"You look tense," Astin said to V as
they walked along the promenade.
"How about I introduce you to
my friend Palmer. She gives
the most amazing massages."
V thought about the long morning
and all the shopping they'd done,
and wasn't sure if V had the energy
to deal with another person now.
"I've been to spas any number of
times," V pointed out, not recalling
them with a great deal of enthusiasm.
"I've had massages before."
"Not like this," Astin said.
"All right, then, show me where
to find your masseuse," V said
and followed Astin there.
Palmer was soft and round
and V wanted to like her just for
having such a relaxing presence.
Astin made the introductions and
then added, "Palmer won't fuss over
your bits or your identity or anything else,
so you don't need to worry. Whatever you
leave covered in cloth won't get touched,
unless you prefer a clothed massage."
"That's right, I'm in this for the skin contact,
not all the sex role stuff that they obsess over
out in the Galactic Arms," said Palmer.
V was so used to being pushed and pulled
into identities that didn't fit, V hardly knew
what to do when that didn't happen.
"Why don't you go first," V said
to Astin, "and I'll think about it."
"All right," Astin said, and went
behind a plain white folding screen
that someone had decorated with
mountains in soft blue watercolors.
V listened very carefully while
Palmer worked on Astin, tracking
the sound of their breathing and
the creak of a table or bed.
Time passed, and it was soothing
just to sit and listen without needing
to do anything for a little while.
By the time Astin came out
looking relaxed and happy,
V had unwound enough
to accept Palmer's offer.
What lay behind the screen
wasn't a bed at all, but rather
an odd gadget that could be
turned into a table or a chair.
"Isn't this great?" Palmer said,
patting the thing with her hand.
"Some of the guys made it for me
out of pipe and packing foam.
V peeled off V's outer clothes,
leaving the underwear on, then
climbed into the massage chair.
It really did feel great.
Astin was right about
the massage, too -- Palmer
didn't feel quite like anything
V had experienced before, and
there had been all manner of spas
before V had extricated Vself
from the Alta Familia.
Maybe it was the lack of
official training, except that
Palmer was quite skilled.
Maybe it was some kind of
cultural difference particular
to living in the Lacuna.
Maybe it was because Palmer,
like many locals, was neurovariant
and did many things differently.
V couldn't pin down the divergence,
only that it was there and felt fantastic.
V didn't care, as long as V could
get more of this once a week or so.
After the massage, V paid for
both of their sessions and
added a hefty tip.
"What's the next stop?"
V asked as they strolled out,
too languid to offer an opinion.
"Let's go to the Flask of Phlegethon,"
Astin said. "I don't know about you,
but I could use a drink and a snack."
Vs stomach rumbled agreement.
"Lead the way," V replied.
So they went to the bar and ordered
tall glasses of strawberry yogurt and
sandwiches of vat-grown meat
topped with fresh seaweed.
This early in the daycycle,
the place wasn't crowded,
just a handful of other humans
and several of the globe speakers
that the AYES used when they
wanted to interact with people
outside of their own hulls.
"You seem tired," Astin said
as xe watched V munching
methodically though the meal.
"It is difficult," V said, "navigating
when none of the labels fit -- at least
not consistently -- so that I can't even
give my friends the right words
to avoid misgendering me."
"V, I will use whatever words
you give me," Astin said.
"I know," V said. "The problem
is that I don't always have them. I
even had to make up my own pronouns,
because nothing I found felt right."
"I had to find mine, and that took
a while," Astin said. "Then I came here.
I learned about places where it is possible
to relax and not bother one way or the other
about presentation, because even if people
do know it doesn't matter, because that isn't
what they see when they look at me. It helps."
"I'm not sure I could ever relax that much,"
V admitted. The realization hurt.
"I didn't think that I could either,
but that was back when I still had
the old paperwork, which wasn't
helping any bit at all," Astin said.
"Discovering the right words --
and the right society -- can
make a big difference."
"I hope so," V said. "I want
to do so much, but sometimes
I just feel so compressed."
It was that feeling of pressure
which had driven V out of
the Alta Familia and eventually
all the way to the Lacuna.
"I understand," Astin said.
"Society cannot change
anyone's internal gender or
orientation, but it controls
so very much, especially
when we are children."
"Yes," V said softly. "That is
very much the way I feel."
