“Are you sure about this Art?”
Matilda leant against me tracing patterns on my chest with her fingers. We had the carriage to ourselves – too early for most people, especially on a weekend – and we took advantage of the privacy to enjoy each other’s proximity.
“You know I am Tilly. We talked about this, I thought you were ok with it.”
“Yeah I thought so too, but… I’m gonna miss you.”
“I’ll still be around, it’ll still be me.”
“I know, but it’ll be different. You’ll be different.”
The countryside sped past in a brown-green blur, the only real indication of the speed we were travelling. Metro Central was a hundred miles away still, but we would be there in half an hour. Still at this rate it would be a long half hour.
I took hold of her hands and kissed the tips of her fingers. It was something she always loved, something that was our thing ever since we’d started dating two years ago.
“Listen,” I said putting on my serious but gentle face, “whatever happens, I’ll always love you, you know that. And hey, if you don’t feel the same way about me afterwards, then at least we can go shopping together.”
She laughed dutifully, but her heart wasn’t in it.
“Look Tilly, I told you all about this when things started getting serious between us. It’s something that I’ve wanted as long as I can remember.”
“I know but does it have to be now? I mean can’t you put it off a couple of months or maybe a year?”
“If I start thinking like that I’ll end up putting it off for life. I’ve been waiting for this day since I was at least six. If my parents could have afforded it, it would have come sooner.
“Look Tilly it was sweet of you to come in with me today, but if all you’re going to do is try and change my mind then maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
“No it’s ok Arty, I won’t say anything more. Just hold me. I want to feel your strong arms around me just one more time.”
And that’s how we spent the rest of the journey. I could feel the dampness from her tears on my shirt and I felt sorry that she was taking this so hard, but not even that could quell the growing excitement inside me.
“Well this is it,” I said. “Will I see you later?”
I looked up at the towering structure of the Fleet recruitment offices with a barely concealed eagerness that Tilly didn’t share. She shrugged.
“I guess I’ll be around most of the day. Net me when you’re done and we’ll meet up.”
I took her in my arms and pulled her close. From the way her eyes drank in my features you’d think I was going to my death.
“Tilly everything’ll be alright, you’ll see.”
I gave her a kiss, long enough to put me behind schedule, then headed for the main entrance. I didn’t dare look back; I hated the sight of tears.
Recruitment took place on the ground floor and there were already queues forming for the major services. It still surprised some people that in an age of total equality there was still segregation between the services; not imposed by Fleet so much as those who joined. To be sure there were exceptions, but on the whole temperament won out and there were significantly more guys in the services that involved running around in the mud, shouting and shooting guns.
So it was that I walked past the growing lines, guys queuing for the marines and engineers and girls for medical and logistics. Me I was heading for a totally different service with its own very specific requirements.
The room was completely empty except for the middle aged recruiting sergeant. She was a little too heavily built to be considered a classical beauty, but she was attractive, especially with the non-regulation red curls that spilled out from beneath her cap. Still rank hath its privileges and the Scouts had rules of their own.
She looked up and smiled as I approached, taking in my broad shoulders and muscular frame; another gift of the present age of technology. Most kids these days were fitted with muscle stimulators, dietary regulators and cortical enhancers at an early age to help them grow up smart and strong. There were still some people around who insisted they were happy with the way nature intended them. They tended to end up as cleaners, cabbies and café staff, not because of prejudice but because they weren’t able to compete with the rest of us. Still the upshot was that most kids these days ended up either handsome or beautiful.
“You sure you’re in the right place honey?”
She had a slight southern drawl and a hint of cynical amusement in her voice.
“Well, the sign says Scouts recruitment office so I think so.”
“Well ain’t you sweet?” Rhetorical, don’t answer. “You know what this involves don’t you sweetie pie?” Not rhetorical.
“Yes Ma’am. I was brought up on stories of the Scouts. Since I first heard of the service I knew it was what I wanted.”
“Well don’t be too disappointed if you don’t fit the profile. We’re looking for a very specific type of individual here. Ident?”
I handed over a transparent plastic card. It had my photograph and a few details displayed on the front, all of which could be changed to show different details about me by sliding a finger up and down the side. If you had a terminal like the sergeant’s desk you didn’t need to fiddle about though. She tossed the card onto the glass surface and a larger virtual page appeared beside it. She started to scroll through, stopping almost immediately at the name.
“Arthur Denton? Is this for real?”
“Try living with it for a few years. I can’t help it if my parents have a weird sense of humour.”
She read on.
