by Stephen Dedman

Illustration by Laurie Harden

I had just turned nine when Aisha walked into my classroom, stopping the conversation and stealing my heart in the same instant.

I think we all stared, and then, as Aisha looked back defiantly, we dropped our gazes back to our books as though we were suddenly interested in Stigrosc prime number theories. Pat, our teacher for the day, smiled a little thinly. “Class, this is Aisha, from al-Gohara.”

A few of us looked up and muttered greetings, as Pat guided our new classmate to a seat near the doorway. A message from Morgan flowed across my book. Pregnant, e opined.

I glanced at Aisha’s golden-pale profile out of the corner of my eye. Don’t think so, I replied.

Must be. Look at the size of those boobs.

It was hard not to, despite Aisha’s loose and very opaque sky-grey robe, but that would have been even more impolite than passing notes in class—and class was meant to teach us social skills: we would have learned math much faster at home. Can’t be, I protested. Aisha was taller even than Pat, at least two meters, but all the al-Goharans I’d seen were taller still, and Aisha probably wasn’t much older than we were.

Morgan stared at er book for a moment, obviously gossiping to someone else. I stole a quick glance at Aisha’s face, which was beautiful. Especially those eyes, rounder and darker and larger than any I’d seen outside of books. I love you, I thought, and was startled to see I’d written it on my book. I erased it hurriedly, relieved that I wasn’t still passing my notes to Morgan, and went back to my math. A few of the kids were starting to talk again, but none of them spoke to—or about—Aisha.

Maybe they don’t have contraplants on al-Gohara, Morgan suggested, a moment later.

They must have, I replied.

Muslims aren’t like us, Morgan countered, and then, I bet they cut Aisha’s thing off.


They do that. They used to, anyway. Ask my dad.


E couldn’t answer that, and there was almost nothing about al-Gohara in my book or my ramplant, and I couldn’t access the library during class without Pat noticing. All I could remember was that al-Goharans, being Muslims, liked to travel to Earth once in their lives, and their world was only one solstice jump from daVinci, with the worlds being in conjunction every six point something years (math isn’t my forte, and I don’t think anyone human really understands Stigrosc cosmography). From here, they went to Marlowe or Corby or Ammon, but that usually meant staying on daVinci for up to a year waiting for the next solstice. I was only three or four years old last time they’d visited, and the al-Goharans usually stayed near Startown, where they’d built a mosque, and didn’t socialize much, but I’d never heard of them bringing their children here before. I wondered whether Aisha even spoke Amerish, and tried to imagine a voice that would match those eyes, that golden face, those breasts.…

Aisha suddenly looked up, jacked out of er book, and then walked over to Pat’s desk and whispered something. Pat looked startled for a moment, and then nodded. “Of course; I’m sorry, I didn’t think of it. Will you be coming back today?”

Aisha smiled, whispered something else, and then walked out of the room. I remembered reading that Muslims had to pray so many times a day—though whether that was an Earth day, an al-Goharan day, or a daVincian day, I had no idea. Maybe I could ask Aisha.

Aisha was standing in the shade under the trees at the edge of the basketball court, leaning against one of the old cedars with a book in er lap, but it was obvious from the way er eyes tracked that e was watching the game, or the players, or maybe their clothes: smoke and mirrors were back in fashion again, and modesty wasn’t. I found myself watching Morgan’s legs, as usual—e liked to wear the briefest, tightest shorts possible, to show them off—but I kept wondering what Aisha’s must look like.

I’d accessed the library as soon as class was over, and discovered that the gravity on al-Gohara was .82, the climate generally warmer but less humid, and the day nearly thirty standard hours; the ship, the Arakne (Stigrosc don’t give names to their ships, but they allow the human passengers to christen them if they wish to), had only arrived three days before, so e was probably still adjusting. I summoned forth all the courage I thought I might have and had never needed before, and walked over. “Hi,” I said. “I’m Alex. I’m in your class.” Aisha nodded, and we watched the game for a moment. “Do they play basketball on al-Gohara?” Another nod. I wondered what I was doing wrong, and realized that I was asking yes-no questions. “How do you like it here?”

