When we came down to the Conference Lounge it was five minutes to the preordained start, and hardly anybody was there. No one that I recognized, certainly, which lead me to believe that the few people scattered here and there among armchairs were probably from the infamous MV&SR, while up on the little raised speaking platform two people, faces hidden, were conferring over the intricacies of pressing the large black button to turn on the microphone. I wondered which of them might be our speaker.
I made a beeline for one of the remaining overstuffed armchairs, my top priority as the room was predominantly populated by the less puffy variety. It felt as if our group of six or so, hushed remarks and chuckles not entirely quelled as we crossed the room, was quite conspicuous in the sparse silence, and it was with a knotty mix of emotion – including modest dismay – that I found Hellinder seated next to me, very nearly tête-à-tête.
For the armchairs were set in pairs and trios in the softly lighted space (the sum of such lighting, and armchairs, and a low, rolling, dim ceiling was that the Conference Lounge was also known as the Napper, so ill-conceived for actually listening to presentations that I believe it was done on purpose) and although our colleagues drew their chairs closer with a bit of scuffing on the floor, the original formation was not greatly altered. There came the needlelike, prickling presentiment of danger. I knew that I would not be at risk of nodding off during this talk.
“Seems like ‘e can’t tell what to press,” Hellinder hissed to me, leaning over and indicating the person still poised over the lone microphone button, and as his eyes were already laughing I was forced to bite the insides of my cheeks. “Maybe ‘e thinks it’s a doomsday device?”
Ah, the paranoia of the re-enabled. A muffled chuckle escaped me just as the microphone turned on, and I cannot recall ever being so glad to hear the brief buzz of speakers adjusting themselves, in that hushed temple built in honour of drooping eyelids, where a crack of laughter would turn all heads.
“Hello… Hello, everyone?” So ’e was a questioner. Now centred on the little stage, peering owlishly about the lounge1, ‘e was confronted by some twenty or thirty listeners, a few more having slipped in at the last minute. Three armchairs off to my right, our cryostatically-enthused colleague, Voya, leaned forward in his seat.
“We could wait a few more minutes for stragglers, couldn’t we? Maybe someone is coming in, I can’t tell…” There was a bit of fumbling about as someone darted up to the stage, whispered at the speaker, gestured prominently at the time (an elaborate steam era cogwork clock hung above the stage, exactly where the speaker couldn’t see it), and retired again.
“Oh, seems like it’s time to start. Here we go?” ‘E gave a laugh, the sort that everyone but the laugh-er finds awkward. “So I’m Miggs Upselom, and I’ll be talking about 2112 Years and What We Can Learn From Them.”2
There was a smattering of applause. Glances were exchanged over the old-fashioned way of telling one’s audience things they already knew.
“Thank you. You know, I’m very glad to be here? I came a long way. A whole 1112 years, it’s a long way!”
Tremors next to me – Hellinder was laughing silently.
“Things sure are different here, here and now, you know? I went to sleep when I was twenty-six. Spinal cord issues. Back then, we were talking about the right kind of pronouns for people. I guess you guys decided for yourselves. But I woke up only four years ago. I’m still thinking about it. So if it comes to using pronouns, just use ‘Miggs’ for me.”
“Aha,” came Hellinder’s whisper, “if you have to use pronouns, don’t.”
And I couldn’t help myself – in heartbeat, sarcasm-laced words slipped out. “Great way to fill sentences with your own name.”
Hearing our hushed talk, Voya, branded us with a recriminating look. But that had the unfortunate effect of prompting me to look back at Hellinder, the corners of my mouth in full-fledged rebellion.
The speaker cleared ’e’s throat 3. I couldn’t tell whether it had anything to do with us, but the sound sobered me. Three years into my career, I was not at all enamoured of the idea of giggling like a youth, and it struck me that this kind of behaviour could give MV&SR the wrong impression of we mathematicians who worked upstairs, and the seriousness of our work.
Meanwhile, “You might say pronouns are a funny place to start, Miggs. But I’m an advocate. An advocate the kinds of concerns that you cis-era folk may not think about, things that CREPEs like myself deal with…”
Ah. I lost track for a couple sentences after that, trying to record in my memory for all posterity the moment in which someone had referred to themselves as a thin pancake with absolutely no trace of humour or irony.
“…language that some of us from around the same era were used to hearing. A few things that you guys have lost, you know? Did you know that “avocat” means lawyer? Advocat, avocat. I may not have a Doctorate, or Elevated Post-Doctorate or whatever it is now, but these two are pretty close, right?
“They’re close because they mean the same thing. Pretty much.” Miggs shrugged and the shrug was such an afterthought that it almost didn’t count. “Sometimes you guys are overthinking things. In my home era people spoke more simply. It was the fashion, you know? VR was having its third big boom. You guys read a lot now, even in VR. We had other stuff to do in VR. And the politicians and the leaders, they spoke without big jargon, they spoke like real people, and that helped? You guys have some hard politics now, hard to follow, maybe elitist even.”
I think my jaw was hanging open at this point. To imagine anything better, anything more ridiculous, was to be in a dream. Voya leaned forward in earnest contemplation, fingers tapping on a little HUI keyboard which was of course invisible to me, but whose presence I could easily infer.
In my ear, rich with mirth, “Is ‘e for real?”
An aberrant shiver from ear to toes reminded me to shut my mouth and lean into the opposite side of my armchair.
“Things are nice, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not easy for us CREPEs all the time and it’d be good if society thought about this? We covered the pronouns. I explained that to you guys. We covered the language. A lot of the change is how people talk, you know? Accents too, not just words – ”
I was fairly squirming.
“– but the toughest thing is the judgmental attitude.”
Miggs paused. The silence of the audience was an utterly different silence than a moment before. People strained to understand, a priori, just what he was implying about us.
“Judgment everywhere, you know? It’s not everyone. But it’s a lot of people. The education is a problem. You don’t understand this ass-inside-out twisty-windy legal coda on how to get extra LAS stuff? You’re stupid. You don’t take your shoes off at some invisible line in somebody’s house? You’re an asshole. You say asshole a lot? You’re stupid. You see what happened there? It’s a circle.
“So there’s more judgment. I didn’t have such judgment before. I had a carefree life, no avocating.” Here, something struck me as off but I couldn’t pin it down.
“Back then, you could call someone an asshole. You could say, oh, those guys from Beta-9, they always have sticks up their asses. Or, I’m not gonna give some of this cake to the femme Pallorians, because, you know, they get fussy with icing. That was simpler. No judgment. People would nod, you know?”
Not a soul nodded.
“Now I point out that all the Amphitrans, that’s you guys, you get extreme over weird stuff like not touching the aquahydrants. Is that like a kink? Are hydrants a kink? I’m asking honestly here. Maybe stuff like that makes you look down on people. Maybe you shouldn’t judge people so much? Maybe you should like it when people say what they want?”
Voya’s fingers flew furiously. Hellinder and I stared at one another with dizzying lack of pretense.
I saw Hellinder’s hand rise.
“Oh, a question? Yes?”
“Are you a Blartist in disguise?”
Utter silence in the audience. Confusion was writ large across the lumpy features of Miggs Upselom, and my stomach was busy sucking itself into a black hole in the knowledge that, although Hellinder had said it aloud, I had been thinking the same thing.
1 A redundant course of action, as the lighting was brighter on the presenter than over the audience, and we likely resembled dark smudges and blobs.
2 The CAPS were audible, I assure you.
3 Or, in Miggs-speak, “The speaker cleared Migg’s throat”. Smudges the meaning, doesn’t it?