“Age, seventeen last Thursday, congratulations. Medical history… good, academics… impressive, parental consent: drinking under parental supervision, no smoking, no drugs, no sex. What are they puritans?”
“You’d think so sometimes, but I guess they have my best interests at heart.”
“Still, sets you up nicely for the test, ah here we are, ‘permission granted to apply for service in the Scouts.’ How’d you swing that after the first lot?”
“I guess I didn’t contest anything else they said. Gave me a bit more leverage when it came to important things.”
She gave me a level, appraising look for a while before turning back to the information in front of her.
“Psych profile… hmmn. Well son, we like to conduct a psych profile of our own, but on the chip you look like the sort of person we’re looking for. You realise that if you pass through that door behind me there ain’t no turning back.”
“Thank-you for your concern ma’am but there’s been no turning back since my mum read me my first story about the Scouts when I was eight.”
She pulled a copy of my ident into her records and handed me my card back.
“Welcome to the Scout assessment process.”
The door behind her beckoned. I managed to contain the exhilaration I was feeling, but only just, as I stepped toward it and my long awaited future.
Psych evaluations can take many forms. Written, varying from the cheap and ineffective multiple-guess to the more advanced ‘write a story’ types; verbal, involving lengthy interviews with one or more trained psychologists or situational, like this one.
The door opened onto a small room containing nothing more than a reclining chair. No windows, no doors other than the one through which I had entered, nothing else besides the chair.
This was part of the test perhaps. I took my time, walking round the room looking for any signs of cameras or other observational devices, then examined the chair as best I could. Nothing out of the ordinary. I sat cautiously. Perhaps a hidden screen would activate. I sat back, relaxing a little and everything went black.
I awoke on an alien world. Above me the sky swirled with clouds, fast moving, turbulent, yet on the surface there wasn’t a breath of wind. All around me was a city, built from some smooth polymer each building a different, vibrant colour. There were no doors, but with a gravity that was no more than a tenth of what I was used to, even the highest windows shouldn’t be out of my reach.
Nearby a fountain shot a stream of water an impossible height in the air where it disintegrated into a fine mist. A double, no triple, rainbow formed in its heart framing the vivid magenta foliage that surrounded the structure. Other than the clouds and the fountain though, nothing moved.
I took a careful bounding leap towards the fountain. My body felt different, lithe yet not so strong. Under my clothing I could feel the restrictive tug of some undergarment wrapped around my chest as it kept unfamiliar parts of me in check. It was an age before the weak gravity asserted itself and I landed next to the fountain. I leaned over carefully, looking at my reflection, the slowly descending mist doing nothing to disturb the smooth surface of the water.
I was beautiful. Gone were my rugged features, broad shoulders, crew cut hair. In their place was a soft, beautiful, heart shaped face framed in long flowing tresses and perched on a slim, softly curving figure. My heart leapt in my mouth at the sight of myself. This was always how I’d been inside, but now I was looking at her for the first time.
A flicker of movement caught my attention and I turned to see an oddly graceful creature drifting across the space between us. A beach ball with arms would be a halfway decent description for my report. Four large eyes spaced evenly about its body and four boneless tentacles trailing behind it, each attached opposite an eye.
It approached with one eye facing me and all tentacles reaching behind. A sign of peace perhaps? No, there, what was that pulsating? Propulsion. Which means that any second now…
The three arms closest to the eye facing me swung around to point in my direction, each one with four splayed fingers evenly spaced around a sort of orifice. For a second it seemed like I was staring down the barrels of three large calibre canons, then a gentle puff of wind and a whiff of vegetation reached me.
Quick show signs of non-aggression. Hands outstretched palms forward? No, what would seem non-aggressive to these creatures? Most likely all arms down. That suited me, it kept my hand close to my needler in case I was wrong.
The creature relaxed its arms suggesting my instincts had been correct. Ripples of colour radiated out from the nearest eye, spreading across the creature’s body before fading back to a neutral grey. If they could change colour that easily… I glanced around, careful not to move my head. Yes, there and there. Shapes just like the one in front of me but blended into the garish colours of the buildings around us. No way of counting how many.
The ripple of colours around the ambassador’s eye repeated. Were they? Yes I was pretty sure it was the same pattern. No mouths, just sort of nostrils around the base of each arm. Filter feeders? Not going to make any noise then are they? Especially if they’re trying to hide from predators. So communication through coloured patterns.
I raised my arms slowly, showing the screen of the wrist-comm on my left arm as clearly as I could, tapping a few keys. Screen diagnostic. The screen flickered through the primary and secondary colours. Not trying to say anything yet, just showing that I understood the concept of communication through colours.
