Content: suitable for all
Prompt: Aral, stranded on an alien world
Length: 700 words
Summary: Aral's first impressions of Beta Colony.
The holomap was clear and simple, but Aral was lost already. It wasn't the map's fault, it was his own. He kept getting distracted, having to stop and stare, ever since they let him out of the deliberately calm and neutral refugee centre and into Silica. Everything was bright, colourful, clean, well-maintained. He saw little robots going around clearing up the occasional pieces of litter, surprisingly cheerful-looking people sweeping sand, courteously-worded notices advising citizens--citizens!--of their duties to maintain public spaces for the common good. This was a city that had never known war, that had never been levelled by invading armies and civil disturbances, and where there was enough money to keep everything well-running and even neatly painted. There were no jagged gaps in the buildings where a bomb had once fallen and rebuilding had yet to happen, no loose slabs and potholes in the pavement beneath his feet, no beggars and war-wounded men sitting in doorways with defeated eyes and a ragged cap in the street. It almost made him angry, that there should be such bliss here when there was such pain on Barrayar, and guilty, that he should be here and safe. But he had run out of other choices.
He finally gave up trying to follow the directions on his holomap, found a bench, sank down on it and gave himself over to staring. Over there, a construction crew working in a maintenance tunnel--and most of the people in high-visibility jackets, overalls and practical workboots were women. One even had long hair--safely tied back--and wore something pink and frilly underneath the jacket even as she wielded a machine Aral didn't recognise. There, too, a uniformed patroller, also a woman... or was it? Short hair, visible breasts, but something about the facial structure said 'male' rather than 'female' to Aral. He stared at the patroller almost to the point of rudeness, trying to figure it out. A gaggle of schoolchildren, dressed and styled so alike he couldn't tell the sex at all. And over there, two brightly-dressed men walking along the street holding hands, and even as Aral watched, one bent across, gave his ... lover, Aral supposed dimly, a kiss on the cheek and a cheerful smile, and went off on some errand.
Cordelia thinks all of this is normal, he realised as he gazed around at the unimaginable scenes. This is just how the world is, for her. It made sense of some of the things his dear Captain said and did, he supposed. But it was hard for him to believe that a place like this could be possible. He'd had the same nightmare for weeks, as soon as he'd arrived here, that he was dreaming all this and would wake to find himself in the stocks in the Great Square, and only the fact that he wasn't sure his imagination could come up with all these wonders reassured him.
He spotted a little booth marked 'public comconsole' and went over to it. It was free to use, he discovered when he tried to pay, and it took him barely a minute to find the requirements to teach judo on Beta Colony--though he was distracted by the discovery that on Beta, apparently, men and women competed against each other at all levels, no separate classes, and many of the high-level teachers were women too. He'd never fought a woman before, hand to hand. But he thought he should be able to pass the qualification exam. He would be able to contribute something, not wholly dependent on Cordelia.
If she hadn't changed her mind. If she still wanted, if she still cared... He pushed himself up from the booth and pulled out the holomap again. No more delaying.
It took another twenty minutes to find the right level and corridor, to find the right door. It was as tidy and clean as the rest of Silica, yellow-painted and simple, with a small plaque outside that read 'Naismith'. It was probably only his imagination that made it glitter faintly. Or perhaps it was the water in his eyes. He stood still for a long time before raising his hand to knock.
Crossposted at http://philomytha.dreamwidth.org/88