Honest Impulses 03: Registration

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

“Do you want to go to the registration together?” Trianna said.

Shandy had been trying to build up the courage to go to the registration tent by herself when Trianna had knocked on her door. She regarded the fluffy cattaur’s question, realized she would have to go sometime that day, and knew that a familiar guide might actually help her get done quicker. “That’d be most kind of you,” she heard herself say even as she pushed aside the fantasies she’d struggled to keep at bay. If Trianna wanted to be her friend it would do her no good to sully the other woman— Shandy corrected herself, fem— with her own lurid notions. “I’d like to change my clothes.”

Trianna smiled and tilted her head. “I’ll wait out here.”

As she stepped out, Trianna looked her up and down. “That’s different. It looks good on you.” Shandy had changed into a dark blue dress with the dark orange sleeves she favored. She had ordered it through the Handbook and it had arrived the next morning, and she’d been happy that it had large pockets at the waistline as well as a breast pocket. “Although I don’t know why you’d changed from what you were wearing earlier.”

Shandy said, “‘Twas no feminine enough.”

“Who says so?”

“In the Landing…” Shandy paused. Nobody had made a single comment about her clothing in all the time she’d been on Hiroshi. In school back in Ottiwells, everyone had made regular comments about her choice of heavy boots and trousers to remind her that her mannish manner of dress was no good fit for a young woman. Shandy hadn’t wanted to be a man. She liked her long hair and she even liked her bosom, no matter how awkward it might be or the stares it attracted from the boys. She also liked having pockets for all her gear, and she liked the boots because they just felt right. She gestured at herself. “‘Tis what women wear.”

Trianna shrugged. “You should wear what makes you comfortable. I do!”

Shandy looked at the pink, full-length pull-over blouse with its deep, rolled collar and the pale blue skirt she wore about her ‘taurid parts and decided Trianna’s idea of “comfortable” fit her own. She took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”

Shandy kept herself distracted from Trianna’s presence by admiring the school’s beautiful gardening and architecture, so she heard the event before she saw it. They walked up a sloped sidewalk together to one of the campus’s larger quads, and her skin grew cold at the realization that they were about to dive into what sounded like the largest crowd Shandy had been in since a four-county festival six years prior. They turned the corner and she paused. “Shandy?”

A multicolored tent hovered over the entire quadrangle between the freshfen dorms and the administrative buildings. Three tent peaks were being held up by some kind of anagrav. “‘Tis… huge!” she said.

“It’s an outdoor event, and people, especially people with skin and not fur, can sunburn quickly on Hiroshi. Even llerkin, who usually love the sun, don’t love Hiroshi’s that much. Ready?”

“I had best be.” Shandy swallowed again as Trianna led her into the tent’s shade.

On her first day on Hiroshi Plateau, Shandy had kept her head down and followed the Handbook from the SDisk station to the University, careful to avoid eye contact with anyone she had encountered. Just talking to Trianna had taken more courage than she’d found in her entire life, and for the four days since she’d stayed in her room except to go out to eat. She had spent her time usefully and studied what she could about her new home.

Today she had to walk out among all the different species that came to Hiroshi. Her homeworld of Abi was an entirely human colony, founded by Terrans, terraformed with a purely Terran investment, and ideologically oriented around ordinary humans without AI support, a constraint which remained long after it had splintered into three separate administrative “nations.” Hiroshi had also been founded as a Terran colony and Terrans still outnumbered llerkin or any given Pendorian species, but as an open world there were plenty of those on Hiroshi. It seemed to Shandy as if at that moment they were all under this tent. Trianna was the only Ssphynx in sight but Shandy spotted two Ritan, three Han, and a myriad of the better-known Pendorian species with their human-animal hybrid appearances. There were also quite a few llerkin, the emerald-scaled alien species that sometimes rivaled, sometimes allied, with the Pendorians for political power in the Corridor. To Shandy’s great relief they all wore some variety of clothing, modestly covering what ought be kept modest, although many of the fems exposed far more skin or fur than someone from Ottiwells would think appropriate.