I spoke into the wrist-comm. At the other end would be the AI in my ship, highly advanced, alien technology. As good as talking to an intelligent and intuitive technician.
“Analyse the video recording for the past few seconds, specifically the coloured bands radiating from the unknown’s central eye. Look for patterns relating to known languages, cross reference first contact greetings. Create an image of the creature upside down on my wrist-comm screen and replay the same pattern on the image at my command.”
The creature quivered at the sound of my voice, obviously sensitive to sounds even if it didn’t use them. Quiet voice then, try and keep the pitch of it down as well. Not a problem I’d had before.
I held my left arm against my chest, enjoying the feeling of my breasts squashing under its pressure. No, focus. I turned the wrist-comm so the screen was facing the creature, upside down, but the image the right way up.
“Ok, display the greeting.”
The dull grey colour of the alien shifted to a vivid green-blue. So different from the vegetation around us. Perhaps a sign of trust? There wasn’t much I could do to respond, but I did what I could.
“Match the colour of the creature on the image.”
A cascade of rippling colours crossed the creature’s surface, changing so fast I could barely see them. The AI didn’t need telling, it was already recording and analysing. After a few minutes my ship’s quiet feminine voice sounded in my ear.
“Analysis complete, basic syntax established.”
“Give me a summary of the communication to date.”
“The recent lengthy communication was a baseline of common factors, mathematical and scientific concepts, description of the immediate environment, all standard basis for establishing vocabulary and grammar. The initial communication reads, ‘We are peaceful entities and offer you no harm, please state your intentions.’”
I reviewed the first contact protocols that had so often appeared in the stories my parents had read to me in bed, real life scout stories being so much more interesting and exciting than fiction. There were certain phrases that might be misunderstood given what I’d observed of these creatures so far. I decided to improvise.
“Translate my words onto the image until further instructed.
“I also am a peaceful entity and represent a peaceful race. I have come seeking friendship and exchange of culture and technology. If I have unknowingly done anything to offend I offer apology and restitution. I rest before you, arms down.”
“The device at your side appears to be a weapon.”
The needler fired sharp crystalline shards of a neuro-inhibitor that was effective on over ninety percent of known life-forms, lasting for a period of five to fifteen minutes depending on the target’s metabolism.
“For defence alone and non-lethal in intent to the fullest capability of our technology. I will lay it aside if you ask.”
The scene faded to grey and before long I was sitting in the armchair again facing a blank wall. I looked down at myself. Back in my own body, disappointment flooding through me.
“Thank-you Mr Denton, I think we have sufficient information to reach an accurate assessment. Please exit the way you came.”
The voice was a rich contralto, an older woman, efficient, no nonsense. I stood feeling a little disoriented and left the room. I’d done everything right hadn’t I? What had I missed?
The sergeant looked up as I stepped out of the room.
“That was quick,” she said. “That’s either very good or very bad. How do you think it went?”
“I can’t think of anything I did wrong.”
“In which case let’s hope for the former. Please take a seat, this shouldn’t take long either way.”
I settled into one of the comfy chairs and reviewed the scenario in my head. No I couldn’t think of anything I could have done better. If that wasn’t good enough then maybe I’d have to rethink my future. At least then Matilda would be pleased.
As promised, I didn’t have to wait long. An elderly woman in a smart, trousered uniform stepped out through a concealed door. There were streaks of natural grey in her bobbed, curly hair and just a few creases on her face; the signs of a woman accepting her age and growing into it gracefully. She lifted a digital notepad as she approached.
“Let’s see, Mr Denton.”
I recognised the no nonsense voice that had spoken to me in the room. She started reading from the pad.
“Swift and favourable adaptation to new body, unphased by alien environment, noticed small details like peristalsis of tentacles indicating means of motion, logically deduced the necessary move to slow down and didn’t interpret it as a threat, intuitively realised that arms down was non-threatening to this race, rapidly assessed skin colour changes as means of communication as well as concealment, and sound as potentially threatening, made good use of available resources in establishing communication, improvised first contact greeting to make it more culturally relevant. You know I have never seen this scenario played out so well. I wish you had been present when we actually made contact with this species; it would have saved us a lot of heartache.
“Regardless of the sergeant’s words before you were assessed Arthur, this is the point at which you have to make that no going back decision. I’m pleased to tell you that you have exactly the right temperament for Scout duty and am formally offering you a placement with the Fleet Scout Service.
