Ortez asked. “Why shouldn’t we turn on the machine? What are you afraid to see? What are you afraid we’ll see?”

Justine spoke so softly it was almost as if she were speaking to only herself. “It’s my gender identity,” she said. “My gender identity. I get to choose it. You don’t get to force one on me. It’s my choice. It’s my gender identity.”

“And everyone should just take your word for it?” Ortez asked.

“Of course they should. Who could be a better judge of my gender identity than myself?” Justine said. “It's my gender identity.”

“That's fine if gender identity is just a wish or a fantasy,” Ortez said. “If that's all gender identity is, then it's fine to just take your word for it. But if gender identity is something that actually exists in the real world, then why should we assume your judgment is accurate? Sometimes people are wrong.”

“And sometimes people lie,” Sturn said.

“I am a woman,” Justine said.

“Biologically, yes,” Sturn said. “But what about your gender identity?”

“My gender identity is female!” Justine said. “I choose my gender identity! It's up to me!”

“Do you choose your height?” Sturn asked. “Do you choose your age? No. They are part of reality.”

Ortez followed Sturn's lead. “And some people aren't happy with their height or their age, are they?” she said. “Some want to be taller, some want to be shorter, some want to be older, some want to be younger—some want reality to be different than it is. If gender identity isn't just a wish or a fantasy, if it isn't just a deep desire of your heart, if gender identity actually is part of reality, then why should we expect anything different?”

“And proof makes it reality,” Sturn said.

Ortez nodded in agreement. “If we just take your word for it, then it's nothing but a fantasy,” she said, “but if there is real, actual proof, then gender identity ceases to be a fantasy and it becomes reality instead. Now, with proof, your gender identity isn't female just because you tell us it’s female. Now your gender identity is female only if you can prove it’s female. And that's not what the machine is going to show us, is it, Justine?”

“I'm a woman!” Justine wailed, dropping to her knees. “Look at me!” She tore at her shirt, popping more buttons and exposing a utilitarian bra. “Test my blood! I'm a woman!"

“But your biological sex was never the issue, your gender identity was,” Ortez said. “And you don't get to claim your gender identity is female and expect us to just take your word for it anymore, not now that there's proof. It's science now, not fantasy. Your gender identity isn't what you claim it to be anymore. It isn't what you choose it to be. Your gender identity is whatever the proof proves it to be. And what will Geoffrey's machine prove your gender identity to be? What have you always known proof, actual scientific proof, would prove your gender identity to be?”

“But the machine is broken! It's not supposed to work anymore!” Justine pointed at Geoffrey. “You lied to me! There wasn't supposed to be another crimson crystal! Breaking the one was supposed to have been enough. Otherwise I wouldn't have …”

“Wouldn't have what?” Sturn asked. “Wouldn't have killed Veronica?”

“I didn't want to,” Justine whispered, raven-black hair falling again over her downcast eyes. “But she wouldn't let me—“

“Murderer!” Geoffrey yelled. He started toward her, rage in his eyes, but Detective Sturn raised a large hand signaling him to stop and that simple act of resistance was all it took. Geoffrey crumbled to the floor in a ball, weeping. Detective Sturn had Officer Berryfield escort Geoffrey out of the room.

“This isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” Justine said, looking down at the ground. “Gender identity isn’t supposed to be real. It’s supposed to be a fantasy. It’s supposed to be my fantasy. It isn’t supposed to be something that can be proven to be different than what I want it to be.”

“But Geoffrey's machine changed all that,” Ortez said. “It provided proof. It changed gender identity from fantasy to reality.”

Justine sat in silence.

“And reality isn’t always fair,” Sturn said. “It isn't always what we want it to be. So if gender identity is reality …”

“… then some of us will be genders we don’t want to be,” Ortez finished.

“I'm not a man,” Justine wailed. “I'm not! I’m a woman!”

Ortez glanced at Sturn, who nodded. “I have good news, Justine,” Ortez said. “You’re right. You are a woman. Geoffrey's machine was destroyed, so gender identity is just the fantasy it always was. The only proof that exists, the only actual evidence, is your physical body. You are a woman and no one can prove otherwise—you saw to that. Was it worth it?”

Detective Sturn signaled to Officer Berryfield, who took out his handcuffs.

“I don’t understand,” Justine said. “What about the backup crimson crystal?

“Oh, you mean this?” Ortez asked. She held up the red object she had briefly flashed in her hand before: the red cover of a brake light. “Just because someone tells you something, doesn’t mean it's actually true. You shouldn’t have taken our word for it.”

Justine gave a soft laugh. “Tricky girl,” she said.

Officer Berryfield lifted Justine to her feet. He pulled her hands behind her back and cuffed them.

Justine lifted her head proudly, shaking her hair out of her face as she addressed Detective Ortez one last time. “At least it was a woman that outsmarted me.”

“Oh this?” Ortez said, holding up the brake light cover. She pointed at Sturn. “That was his idea.”

Justine howled and howled.

* * *

Sally and Sara watched as Officer Berryfield dragged a cursing Justine out of the building.

“This sucks,” Sara said.

“It totally sucks,” Sally agreed. “Now we’ll never have proof if people really are gender-fluid or not.”

Sara sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to take their word for it.”

Update 09/06/2023: Fixed typos.

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Status: Released July 2019 by Silver Layer Publications.