Trianna’s kindness had reassured her that she wasn’t about to get assaulted or probed. Pendorian depravity had been the subject of school age jokes and adult rumors for as long as she could remember. Then there was what the church said. Trianna was the first Pendorian she’d ever met, and Shandy felt comfortable with her. She was also sure everyone under the tent was far more cosmopolitan and competent to navigate the system than she. “Why do they do it like this?” she said. “Why can’t we just register through the Handbook?”

“Shandy,” Trianna said. “That wouldn’t be very helpful. Hiroshi’s deliberately a social and organic world, like Abi.”

“That can’t be true,” Shandy said. “You said you allow sentient robots and AIs here.”

“Have you met any?”

“I’ve only been about five days.”

“Like I said, you’re not likely to meet many. There are a few, and the University has more than it’s fair share, but there aren’t that many. Less than…” Trianna hesitated and seemed to be counting on her fingers. “Forty. Including those at Amundsen, Rasmussen, and Station. There are only nine in residence on campus.” Nine. Shandy wondered what they looked like and how she would know one when she saw one. “The whole point of Hiroshi is for us to learn to live like people. Most of the people who come here are from traditionalist organic families that want their children to continue the tradition.” Trianna’s eyes twinkled behind her glasses. “A woman from Abi shouldn’t feel lost on Hiroshi.”

Registration was laid out in long rows of tables with signs hovering above them. Trianna pointed out the vocational training section and then left Shandy to go find her own classes, associations and so on. Shandy pushed her way through a crowd of creature students, following the signs until she reached the Robotics and Drones table. Two people sat behind the table, a human male and a Felinzi whose sex Shandy couldn’t identify. “Yes?” said the human.

“Shandy, sir. Chandra Grace Oxenhollar. I have a note saying I was to sign up for D&R Driving 1 and D&R Engineering 2, and I’ve come to confirm?”

“Oh. I see.” He was tall and thin, with a wind-rough face and dark and attractive features. He held a Handbook much like Shandy’s and after a moment’s tapping said, “Well, my board says you’re all signed up, Miss Oxenhollar. I’m Doctor Raij Mertum. I’ll be your teacher for D&R Driving.”

Shandy bowed deeply. “It’s an honor to meet you, Professor.”

“Is this correct? It says here that your homeworld is Abi.”

“Aye, sir. ‘Tis, sir.”

“It’s a little unusual for a woman from Abi to be studying robotics and drones, isn’t it?”

“That may be so, sir, but ‘tis what I’ve always wanted to do.”

“Good, good. Have you any experience with trans-cranial neural interfaces?”

Shandy had to think about what his words meant, although they were clearly in the vernacular Anglic spoken across most worlds. “You mean, putting signals into my head? No, sir. We always used remote controls. The most advanced thing I had was HMRI - Homunculus-Mapped Remote Interface. Things like TCNI no were legal in the Landing.”

He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. “Well, I hope you’re ready to learn, because it’s all I teach. You must be able to know what the machine knows. Are you?”

Shandy felt a chill that couldn’t possibly be in Hiroshi’s stiflingly warm air. She hadn’t realized that pursuing her chosen profession required letting the machines into her head. “I heard, sir, that Hiroshi respects the rights of people to keep their minds free of laces and nets.”

“I’m not recommending surgery, Miss Oxenhollar. That’s what the trans-cranial part means.” He blew out an impatient sigh. “Well, Miss Oxenhollar, I’m sure we’ll find out if you have the mettle for the metal and, if not, I’m sure there are many other majors you can choose from.”

“Aye, sir,” Shandy said. She recognized a dismissal when she heard it. The Felinzi sitting next to Mertum hadn’t said a word throughout the encounter, but his downcast eyes, tightened muzzle, and folded arms told her a story all the same. She backed away until a few people passed in front of her, then turned back into the crowd. She had better experiences signing up for her freshfen required classes in Language Arts and Corridor History & Civics.

She still needed one more class. Walking down the aisles, she passed table after table until she found one labeled Introduction to Robot & AI Psychology For Merors. “Merors?” she asked the man behind the table.

