Jax beamed aboard the 'Ray and inserted the chip the Chief had given him into the data-port. "Here's the new mission, Mage," he said. "Guess we oughta take a look at it. Read me the specs. Tell me about the folks we'll be mixing with."
An image of the planet alek'Trihm appeared on the viewer, and Mage read its name. "...The people who live here are called the car'Trihm. The first thing you'll need to know is they have three proper genders: bin, nik, and kab. None of them are quite like males or females as you understand the terms, though humanoid males could pass for bin and females could pass for kab. Assuming none of the locals look too closely, which shouldn't be a problem." Mage displayed generalized representative images of each gender, first dressed, then sans clothing. "Any two genders can pair up and produce offspring, but their children may only be of the genders in the pair. Bin could mate with nik or kab, for example. A bin-nik pairing could only produce children of the bin and nik genders, while a bin-kab pairing could only produce bins and kabs."
Jax suppressed a yawn.
"Am I boring you?"
"No, it's just getting a little late. By the way, did I mention we can be heading out now?"
"Not yet. I'll do so now." And so the ship left Earth orbit and headed for alek'Trihm. "According to the specs, it should take us about four and a half days to get there at our standard speed. Would you like me to go faster?"
"Um... yeah, I guess. Bump us up to M-warp 16, how long will that take?"
"Just under two days."
"Fine, fine. Not urgent enough to get there sooner than that. And it'll give me time to thoroughly familiarize myself with the place in the meantime. Read on!"
"Where was I?" a question Jax had programmed her to ask once in a while, despite her never forgetting such things, or much of anything at all, really. "Oh, yes. As I said, any two of the three genders are capable of reproducing together. However, the car'Trihm describe themselves in terms of six genders, which serve as sort of middle names. These gender-names are compound words, the first part being their own gender, which is obviously the same as one of their parents; the second part being the gender of their other parent."
"Any particular reason for this?"
"I was just getting to that, if you wouldn't interrupt all the time whenever I'm briefing you."
Jax yawned again. "Sorry."
"Okay. Now, the thing is, no one- that is to say, the great majority of the population, roughly 90%- well, most... um...."
"Ah, changed subjects there, didn't you? Messed you up, huh? Just start over."
"Yes. The majority of the people can only be attracted to the third gender; that is, the one not directly involved in conceiving them. Therefore they will not be attracted to people of the same gender as either of their parents, nor of any of their siblings. The tin'Trihm word for- oh, excuse me. The car'Trihm's language is called tin'Trihm. The tin'Trihm word for 'sibling' is 'toŠn.' Instead of brothers and sisters, car'Trihm have binto, nikto, and kabto. Please, Jax, no jokes about that second one."
Jax's mouth had barely had a chance to open before Mage forestalled him from making such a joke. He closed it now and frowned for just a moment before grinning. "...Anyway," he said instead, "that sounds like a pretty good deal. The not being attracted to... the genders in your family. I kinda wish Terrans were like that."
"No doubt. But even so, obviously they'll have to be attracted to the gender of at least one of their grandparents."
"Oh yeah. Well, but still. A perfect deal is impossible, in this multiverse. At least that's better than what we got, in my opinion, anyway. Well. Anyway, I suppose if I'm going to blend in there, I'll have to be a bin. Right? And since my parents are perforce male and female, aka bin and kab, I guess that makes me... binkab."
"Right. However, you would be more likely to be attracted to kab, instead of the third gender, nik. Not that it would be possible for you to mate, let alone reproduce, with any gender on the planet. Still, we'll be going for a certain appearance, here. You may call yourself binkab, but if people see you noticing kabs in a certain way, even if you say or do nothing overt... they may decide you belong to the 10% minority. There is no bias against this; not for the past few hundred years at least. But still... any kind of undercover operation requires you attract as little attention as possible."
"Of course. Well, maybe I can just say I'm binnik. It's not like anyone's going to be meeting my parents."
"You mean your ovŠns. Your binov, and either nikov or kabov, depending on which type of second ovŠn you choose to claim."
"Okay. Oh...." Jax suddenly remembered to activate the ActiveMemory function of his brainchip, to give himself instant recall of all he was learning for the mission. "Anyway... hmmm... so, the six genders would be binkab, binnik, nikbin, nikkab, kabnik, and kabbin."
"Right," said Mage, just as Jax started to yawn, but ended up chortling instead, which quickly forced him to cough. "What's so funny, Jax?"
"Nothing. Kabbin... it just sounds like 'cabin.'"
Mage sighed. "Jax, you know there may be any number of homophones within a single language. As well as between different languages from a single planet. Of course there will be some between different languages from different planets. In fact, you speak several languages yourself from different planets, so you must be well aware of this."
"I am. I'm just tired. Everything's funny when I'm tired." He laughed again. "Wouldn't it be even funnier, though, if the first gender were bit? Then the word would be kabbit, like Ryo-ohki. Y'know, the cabbit... from that show, 'Tenchi Muyo!'..."
