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Fiction – “Mismatch” by Shay Darrach

Saying that it’s never easy to hide a type mismatch is, on the one hand, misleading. Processors accept empirical data more easily than fuzzy logic. When you’re practiced at hiding the fact that there’s a problem, you make it easier for everyone else to accept the thread you’re running. On the other hand, the fact that you have to run that thread, the one that lets you pass as normative (or face the consequences if you don’t), is probably the hardest part of living with a mismatch.

Until you learn that it doesn’t have to be.

*

“Before you accumulate a certain number of cycles, things like casing-type just don’t matter all that much. A casing is a casing (until you start having fluid release issues), and a processor just does its processing.” The Standardized Input Provider paused, surveying the pool of child-modules. “Your pool has reached that certain number of cycles where an increased number of interpersonal relationship libraries become prerequisite for continued development. You are ready for the library of processor- and casing-type definitions (and all the problems relating to them).

“Put simply, your casing defines your physical definition, male or female, according to available plugs and ports. Your processor handles all the social factors that go along with the casing. The library doesn’t outright explain the details of what happens when you have a casing-type to processor-type mismatch, but the fact of its existence remains. The library seems to dismiss it as a rare and unlikely programming failure, or perhaps a design flaw (that is, of course, not the fault of the parental units).”

“Wouldn’t that be so weird?” Chowna :whispered: in Zei’s chat box, when the SIP was done. “It doesn’t even seem real! How can a casing and a processor not match?”

Zei :nodded: and refrained from @replying that same-casing-type partners had been seen as ‘weird’ in their parental units’ youth cycles. Chowna was just a little slow to process. The amount of time she needed to adapt to a new library was about a half-cycle again as long as most of her peers. She was nice enough when she caught up, as long as she didn’t think you’d made fun of her in the meantime.

Something about the library definitions didn’t sit right with Zei. The data was full of unexplained assumptions; like how the definitions had been determined, and when and where and how primary testing was done for newly programmed child-modules. And—most importantly—what could be done about it? Did a mismatch just have to live with it, hiding what they were? Or did some SIP step in and force them to…

Zei shivered, unable to finish the thought. It doesn’t matter unless you’re a mismatch anyway… right? And Zei wasn’t. Really. Even if I hate pink. Even if I would rather play male casing games. It’s not that! Really really!

Forcing the thoughts off into a parallel thread, Zei tried to focus on the SIPs.

*

Zei’s register name was Zelilah; a compromise, Zei had been told, between one parental unit’s insistence on Zelda, and the other’s on Delilah. It was an odd name, by comparison to Zei’s class pool, but Zei’s parental units were odd to begin with. They had rewritten their own register names so many times that no name would stick for more than a cycle or two, so Zei had become resigned to noting them as FePU1 and FePU2. Having same-casing-type parental units wasn’t strange any more, but no one had managed to provide a widely adopted language pack update which addressed the issue for such families.

The more cycles Zei accumulated, the more the FePUs offered experiential libraries to supplement Zei’s SI units. At first, Zei was grateful for the additional data, for the offer of more libraries and packages than the SIPs would provide. But when the FePUs started pushing sub-routines specific to female casing types, Zei got stubborn and resentful. It made no sense, why Zei had to install this code that Zei was never going to use. Not that Zei said that to the FePUs, of course, but they picked up on it anyway, and started holding concerned parallel conversations with each other while they encouraged Zei to accept their sub-routines. There were many sub-types of female casing types, they insisted (too enthusiastically, in Zei’s opinion), and if Zelilah would just keep processing…

I am not like you, ” Zei declared, in a fit of panic and rage and horror and self-loathing. “I am not like you, or them, or—or anything!” and ran up the stairs and slammed the door to the cooling chamber.

And when, later that week, the fluid release problems inherent in female casing types manifested themselves for Zei, he was utterly convinced of being the furthest thing possible from a female type.

Which could mean only one thing: Zei had a casing- to processor-type mismatch.

