This is the latest chapter in my serial novel, Programmer at Large. If you’ve not been reading so far, the easiest place to read the archives are at the Archive of Our Own mirror.
“OK. Have you heard about gender?”
It didn’t ring a bell, and my HUD wasn’t indicating any sensible translation for the concept to ones I had, so probably not.
“I don’t think so?”
“OK. So you know how grounders often have all these weird appearance based caste systems?”
“Right, the skin colour thing.”
Now I felt bad that the first thing I’d noticed about them was their pale skin.
“Yeah, that’s the big one. Causes us no end of trouble. Anyway- argh, waste it. I’m sorry, can we put this on pause? I’m getting an alarm that I need to do another set before I cool down too much.”
I did a quick check to see if they were just blowing me off, but the alarm was legit, and the social cues system suggested they were perfectly comfortable up until the alarm annoyed them.
“Sure, no problem. I guess I should do another circuit or two too.”
“Great. This is my last set, so how about we meet up at the hot tub?”
I queried my program.
“Sure, I’m good to stop after this set too.”
I heaved myself up and broke into a run again, which gave me time to think things through.
That hadn’t gone… too badly. I fumbled my introduction something awful, but I think I recovered well enough. I then went straight for the personal questions, which wasn’t great but they seemed happy enough to discuss it and were generally a genial sort. All told, not too bad. Still plenty of scope to mess things up, but doing OK for a first meeting.
And the rest of the conversation would be had in a hot tub, which helps. It’s hard to get too stressed out in a hot tub.
Gravity is awful and I hate it, but the way water behaves in gravity is almost enough to redeem it. Water in zero gravity is a menace that you have to keep very well separated from any sort of free space, and swimming requires a breather mask. But in gravity it just… sits there. Or flows downhill. it’s pretty amazing, and it enables hot tubs, which are so much better than steam rooms.
Basically what I’m saying is I like hot tubs.
Which may have contributed to the fact that I only made it about one circuit before I decided I was entirely over running. I sent a message to the hot tub to prepare for occupancy and declared myself done with exercise for now when I next passed it.
The hot tubs we have are pretty great. They’re giant pools raised above the base of the ring off to one side of the track. You could easily fit 20 Crew in one, so Kimiko and I were going to be practically lost in it unless anyone else decided to join us.
I stripped off, threw the dirty clothing into the refresher, and showered. Showers are better in zero gravity, but I’ll admit they’re a lot easier in gravity.
Once I was suitably clean I eased myself into the gently steaming water and stopped thinking for a couple hundred seconds.
Eventually I was roused by Kimiko.
“Mind if I join you?”
They sounded amused.
I cracked open an eye and realised I’d drifted out to the center of the pool and was floating splayed out on my back. There was no way for me to take up the whole tub, but I was doing my level best.
I blushed – though between my skin colour and heat it probably didn’t show much – and scrambled to a slightly more civilized position on the ledge at the side of the pool.
They waved a hand dismissively.
“Not a problem.”
I looked them up and down as they got into the pool. I hadn’t really being paying attention earlier so I hadn’t noticed but they were really impressively muscular. Not the sort of grotesquely huge muscles you sometimes saw on grounder shows, but way more athletic than I’d ever seen on a Crew member before. I guess that’s what doing extensive calisthenics in high gravity will do to you, but wow.
I wondered why they bothered. It’s not like strength is much use to us.
They sat down on the shelf next to me, leaned into my shoulder slightly and closed their eyes.
We sat in silence for a while. I figured I should give them, and me, some time to relax before we started talking again.
Eventually they opened their eyes.
“So, I was telling you about gender. Still interested?”
“OK, so, as well as these skin colour based distinctions, most grounder societies also have another way they split people up, which they call gender. Usually there are two genders, sometimes three or four, but the common genders everyone seems to have are men and women.”
“That makes sense so far. So what determines your gender?”
“Well it depends on where you are. But basically men have beards and women have big breasts.”
I turned to look at them. Apparently not joking, but it can’t hurt to check.
“No, honest. Beards and big breasts.”
“That doesn’t make any sense. I’ve seen grounders. Most of them don’t have either, and some of them have both!”
“Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense. We’re pretty sure about the beards and big breasts thing, but the rest is all a bit blurry. Supposedly it’s meant to be about genitals – the men have a penis and the women have a vulva – but that doesn’t really explain the other genders, and the grounders I’ve met seemed perfectly happy to accept me as a man without checking if I had a penis or not.”
I resolved not to keep asking if they were kidding, but couldn’t resist the urge to check if they had a penis (they didn’t). I changed tack slightly instead.
“But what is gender for exactly?”