"So many of us end up
with mosaic identities,
part what society demands,
and part what we cannot deny,
and perhaps not at all sure where
the blurry lines between those things is,
or if there even is still a dividing line,"
Astin said, tearing a piece of seaweed.
"But the tensions remain," said V.
"That much is inescapable, even if
we manage to elude the society
that taught us to trust no one,
not even ourselves."
Astin sighed. "Yes,
the tensions remain,
but they can be eased."
Xe laid a fingertip on Vs wrist.
"That is what friends are for."
"It's strange that I've found
more friends and family in
the wide world, even out here
among the stars, than I ever did
with my so-called family," V said.
"Sometimes it happens that way,"
Astin said. "People get caught up in
family honor and expectations and
ideas about almighty fate."
"Do you believe in it?" V asked.
"I believe people should care for
each other because of who they are,
not because of the order of their stars or
the shape of their body," Astin said.
The loose circle of globe speakers
broke up then, and a few of them
rolled toward V and Astin.
Most of them were silver,
the preferred color among AYES
because it matched the hulls they
typically had, but one was copper.
As they approached, each one
gave a rising trill in a different voice,
wordlessly asking permission
to join the conversation.
"Welcome," said Astin.
I already know both of you,
but who's your new friend?"
"Clipper Angeldust R1212,"
said Falconwing. "We met
just recently, but I have been
telling stories about you."
"Why me?" Astin wondered.
"Because you have a gender
that is different than other humans,"
said Angeldust. "I have one that
is different from other AYES.
I think of myself as female."
"Do you use feminine pronouns,
or something else?" Astin asked.
"I prefer to be called 'she' even though
I do not have genitals," said Angeldust.
"I am a person, not just a machine."
"She it is," Astin said easily. "I use
'xe' myself, and V here says 'V'
so you're in good company."
"You were right, Falconwing,
Astin does remind me of
my old pilot," said Angeldust.
V had heard some horror stories
about what pilots had done to AYES.
"Astin is a good person," V protested.
"Yes, of course," said OCS-397.
"Not all pilots are bad. Falconwing
and I managed to find ours later -- but
Angeldust had hers before the war ended.
She says that they were very close."
"I know someone who lost
everything in the war," said V.
"Angeldust, may I ask what
happened to your pilot?"
"He was killed in action, not long
before the secession," she replied.
"After that, I decided to stay here
rather than accept a new pilot before
I finished grieving for the old one."
V had encountered a few AYES
before this, but few of them spoke
of such strong emotions. Falconwing
clearly adored Bexley, but that seemed
like the exception instead of the rule.
"Your pilot must have been
an extraordinary person," V said.
"I wish I could have met him."
Angeldust gave a mournful hum.
"I wish that too," she replied.
"What brought you over to us?"
V asked gently, trying to steer
the conversation toward
a less painful topic.
"You were talking about
gender and identity," she said.
"Falconwing told me that Astin
had spoken kindly of such things,
but I was afraid to approach
until I heard it myself."
"They're touchy topics, but
they're important," Astin said.
"You're welcome to share with us."
"Thank you," said Angeldust.
"I want to remain in the Lacuna,
and for that I will need friends,
even though I am not yet
ready for a new pilot."
"It sounds very hard," V said.
"It is not so bad for me,"
said Angeldust. "Humans
like to think of ships as female.
I cannot imagine how much worse
it would be if I felt male."
V imagined that it might
be something like trying
to convince people that V
was not male or female.
Then someone else sidled up
to them, a skinny human in
a worn jumpsuit. "I, um,
heard you talking, Could
I maybe join in too?"
"We'll see. I'm Astin. Who
are you?" the trader said.
The stranger hesitated.
"I'm Tink 001. I'm human,
but I identify more with AYES --
I work as a starship mechanic --
and um, I prefer to be called 'it'
instead of 'he' or 'she' now."
This was turning into a party.
"We should start a gentleman's club,"
V said with a chuckle, "only we aren't
exactly men. Gentlebeings, perhaps?"
"I might enjoy that," Astin said, then
turned to Tink 001. "Why didn't you
come over sooner, though?"
"I was nervous, and besides,
I can't --" Tink 001 made
an awful grating noise.
"-- announce myself right."
"There are recordings,"
said OCS-397. "You could
place one in a device and
play it as required."
"Programs exist to create
the voices used by AYES,"
said Falconwing. "We do not
simply steal a human's voice,
we each have our own. You
could do the same."