*

Later, Zei thoroughly regretted that outburst. The FePUs had talked to the SIPs, of course, in an attempt to find out where Zelilah might have acquired such strange data processing patterns. The SIPs took the defensive; it wasn’t their fault, they’d only provided the standardized curriculum which the FePUs were welcome to review. And they most emphatically did not remind the FePUs of the library of type definitions.

Zei locked himself in the cooling chamber, refusing to do more than accept nourishment and deal with fluid necessities. He didn’t speak to the FePUs for the better part of a month. They, in turn, sought reassurance from other PUs and found that many considered it ‘normal’ for a CM to spend a cycle (or two) in the kind of illogical rejection of input that Zelilah was exhibiting.

“Leave her be,” an older MaPU advised. “We have logs of Tana’s rejection year, and she turned out just fine. Zelly’ll get over it in her own time.”

FePU1 and 2 weren’t entirely convinced, but they’d run out of options.

*

“Secondary SI classes start tomorrow, true?”

FePU1 and 2 stared at the message for far too many clock cycles before replying. It came from the address of Zelilah’s cooling chamber, and it had her signature, but…

“True.”

“Then I need a new casing-library,” Zei (or rather, Zei-f) declared, stepping into the primary resource room. “I can’t obtain input looking like this.”

The FePUs stared, then simultaneously each gave their processors a gentle kick. She’s over it! they exalted silently. And before Zei could change her mind, they bundled her into the travel pod and headed for the nearest trendy case-lib distributor.

Zei-m watched the Zei-f process closely as ‘she’ chatted with the FePUs. He was rather proud of how she’d turned out, given that he’d only had the FePUs female-casing libs to work with. But maybe that was what made her most convincing: she was enough like (based on) the FePUs for them to feel they could relate to her. They’d be more comfortable, without reasoning out why.

He’d decided, during those long solitary hours in his cooling chamber, that it would be infinitely easier to create a female sub-process to run the female casing than to try and convince the FePUs that his processor was in the wrong casing. In their relief at not being PU failures, FePU1 and 2 were completely fooled. Even if their Zelilah still insisted on being called Zei, it was a small enough concession that they didn’t probe the logic of it further.

It really was rather clever, Zei-m congratulated himself, and sat back to monitor the process.

*

“That?” Zei-f eyed the case-lib her friend was modeling seriously. “Sure, you could wear that—if you want him to think you’re not into his casing.”

Anda threw a scarf at her. “You don’t have to be so mean about it.”

Rolling over onto her front on Anda’s casing dock, Zei-f propped herself up on her elbows and bent her knees so that her feet waved in the air. “I could have said it makes you look like one of my FePUs,” she said slyly.

“OH!” Anda shrieked and grabbed a high-heeled shoe from the jumble on the floor. “Zei!”

Zei-f giggled, twisting around to grab a pillow from the other end of the casing dock.

“Do you mean it? Really? You’re a horrible, horrible friend!” The heel slashed through the space between them, wielded with more enthusiasm than intent.

They scuffled, shrieking and giggling, and ended up disarming each other. Limbs tangled together, they collapsed in a heap on the dock. Zei-f ended up on top, arms braced on either side of Anda as she tried to catch her breath. Anda shifted, leaning up towards her. Their noses bumped—

—and the Zei-f process froze, leaving Zei-m scrambling and cursing as he tried to both reboot her and control the casing.

“Zei?” Anda’s optics went wide as Zei recoiled. “I thought… seemed like you….”

“I don’t. I mean. I’m sorry. I do, but… not. That’s not… what I meant.” Zei-m was painfully aware of how fumbling and disconnected he sounded, but couldn’t spare the resources to swap in a better language module. Scrambling awkwardly up from the dock, he retreated. “I should go. I’m sorry…”

Silent and frowning, Anda watched him leave.

*

There was something wrong with the Zei-f process when Zei-m brought it back online. It had… he would almost say ‘upgraded’ but that just wasn’t possible. ‘Adapted’ wasn’t really any more accurate either. But no matter what he called it, Zei-f had absorbed some aspects of his modules. And where for him the code manifested as brooding silence and bitterness, it made her sarcastic.

And violent.