“Well it’s all a bit culturally dependent, but it’s primarily a status marker. Men are usually high status.”
“So you have a beard to show you’re… high status?”
I didn’t entirely succeed at keeping the disgust from my voice.
“Gah. No! Definitely no. I just like the beard.”
I relaxed slightly.
“Anyway, even if I wanted to use it that way it wouldn’t work. Most of the Crew learn about beards from Lesbian Space Pirates, where the men are low status.”
I pinched the bridge of my nose and groaned.
“So men may or may not have penises or beards and may or may not be low status but it’s clear to everyone except us which ones are men and we’re not really sure why?”
“This seems like a complete mess. How did people come up with this?”
“Archaic reproductive methods. If you don’t have uterine replicators, only people with a natural uterus can bear children.”
I winced and clutched my stomach slightly. No thank you.
“Between that and the correlated biological differences you’ve got enough of a split to create one of those arbitrary social divides grounders like, which then mutates and changes over time, and tends to stick around even after they get proper reproductive methods. Like the charter says, social structures never die unless you kill them off.”
“This all sounds terrible.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad. Grounders, eh? Still, the beard looks good, don’t you think?”
“I’m still getting used to it to be honest.”
“It’ll grow on you.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think I’ll be getting one myself.”
They looked me up and down.
“Not unless you feel like really confusing some grounders, no. Which is always funny, but they get a bit touchy and violent about this one, so maybe best not if you plan to go ground side.”
“If they’re going to declare me low status just because of my breast size I’m not sure I want to!”
“Eh, you’d mostly be protected by being Crew. Grounders are intimidated enough by us that they tend to give us a high status by default, unless you’re in one of the really bad places.”
“Ugh. More status rules? How do you keep track of all this?”
“Oh, we don’t. We just do it in software and tag people with the relevant information. It’s healthier than trying to internalise whatever ridiculous rules the local grounders feel like playing by.”
“Oh. That’s not so bad I guess.”
In fact, it’s more or less exactly how I navigate Crew social conventions. We don’t have status hierarchies like that, but what we do have is just as complicated, and I think I probably have two or three times as much annotation as normal people do.
“Yeah, it’s annoying at first but you get used to it pretty quickly.”
No signs of that after more than a gigasecond so far, sadly.
We lapsed into silence again. I think they picked up that this was a bit of a touchy subject for me.
“So, if you don’t watch Lesbian Space Pirates, what do you watch?”
“Uh, not much. I’m not big on passive media. I play a lot of Evolve instead.”
“Oh, the graph theory game?”
“Well it’s really more of an abstract strategy game where the core playing field is graph theory. I tend to play it through the topological view.”
“Right. What’s the appeal? I tried it for a while but I couldn’t really get into it. It’s very slow moving.”
“That’s the appeal! I know a lot of people who I’m not shift synchronized with, and it’s really good for long play, so it makes a good way of staying in touch across shifts.”
After that the conversation became more casual – the games we played, the people we knew, etc. Nothing of great consequence, just the sort of social maintenance you use when sounding out someone new.
After another kilosecond or so, Kimiko had to go.
“Arthur, it’s been great meeting you, but I think I’m going to go get some food and sleep. Want to join me?”
I thought about it for a moment. I couldn’t tell if it was a genuine invitation or just politeness. I decided to play it safe.
“No thanks, I think I’m going to float around here for a little longer. See you soon, though?”
“Absolutely. We still have to talk about that bug if nothing else.”
We hugged and cheek kissed goodbye – the beard was scratchier than I expected, point against it.
I watched them as they blow dried themself. They really were very muscular, and I hadn’t quite decided yet whether it looked good or ridiculous. It was still impressive, either way.
They finished dressing and putting their hair back up and we waved a final goodbye.
Which left me alone in the hot tub. Honestly, I’d probably been here long enough – I was starting to prune – but I was going to need some food after this and we’re only running one dining room at the moment, so it would be awkward to leave now.
Oh well, more floating time. I pushed back off to the center of the pool and drifted for a while.
All told, I thought that went quite well. Positive first meeting of a fellow crew member. Possibly even a new friend. My HUD certainly thought so and was giving me all sorts of encouraging feedback.
They were a bit odd, granted, but I’m hardly one to point fingers there.
Rather than mull on all of the things I could have done better, I idly flicked through the news feeds to see what else was going on on the ship and whether we’d picked up any interesting new data from the larger network.
After a while, the heat of the pool and the earlier exercise got the better of me, and I drifted off to sleep.
This chapter is also mirrored at Archive of Our Own. Updates are currently every other Friday. Patreon backers get access to early drafts of upcoming chapters.
We’re so jealous of that social-cue software. :)
Honestly, me too.