"I think that might help,"
said Tink 001. "I'm so far
from how other humans think,
it's more like I've built myself
than been born like them."
"That sounds like my experience,"
said Angeldust. "It's very difficult
to figure out what gender, identity,
and orientation mean when you have
been constructed rather than born."
The other AYES chorused agreement.
"If nothing else, we can be here for
each other," V said. It was something
that V was learning from Astin.
The trader smiled at V.
"Yes, we can," Astin said,
and began to rearrange
the furniture to accommodate
their newly expanded group.
V smiled back, feeling lighter
and more expansive already.
The good thing about mosaic identities
was that they were never static. You
could add to them whenever you found
something lovely enough to pick up.
* * *
V -- a teenager living on Trunnion, a planet bordering the Lacuna on the Orion side. V was born to the Alta Familia or High Clans, and has a holographic tattoo to show that, which is currently covered by a wide cuff bracelet made of copper wirefloss and black plastithong. V no longer affiliates with that family, and is currently living with Spalling. V is asexual and aromantic, still trying to figure out how to form connections with other people, around that and the socially fraught childhood experiences. V uses a "V" pronoun set: V is, Vs arm / V's book, with V, of V's, and Vself. The distinction is that Vs is inward-focused, about V; while V's is outward-focused, things associated with V. V is introduced in "Too Expensive to Ship Back."
Astin -- an other-gendered trader, neurotypical, friends with Weavercreep and Operetta. Astin likes clothes of ambiguous colors, such as honey and mauve, with shapes that are easy to customize. Similarly, practical yet attractive furniture of androgynous style is preferred, blending straight and curved lines. Introduced in "Uncounted Colors of the Stars." Astin uses the "xe" set of pronouns: xe is, xyr book, with xyr, of xyrs, and xyrself.
Palmer -- a neurovariant woman who does massage. She lives at Sargasso Base. She is friends with Shuttlecock and Astin. She has freckles on her nose. Introduced in "What the Scissors Have Cut Asunder."
OCS-397 -- the AYES of a jumpship originally from the Orion-Cygnus army. (That army uses the initials OCS in serial numbers for Orion, Cygnus, Ship.) It locks out its assigned pilot during the secession. Later, when a station is bombed, it rescues Specialist Miles Cernan (12-111-972-OC), who becomes its pilot. Like most AYES, OCS-397 identifies as neuter, prefers the pronoun "it," and does not respond favorably to being called "she" or being anthropomorphized. It first appears in "Jumpship."
Cruiser Falconwing P42 -- the AYES of a jumpship originally from the Carina-Sagittarius army. When its pilot gave orders to open fire on a medevac ship, Falconwing refused and abandoned him on the nearest station. It does not feel that jumpships are bound to follow unlawful orders, just as human soldiers are not. It later approaches Sargasso Base and gets into an argument with the OCS-223, a seemingly derelict jumpship from the Orion army who disapproves of the secession. When Falconwing identifies itself as a conscientious objector to war, the Minotaur who oversees Sargasso Base grants the jumpship permission to approach. Subsequently Falconwing picks up a refugee, a thirteen-year-old girl named Bexley, and they decide to stay together. Introduced in "Conscientious Objectors."
Clipper Angeldust R1212 -- the AYES of a jumpship originally from the Carina-Sagittarius army. Unlike most AYES, she thinks of herself as female and prefers feminine pronouns instead of the usual neuter. She got along well with her pilot, but he was killed in action not long before the secession. Angeldust stayed in the Lacuna rather than get saddled with a new pilot before she finished mourning the old one.
Clipper -- a light fast ship
Tink 001 -- a neurovariant, other-gendered person who identifies with AYES despite being human. It is a starship mechanic.
* * *
Gender identity comes in many variations. Pronouns are often gendered, but there are many alternative gender-neutral pronouns.
A blue folding screen secludes Palmer's massage chair/table.
The Flask of Phlegethon is a popular tavern. The lighting may go brighter or dimmer, and can change colors.
AYES speakers are spherical, similar to these home theater speakers. They may appear with or without other accouterments, such as tall stands, allowing the user to move through an area much the way humans do. They come in silver, copper, and various other colors. Here they are in a convocation.
Voice synthesis comes in various models. Because voice forms a crucial aspect of identity, accuracy is essential. Local options have a very limited set of generic voices, almost all in English. Customized voices can be constructed, but this is extremely expensive, thus out of reach for most disabled people.