*

“He’s only dating you because he thinks you’ll get him in a threesome,” Zei-f announced, as if it were the most boringly obvious fact in the world.

Ver squeaked. Bright fluid flushed her processor chamber, leaving her blushing. Her boyfriend patted her arm reassuringly, his own proc-chamber dark with anger (or, Zei-f thought, embarrassment).

“Takes one to know one,” he retorted.

Zei-f rolled her eyes. Zei-m, watching over her shoulder, winced and hurried to transfer threads into his control. “Oh and you’d know all about that, wouldn’t you, Trunc?” Zei-f sneered.

Dropping Ver’s arm, Trunc advanced on Zei. He had a bulky casing, and moved like it, but the large propulsion units he also sported meant that when he hit, he hit hard. And he wasn’t afraid to hit.

Somewhere in the background of his own processes, Zei-m panicked.

She deserves better. Zei-f took one step forward, met Trunc’s optics dead on, and swung a fierce punch into the one soft spot his casing left exposed.

Trunc crumpled to the hallway floor.

Zei-f laughed.

*

That was early in the fourth and final SSI cycle.

Zei-m took the Zei-f process offline after the fight, then found himself scrambling to transfer data from her private datapool into a common one. It was a major flaw in the programming, but he hadn’t even noticed until it became a problem. When he’d designed it, he’d just wanted to keep everything female-casing related isolated from his own processes and data.

He still wasn’t female, and being positive of that in the midst of the influx of Zei-f’s data was deeply reassuring.

No one seemed to notice the change, or if they did, they must have attributed it to the punishment Zei’s PUs and the SSIPs had exacted. Over the course of the cycle, Zei-m replaced case-libs, dressing more gender-neutral, if not male-casing-like. He kept to himself, studied quietly, and focused on getting the fsck out of the SSI-pool. Fuzzy Input pools had to be better. And to get there, he just had to graduate…

*

“Switching interest profiles?” someone asked, nastily.

Zei-m startled badly, dropping several input modules with a loud clatter. “What?”

“Oh please, girl.” Tina leaned in close, waving a painted fingernail. “We’ve all been watching you watching Break’s ass for the past, mmm… 10 ticks at least.”

Flushing hotly, Zei dropped his gaze to his desk. “Wasn’t.”

“It’s a real shame how he’s a same-type boy, and all.” Tina’s words dripped false sympathy.

“It’s purely aesthetic,” Zei protested. A ripple of laughter ran around them. Zei gathered up his work. “Whatever. I have places to be.”

“Not in his pants, girl. Keep dreaming.”

Tina’s words followed him out of the classroom, but the hot flush of shame and confusion lasted much longer. All through the next session, Zei kept his head down, focused on his inputs more intently than he usually bothered with. But his processing cycles were consumed almost exclusively by an attempt to rationalize his reaction.

…but if I like Break… that makes me… gay? … or worse… He grimaced at the screen. Female. Case match. But he’s… and I … it doesn’t make any SENSE! Tick after tick passed with the same loop of conflicting data occupying Zei’s processor.

Finally, when the SSI sessions were over and he was headed home, he started Zei-f. He’d never tried to communicate directly with her before. She’d always been a tool, a filter, something he controlled.

She laughed at him. “Well, it’s not me,” she pointed out. “I know better than to be caught staring at Break’s ass.”

“But you would.”

“Sure. It’s a nice ass. But everyone knows—”

“I know!”

“So?”

“So what?” he asked warily.

“Want me to help you—?”

He panicked, and stopped the process cold. It was only a few ticks later that he realized he still didn’t know exactly what she’d been offering.

*

At least by the time Zei was finished with SSI, he had enough cycles to be considered an adult. Sure, he would always be FePU1’s and 2’s child-module, but he no longer had to interact with larger datapools as if he didn’t have control over his own logical decisions.

It was a certain amount of desperation, combined with the freedom of knowing that the information wouldn’t be returned to the FePUs, that finally drove him to find a Medical Assessment Protocol to talk to.

Somewhere along the way, he’d allowed himself to nurture a small hope for understanding.

He should have known better.

