“Mother!” Nicole plucked at the fabric hanging from her shoulders. “I don’t want to go to the dance.”
“Hold still,” ordered Katya as she reached across her daughter to straighten the gown. “It’s your last school dance. I made this dress — ” She shook her head. “No. We won’t talk about that.”
“Look!” cried Nicole. She pulled the garment away from her waist. “I was ugly and fat when you made this thing.” She glared at the figure reflected in the mirror. “I’m still ugly. Uglier.”
“You were never ugly.” Katya touched Nicole’s steel shoulder and adjusted the sleeve. “At heart you’re still my beautiful baby.”
“Mama, I don’t have a heart any more.”
“Yes you do. Just — not like before.”
Nicole rapped on her metal chest casing. “Pseudo-brain in my chest, power plant in my gut. No heart.”
“I don’t care about that. I just wish the Marines would have given you a body more like a girl.” Her mother touched Nicole’s chest. “This wouldn’t even look right on a man. It’s so plain.”
The Marines. In the whirlwind of finishing classes she’d missed while in the transition clinic, Nicole had managed to avoid thinking about her impending enlistment. Mom obviously had not. “They must have explained all that to you. Before you signed me over.”
“We had no choice. The transfer process cost too much.” Katya began removing the gown from her android daughter’s steel torso. She stroked the gray qua-skin covering Nicole’s forearms. “There was nothing else to do.”
“You could have let me die. I was all but dead. The crash, the fire.”
Her mother shuddered and turned away, clutching the gown. “I could not.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I’ll — I’ll finish taking this in.”
Nicole stared at her image in the mirror, something she had avoided doing since transition. Head and body of burnished steel, hips covered with flexible gray armor, unpolished steel legs. Overlapping rings allowed near-normal movement of neck, shoulders, arms, and legs. Should she go to the dance? At school she had already encountered laughter, pointed fingers, and the avoidance of old friends. Fear rippled across the lattice of her mind. After a moment, she turned away and pulled on jeans and a sweatshirt.
The doorbell rang as she descended the stairs.
She checked the security monitor. An Imperial Marine, a droid, stood on the doorstep. In two days she would be sworn in, required to serve a minimum of ten years in the Corps. Her metal body, her life, had a price. She opened the door.
“That’s me. The only metal person in the house.”
“If I may come in, then there will be two.”
Nicole led the way into the living room. “Mom is busy. Reworking a dress I’m expected to wear to a school dance.”
The android extended a hand. Like hers, it was metal and plastic with a gray covering known as qua-skin. Fake skin.
“My name is Elaine Gonzalez. Staff sergeant Gonzalez.”
“A woman? How can a droid be anything?”
“I was a woman and I still feel like a woman. Most of the time.” Elaine laughed gently. “Some things are not the same.”
“No, they aren’t.” Nicole’s words oozed bitterness. She plunked down on the sofa, arms crossed.
“I’m assigned to recruiting duty here.” Elaine hesitated, then sat down beside Nicole. “I saw your file. You did very well in transition. Soon you will be a Marine.”
“I didn’t sign up. My parents did.”
Elaine shrugged. “They had little choice. But I’m not here about that. Your mother called the recruiting office.”
Surprised, Nicole stared at the sergeant. “She hates the idea of me being a Marine. Why would she call?”
“Strange as it may seem, she asked for our help. She wants you to attend this last school dance. You’ve avoided all other social activities.”
Nicole lifted her hands. “There was school. Finals.”
“I understand.” Elaine sat back. “Very few Marine recruits are droids. What will you do in boot camp? And after?”
“I — ” Nicole’s thoughts tumbled into confusion. “The other recruits will be strangers. No one I know.”
“That will help, but not much. Most Marine units see combat, usually against slavers and outlaws. They function as a team. You can’t be a loner.” Elaine patted Nicole’s arm. “How have you managed at school?”
“Kept to myself. I had a lot of classes to make up. Finals were tough. There was no need to eat or go to the bathroom.”
“You can’t keep that up forever.” Elaine shook her ovoid head slowly. “I know.”
“I want to — to belong,” said Nicole. “I don’t know how.”
“Practice. In the Corps, it will be simpler. But start now. Your mother spoke of a young man who wants to take you to the dance.”
Nicole nodded. “Tomas. We were together when the accident happened. He got out with minor injuries. I didn’t.”
“He undoubtedly feels guilty, but his thinking is probably just as confused as yours. Let him escort you. Dance with him. Try not to break his toes.”
They both laughed. Elaine took her leave. Nicole started up the stairs, heading for her room.
Her mother stepped into the hall holding the gown. “Was someone here?”
“Your reinforcements. A Marine. An android Marine — and a woman. As if you didn’t know.”
“They suggested sending an android. I didn’t know it would be a woman.”
“She told me she was a woman.” Nicole removed her clothes and slipped into the gown. “But after a few minutes it seemed obvious.”
Katya stroked her daughter’s metal face. “What have you decided?”
“I’ll go to the dance with Tomas.” Nicole examined herself in the mirror. The blue gown blended with and softened her metallic curves and lines. “If we make it into a plain sheath with long sleeves, I think it will go well with all this steel.”
JR Hume is an old Montana farm boy who writes science fiction, a little fantasy, some weird detective tales, an occasional poem, and oddball stories of no particular genre.