“Mere Organics,” he said. “It’s not supposed to be an insult.” He smiled.

“Is the class hard?”

“Not really. Technically, it’s Professor Pikna’s class, but I’ll be teaching almost all of it. Illich Kixada. I’m her lead TA.”

“Nice to meet you,” Shandy said. “Can I take it as an elective?”

He held out his Handbook. Shandy tapped it with her own, and he checked. “You’re a little short on the prerequisites. Oh, I see why.” He regarded her with a raised eyebrow. “Abi?”

“Aye, sir. I’m just… curious.” More than anything, she wanted to understand robots, to get a grip on them. If they were as bad as the Church had always maintained, understanding them was an important step to preventing them from taking over humanity entirely.

“That’s not a bad thing to be,” he said. “Are you sure you want to join this class?” Shandy nodded. He tapped on his slate. “Then you’ve joined it. Good luck, Miss… Oxenhollar. I’ll see you on Tuesday.”

“Aye. Nice too meet you, Mr. Kixada.” He nodded. She turned back into the crowd in the hopes of finding Trianna.

There were so many furry folks on the lawn Shandy was almost surprised it didn’t smell like a zoo. She chided herself. Trianna didn’t smell like an animal. Well, she did, but it was a good smell, clean, civilized, cozy. Shandy was short for a human, but fortunately most Pendorians averaged shorter still, and standing on her tip-toes she was able to spot Trianna on the edge of the tent near a table stacked with cubical water dispensers. She headed that way.

Shandy’s eyes took Trianna in, feeling relief at finding her one familiar face while continuing to wall off the thoughts that lead to desire and shame. Trianna was talking to a short, stocky pale-skinned man with a round face, broad nose and soft chin, wearing a full suit even in this heat, and next to both of them stood quite possibly the most astonishing woman Shandy had ever seen. She towered over most of the people under the tent, tall even for an original stock Terran. Her hair was blonde to the point of being white, braided about her head like a halo, her complexion pale but not sickly so. She wore sharp wraparound sunglasses and a severe black suit over a white tunic. She seemed both unnaturally still and actively attentive, taking in the crowd, making note of those who drew close to the man. She had beautifully pale pink lips.

Shandy couldn’t take her eyes off the tall woman until she realized what she was doing. She tightened her fists until fingernails dug into her palms, the sweet pain punishing and distracting her. She’d come to this place, fought with her parents for permission to come to Hiroshi, to get an education in mechanics and robotics, not sully the vision of every woman she met with her own sinful desires. She shouldn’t look at this woman and feel anything. She certainly shouldn’t feel it with Trianna, a fem so far from human she had fur, four legs, a muzzle and a tail.

Yet even with Trianna, still Shandy fought with her special burden and this beautiful, human woman made her feel so much more. She turned her face away. “Shandy? Shandy!” She looked up. Trianna was waving at her. Shandy caught herself and approached. “Did you find your classes?”

“Aye, Ma’am.”

“Good. Give me a moment. I’m almost done here, and then we can get back into rooms with some proper life support.” She grinned.

“No need,” the man in the suit said. He looked exhausted, tired eyes warring with the smile plastered to his slightly sweaty face. He glanced at Shandy. “Oh! Miss Oxenhollar, the new freshfen from Abi. Hopefully you’ll be more like our Misuko Ffanci than, well, never mind. A positive contribution to our school?”

At the sound of Misuko Ffanci’s name, Shandy stood a little taller. “Aye, sir, I hope so too, sir. I did no hear your name.”

Trianna said, “Shandy, this is the Honorable Geroma Moor, Governor of the University.”

“Oh!” Shandy bowed deeply at the waist. “I’m so sorry. I did no recognize you, sir. Thank you so much for accepting my scholarship.”

“Yes, well,” he said distantly. “It’s not as if I had choice in the matter.”

“Thank you anyway, sir. I’ll let you and Miss Tazal finish.” Shandy took three steps back to get out of the circle of conversation. She bumped into someone large, skidded, lost her balance, and fell.