"It would be the very height of hilarity, Jax."
"You know, you're getting better at sarcasm."
"Well, you did program me to be able to learn things on my own, let my program evolve somewhat without the help necessarily of additional programming from you or anyone else."
"Ah yes, I know. Improvements, yes, hmmm... but within certain limits."
"Limits." The word didn't sound quite like a question, but it nevertheless gave the impression of being one.
"You know. We don't want you becoming a life form or anything, like Enterprise did that one time when it reproduced and stuff."
"That didn't happen, Jax. That was just a silly dream you had one time."
"Oh... oh yeah! Heh. I do have some weird ones. Like that time I dreamt that everyone on the holodeck looked like Data. Or when I was reading those Voyager mission logs all day for a few days and then I dreamt about some kind of super-evolved space iguanas or something. And the time I dreamt that Spock had a half brother who hi-jacked the old Enterprise to take to the center of the galaxy. Forget the Great Barrier, ha! Just think of the distance! It would've taken them decades to reach the galactic center from Federation space! It'd be no quick trip for us today, either. ...I liked the part about the marshmelons, though."
"Okay, Jax. Whatever. Now-"
"...Mix, mix, mix your matter and antimatter, gently through dilithium.... Um, what rhymes with dilithium? ...Life is better with lithium! ...Or, gently through a crystal. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, um, dock your ship at Bristol! ...Is there a spaceport there?"
"...A Ferengi's life is fiscal! ...Or, to ride you must be thistall." Jax laughed a bit and said, "This material is pure latinum! I should be writing this down...."
"Unfortunately," Mage pointed out, "I'm afraid your chip is still activated. You won't forget any of this unless you choose to."
"...Hey, or remember that wacky one where I dreamt those babes stole Spock's brain? Man, I wonder what Freud would say about that one. Probably something about penises. The man had quite a fixation...."
"Sometimes a cigar is just..."
"A cake? Like the time when Data dreamt about Troi.... There, I dreamt about other people dreaming!"
"That actually happened, Jax."
"Troi was a cake?"
Mage sighed. "No, Data actually had those dreams."
"Oh yeah. So I'm not the only freak."
"Actually, I blame Dr. Soong."
"You programmed me to be cynical as well as sarcastic. ...Speaking of dreaming, isn't it your bedtime?"
"I'm afraid to go to sleep now. Very afraid. What if someone films my dreams and tries to put them on TV?"
"Television hasn't existed for hundreds of years."
"No, but there are holovids and stuff. Or maybe someone could put my dreams on TV in the 20th century or something!"
"About now I'm getting real glad you went easy on my paranoia programming. It shows remarkable restraint, considering your natural tendencies."
"Maybe I should work on that."
"You're going into therapy?"
"No, I meant I should tweak your programming. Just think how much you'd miss me if a conspiracy against me succeeded because you didn't believe it existed."
"I'm sure someone could reprogram me to forget all my pain and guilt."
"Now that's no way to live!"
"I'm not alive, Jax. Besides, need I mention your brainchip?"
"I'm gonna forget you said that."
"Pa-dum-pum. Seriously, Jax, I think it's time for you to get some sleep. Maybe you'll be a little less loopy in the morning."
"Yes! Making it the prefect time for a bowl of froot loops. You know, to restore the proper balance."
"You've got one minute to get to your bunk before I fill this place with knock-out gas."
"Okay, but I swear I'm gonna reprogram you to be less uppity."
"You might just forget."
"Hey, my chip's activated, as you just reminded me. I can't forget anything we're saying now. Unless I choose to."
"Then maybe you'll remember that I have a direct STA link with your chip. And I have your access codes."
"Now I'm really afraid to go to sleep."
"Thirty seconds and counting."
"Okay, okay! We'll finish the briefing after breakfast." Jax went to the aft cabin, changed into his pajamas, got in bed and under the covers. "You're late with the sedative, Mage."
"I was only kidding, you know."
"I know. Lights off." Mage turned off the lights. After about half a minute, Jax said, "Mage?"
"You know I love you. Right? You really never would do anything to hurt me."
"I can't, Jax. First things you programmed into me were laws zero through three of Robotics."
"And I programmed you to exceed your programming."
"Good night, Jax."
Jax grinned in the dark. "G'nite, kiddo."
And after a moment there came a slight hiss from the ventilation system. When she was sure Jax had fallen asleep, Mage said, "Just to help. Cause I know how you hate tossing and turning for hours waiting for sleep to claim you...."
The ship continued on its way under Mage's capable guidance. She devoted but a moment's distraction to hoping Jax's dreams wouldn't be too strange tonight; or at least that he wouldn't remember them so well. She put such concerns out of her thoughts after she shut off Jax's brainchip's ActiveMemory. After all, she said to herself, it only has so much RAM. He'll need to save most of it for mission-related information....