“Take some time to think things through because we don’t do refunds. You can walk out that door right now and we won’t think any the less of you; we’ll even give you a letter of recommendation to any Fleet service of your choice. However, if you are absolutely sure this is what you want, please let the sergeant know when you are ready and she will take you where you need to go.”
I stood up, my large muscular frame at odds with that of the two smaller women.
“I made the decision a long time ago. I’m not likely to change my mind now.”
The older woman smiled at me and ticked off one last box on her pad.
“Very well Mr Denton, let’s get you reassigned.”
I was fifty metres away over the other side of the mall, but I was too excited to wait. I ran over luxuriating in the bounce of my new breasts and the feel of my shorts skirt brushing against synthi-silk clad legs.
“Arthur, is that you?”
I gave a twirl, a grin so wide on my face it was a wonder the top of my head didn’t fall off.
“Actually it’s Amelia now. It would be too confusing for the mundanes to go around looking like this calling myself by a boy’s name.”
“How far does the change go?”
“Nothing different under the skirts if that’s what you’re asking. They did offer me the complete package, but I wanted to see how much things were going to change between us before deciding whether to commit to that. It’s kind of a one way deal which means it’s only open ended from this side.”
“So you mean to say that not only do I get to hang out with the stone-coldest fox on the planet, but I still get to enjoy the best bits of my boyfriend?”
“As soon as our folks sign off on the permission for that, yup. Do I take it that this isn’t going to be too weird for you?”
She stroked my smooth cheek and leaned in to plant a gentle kiss on my plump, glossed lips.
“Oh I think I could get used to this?”
“I haven’t told you the best bit yet. You know the Scouts don’t have a uniform as such; not beyond the brooch in any case?” I pushed my left breast forward so she could inspect the gold badge indicating my new status. “Well they let me choose this off the rack just to get started, but gave me a couple of thousand creds to buy a new wardrobe. Fancy helping me out?”
It was late, pretty much the last monorail of the day, and we had the carriage to ourselves again. Just as well really as we had filled half of it with carrier bags and boxes, almost too many to carry between us. Our feet ached – Tilly had insisted I wear a pair of three inch heels out of the shop, so I could get used them she had said but I suspected she wanted to torture me – but we were giggling and chatting away like the couple of girls we appeared to be.
“What I don’t understand,” Tilly said staring up at the roof of the carriage, “is why they need to change your body at all. I mean why couldn’t you carry on as the Arthur Denton that I’ve known and loved nearly all my life?”
“Two part answer. First the Scout service is looking specifically for transgendered people because they tend to possess both masculine and feminine traits. You know logic and intuition, single-mindedness and mutli-tasking, that sort of thing? Makes us much more versatile in first contact situations.”
“Yeah, ok I get that. And second?”
“Second is that once they’ve found someone with the right mix of attributes, they want to make sure that they aren’t at odds with themselves. You know between their mental image of themselves and the way they look physically? Everyone functions better when they’re at peace with themselves. I mean have you noticed anything different about me this afternoon?”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Ok,” I laughed, “I mean besides the obvious physical changes. Have you noticed anything about my behaviour, my emotional state?”
“Now that you mention it, you have been a lot happier and more outgoing since you became Amelia. I guess it makes sense.”
“Are you sure you’re ok with me being like this? I mean I’d hate for us to lose what we had, but if this is too weird for you we can just be friends.”
“BFFs you mean? I think we’ll have that whatever happens, but yeah I think I’m ok with this. I don’t think I have any lesbian tendencies but there is something enticing about being with you the way you are now.” She snuggled up close to me. “So soft. Do you mind if I fondle one of your breasts?”
Oh that felt so good, but I could barely contain myself. I pulled her hand out before newly emergent urges caused us to break our parents’ permission. I kissed the tips of her fingers to let her know this wasn’t a rejection.
“Mmn, now I know that I’m with my Arty. You know this is going to be so hard. I think we need to talk to our folks.”
I agreed. Change the subject, get your feelings back under control.
“So anyway I now have a year’s basic training nearby before graduation and deployment. That’ll mean a colony assignment on the edge of unexplored space. I’ll be off-world a fair bit, exploring new systems, looking for first contact and dealing with diplomatic issues with the newer and less well defined alliances. Scouts have a lot of clout when it comes to arranging things to suite themselves though, so I could have you assigned to the service of your choice and stationed near to my base of operations. Interested?”
“I think I could be persuaded, but we should probably take it a day at a time for now. I’ll give you my answer when we’ve had a chance to explore this new aspect of our relationship.”
She was right. We had all the time in the world, and the whole universe waiting for us when we were ready to move on. I leant over to kiss the one woman I considered to be more lovely than myself.