A powerful hand seized her by the forearm and held her before she could hit the pavement. Something small bounced off her chest and clattered to the ground. She looked up the length of her arm, past the hand and arm holding her, right into wide, emerald eyes. The tall, blonde woman who had been standing on the other side of the governor was holding her almost horizontal without seeming to strain at all. “Are you okay?”

“Aye, aye,” Shandy gasped. The woman pulled her upright with ridiculous ease. Shandy steadied herself, checking to see if she’d dropped anything.

The woman knelt down and recovered the sunglasses which had fallen onto the brick walkway. “I’m so glad,” she said. “It would be unfortunate if a student got hurt.” On one knee she was just barely shorter than Shandy; standing, she must have been thirty centimeters or more taller. Her voice was melodious and kind, her gaze warm, her smile entrancing. “Are you sure you’re well?”

Shandy shook herself in an effort to restart her brain. This wasn’t the professional bodyguard she had seen moments ago. “Aye. Thanks. I’m sorry. I’m Shandy Oxenhollar.”

“I know, I heard. I’m Gazelle.” She put her glasses back over those captivating eyes.

“Like the animal?”

“Yes.” She seemed pleased that Shandy understood the reference. “I’m happy to have met you, Shandy. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” Gazelle stood up and her reserve closed about her.

Shandy sighed. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. “Huh?”

Trianna stood next to her. “I’m ready to head back. Are you okay?”

“Aye,” Shandy said. “I’m okay.”

“Shall we go?”

“Aye.” As they walked away, Shandy said, “Who was that woman?”

Trianna laughed sweetly. “The woman who caught you? Funny. Here I was telling you that you weren’t likely to meet any robots today, and you go and meet one. That’s Gazelle. She’s the Governor’s companion robot. Made to order.” She wrinkled her muzzle and Shandy was sure that wasn’t a smile.

“She’s a robot?” Shandy turned and looked back, horrified. Those eyes had been so gentle, and her voice so worried. Now, with the glasses on, she had gone back to being someone else, someone taller than the rest of the crowd, a machine for protecting the governor.

“Yes, she is. She’s been Moor’s for as long as I’ve known him, which is longer than he’s been here at the school.”

“And he owns her?”

Trianna’s eyes widened, then her smile emerged. “No, no, you can’t own people. But the laws are such that you can instruct how robots are to be programmed to behave, within limits, before you activate them. Gazelle was programmed before activation to be most, um, ‘satisfied’ I guess is the best word, by looking after Moor’s best interests. She’s programmed to be what he wanted her to be, and within those limits she’s free to be what she wants.”

“That’s no freedom!” Shandy said.

“The way the apologists put it, you’re not free to fly without mechanical assistance. Is that ‘not freedom?’“

“‘Tis no same thing.”

“Deep down,” Trianna said, “the argument can be made that it is. It’s about how people make decisions and express them in the context they have. Our context is that we can’t fly without mechanical assistance.” She shrugged. “Compared to you and me, Gazelle’s arguably in a better place because she, at least, knows without a doubt why she’s here. Not everyone can say that.”

Shandy glanced back at Gazelle once more. The tall robot’s methodical scanning of the crowd now looked more deliberate and sinister, even as it looked natural. It was an appearance completely at odds with the compassionate and concerned attention with which Gazelle had regarded Shandy after what would probably have been only a minor knock. Shandy shivered.

Trianna regarded her for moment, then said, “In a way, you remind me of me. When I was your age. I was lost and stayed in my room a lot. I didn’t know what I wanted either. You’ll figure it out. I wonder if Moor knows who your patron is. He did say something about not having much choice about your scholarship, which says something.”

“He did no say who ‘twas,” Shandy said.

“He may not be allowed to under the terms,” Trianna said. “Or he might just not know.” Trianna shrugged and said, “I hope you figure out the mystery someday, Shandy.”

“I do too.”

As Trianna led them both back toward the dorm, Shandy looked over her shoulder once more. Gazelle was still there, still scanning the crowd. “‘Tis no right,” Shandy said.