The only reply to that one was a quick glance, and an expression I couldn’t read through er shades. The solstice isn’t for nearly a year, I thought; you’re going to have to talk to someone sometime…

I saw Teri weave past Shane and slam-dunk the ball amid scattered applause, and Aisha muttered something; the words were unrecognizable, probably Arabic, but the tone said, clearly, “Not bad.”

“Do you want to practice your Amerish?” I suggested.

Another glance, and then, quietly, “Don’t you have any friends?”

“Sure,” I replied, shghtly nettled. “I’m just lousy at basketball, is all. If I were as big—I mean, tall as you, I’d probably be great. You’ll probably be great, when you get used to the gravity; everyone will want you.” At least I managed not to bite my tongue.

“The gravity isn’t a problem,” e replied, and muttered something that sounded like “initially.” “It’s less than Earth’s, and we’ve been training for that. It’s—”


“Nothing. You just do things so differently here. I wanted to come to your school—it’s been so boring on the ship, with no one else my own age—and I had to pester my father to let me, but it’s…”

I waited.

“Don’t girls go to school on daVinci?”


“I suppose I should have learnt more about the place before I came here. I’m sorry I didn’t, but there wasn’t very much about it in our library: we don’t travel much, except the men, and that’s usually only on Hajj… Do your girls decide not to come after they turn twenty-five, or is there some sort of law against it?”

I stared, calling up words from my ram and trying to understand what Aisha was saying, and hoping that I didn’t look as stupid as I felt, if that were possible. “Or have they just sent me to a boy’s school by mistake? I haven’t even found a girls’, uh, bathroom—”

A painful silence followed. “We don’t have segregated schools,” I began, “or segregated toilets, or segregated anything. We can’t: we’re all… we don’t…” Oh, gods, I thought; this must be what Morgan meant when e said that Aisha’s thing had been cut off. “I’m not a… I mean, I am a…” I took a deep breath. “Can I ask you a question?”

“I don’t know. Can you?”

I tried to smile. “Do you know what ‘monosex’ means?”

It must have been Aisha’s turn to stare at me. “What? No. What?”

“Or ‘maf’—‘hermaphrodite’?”

“You mean, like the Chuh’hom?”

“Yes. Monosex is the opposite; it means to be male or female, but not both…”

“But…” Aisha edged away from me slightly. “You mean you’re a hermaphrodite?”

I nodded. “We all are.”

“You mean, everyone in the school?”

“Everyone on the planet…” I replied, and then a thought hit me. “Well, except...”

Aisha slid slowly down the tree to sit with er arms wrapped around er legs, murmuring something in Arabic. I waited. “I’ve never met a hermaphrodite before,” e said, weakly.

“I’ve never met a—girl,” I replied, after a moment’s thought.

A suspicious stare. “How come you know what the word means?”

I shrugged. “Old films and novels. Besides, we call our sports teams girls and boys—no one wants to wear uniforms, so the ones with the shirts are girls. I don’t know why; it’s probably something that used to mean something once, like giving out gold and silver medals, or talking about ‘going the whole nine yards’ ”—I glanced at the outline of Aisha’s breasts, and suddenly guessed the origin of the custom. The feeling of knowing, discovering, that was more of a buzz, a jolt, than anything I could remember ever learning in class.

The game ended, and kids started drifting back into the classroom. I stood there silently, not wanting to leave Aisha.

When everyone else had disappeared, Aisha looked up, er golden face even more pale than usual. “This is too—” e looked around. “Do you think the toilets would be empty now?”

“Huh? I mean, yeah, sure.”

“Great.” I offered my hand, to help er up, but e ignored it and struggled to er feet without my help. We walked to the doorway, and Aisha stopped, until I offered to go inside and make sure there was no one else there.

“Can you tell the teacher that I’ll be back tomorrow, initially?” Aisha said, when e emerged.

“Sure,” I said. “Will you be?”

Aisha hesitated, and then shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my father.”

I nodded. It had never occurred ...

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