“There are two paths defined by existing protocols for processor- to casing-type mismatches: if you wish to pursue casing reassignment, you must first live as the type your processor indicates, with all the difficulties that entails, for at least two years,” the MAP said finally, after listening to Zei’s cautious rambling explanations for several sessions. “Otherwise, continue living as your casing type. Since you seem largely successful at the latter, I would suggest you follow that path, and dedicate as few clock cycles as possible to worrying about it.”

Zei frowned, but nodded miserably. Arguing with MAPs never got you anywhere.

“Casing reassignment is a long, expensive, and painful process. It is not to be undertaken lightly.”

“You think I don’t have enough cycles— You think I’m not serious enough,” Zei said, as the realization hit him.

The MAP didn’t so much as blink. “My protocol is to provide information, not pass judgment.”

“Right,” Zei muttered.

*

Fuzzy Input pool sessions were both better and worse than Zei had imagined. Better, because he finally had the freedom to choose sessions, and when and where and how he was going to spend processing cycles dealing with the new data. Worse because, having taken the option of moving to the FIp’s shared chambers, he now had to deal with a new and unexpected variable: chambermates.

“Ze~iii! We’re going out! Come with?”

Zei only wished he’d had his private audio turned up enough that he could claim he hadn’t heard his chambermate. Not that it would have mattered. She pinged him a second later, repeating the question through the house network.

“I have work to do for session tomorrow.”

“Zeeeeiii!”

He winced. No matter how many times he told her….

“It’s FIps! It’s not like you have to do anything. You’re the one paying for it—might as well enjoy it.”

“I’m not paying for the outside fluid sessions.” Zei sighed. “Go on, have fun, tell me all about it tomorrow.”

“No, girlfriend,” Edlin declared loudly. Zei jumped, wondering how she’d gotten from the front door to his chamber that quickly. “Not tonight. You are going to have some fun whether you like it or not.”

Logic arguments were lost on Edlin. Zei allowed himself to be hauled up out of his chair, but refused to do more than change his shirt and finger-comb his recently shortened hair before he let Edlin drag him out of the chamber.

*

Combined module practice wasn’t as bad as Zei had feared it would be, given other experiences with shared input in the datapool. You didn’t even have to see your code partner(s), if you chose to work remotely. There’d just be code, on the screen, //tagged to show your partner’s comments and progress. It was comfortable, soothing, tossing ideas back and forth, learning new routines and unexpected commands.

//new sub-routine begins here

//mod shell procedure xxy

Zei frowned at the screen as the text scrawled across it. Bringing up a sidebar chat box, he asked, “shell? Aren’t we modifying case parameters?”

The module code paused. “Case, shell, what’s the difference?” More code appeared, enough for Zei to finally parse the changes being made.

“You can’t do that to a case.”

“…Sure can. You’re not stuck with the box you were programmed into.”

Zei flinched. “But… you can’t just go hacking those—they’re hard-coded.”

There was a long pause in both windows. “Seriously? You’re not still using *that* library, are you?”

“…?”

A third window popped up, and an input device beside the screen flashed a light as it came online. “Connect and share?”

It was far from the first time Zei had been asked—or volunteered—to share libraries, but… he’d never even met—he checked the tag again—Ctty. “Why?”

“Your data’s outdated. I think I can help. …and it’ll make the assignment easier?”

There were enough protections on the FIp’s networks that he didn’t need to worry about random infections. What have you got to lose? he imagined Zei-f asking.

Zei connected to Ctty.

The protocol check came first, and Zei scanned the code thoroughly for any modifiers. It was clean—no hacks or mods—so he had no excuse for not continuing. He did a first pass processing on the data as it came in. Every change, every update or insert to the library, was carefully monitored and written to a log table.

But Zei couldn’t even begin to parse the contents. What he scanned contradicted what the SIPs had said, all those cycles ago. It wasn’t just a simple update, it was a paradigm shift. There was so much input no one had ever provided, and it was nothing he’d ever have known to go looking for.

The last library was labeled ‘experiential’. It was still incomplete when an overwhelmed Zei broke the connection and fled.

*

“That Kitty person’s pinged you again. And FIP32 says your module is overdue. One more day and—”

“It’s Sitty,” Zei mumbled. “Soft ‘c’. And I know, all right? I’ll get the module done, I just… just have a lot to process right now.”

“You said that three days ago.” Edlin sighed. “You sure you don’t wanna talk about it? Or we could go out. Distract you for a while.”

There were at least three messages from Ctty in Zei’s inbox, mostly unread. The same offer to talk, to explain, was in all three of them.

What are you afraid of? What are you hiding from?

It wasn’t really Zei-f’s voice. She’d been offline for over a cycle now. But it sounded like her nonetheless.

“OK.” Zei glanced at Edlin. “I’ll go.”

And once they had the details worked out, he sent an invite to Ctty.

*

When Ctty walked in to the room that night, Edlin stared. Zei didn’t, but Zei had had part of Ctty’s exp-lib to prepare him for the meeting.

Ctty was half-way to a full case-change. Programmed into a female casing, with a type mismatch that he hadn’t been content to just live with, he’d pursued the route the MAP had turned Zei away from. He’d had his case modded to reflect his processor. He didn’t look entirely like a natural male-casing, but close enough that others had to interact with him as one, or look foolish.

But that wasn’t why Eldin was staring. She was staring because Ctty was, as she :whispered: to Zei, “damn fine.”

Introductions were made and then Eldin, so politely and casually that Zei could have kissed her (platonically) for it, excused herself from the conversation. Zei and Ctty sat, not quite avoiding each other’s gaze, for several minutes.

“I apologize,” Ctty said finally, catching Zei’s eye. “I didn’t realize you were so…”

“Anachronistic?” Zei offered bitterly.

Ctty grimaced. “No. Had been so sheltered. I forget that in some places things aren’t so…” he waggled his fingers as if testing an input value, “open-minded. Accepting.”

“It never occurred to me that things could be different.”

Ctty snorted. “Of course not. You weren’t supposed to. That’s the problem with the MAPs in certain districts.”

Zei just nodded. A not quite comfortable silence settled between them. “How did you…?”

“Know?” Ctty smiled. “That’s a long story, but probably not unlike yours, to a point.”

“No, I mean—how did you know… that I…”

Ctty’s smile softened. “Don’t worry, it’s not like your mismatch is obvious or anything. Er, if that’s what you’re worried about. It was just… a combination of your code, and your reaction. It was… familiar.”

The conversation became much easier after that. Ctty so obviously and easily accepted Zei as male that Zei forgot to worry about it. He dropped the last remnants of female-casing behavior, letting his processor run unrestricted. It was such a relief that it was almost giddy-making.
Somewhere in the background, Zei-f unraveled, loosing code and threads for reuse or re-purposing. Zei caught a thread, weaving it into his own processes in parallel.

“You don’t have to do this.”

“You don’t need me anymore.”

He almost shook his head. “The process isn’t as short as that. I haven’t told the FePUs, to start.”

Her laugh was a thin, ghostly sound. “Make a reusable module, then, but without my limitations.”

You couldn’t really touch one of your own processes, but he would have hugged her. “I’ll rework your code.”

Change was a process, after all.

*

And when Zei and Ctty finally, reluctantly, parted for the night, Ctty hugged Zei and :whispered:, “you can plug my ports any time.”

“But I don’t—” Zei protested, blushing, “I mean, I’m not equipped.”

Ctty just chuckled softly. “It’s all in the processor, Zei. All in the processor.” He let Zei go and stepped back. “Message me. We’ve got a module to finish tomorrow.”


.

About the Author

Shay Darrach documents software procedures for a living, but has managed to keep this from stifling creativity. After nearly three decades spent pretending to be the wrong gender (and wondering why no one was catching on), Shay has developed a tendency to omit personal pronouns whenever possible. Currently living in Toronto, Canada, owned by a cat, loved by a dog, and guarded by two Betta fish, Shay is also happily married to a partner of 14 years.

Shay checks email rather too frequently, and can be reached at edarrach@gmail.com.

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