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FICTION

"The work of a Guardian is not done until he takes his last breath." - Maxims of the Guardians

The survivors of Ayer's Rock had been moved temporarily to empty aerodyne hangers, the several thousand who were not seriously hurt. The hypoxic and the injured had been removed to hospitals, overloading same. The anoxic and the dead were removed to secure facilities; the latter to be kept intact until their organs could be harvested, then with the latter to be conclusively identified. A century of strife had taught the Emirate well the hazards of failing to document the dead as well as the living.

Soldiers kept the perimeter secure. Red Crescent personnel organized the makeshift shelters, not merely providing medical aid, but food and water and cots and blankets. It had been necessary to screen the weakened survivors repeatedly for hidden medical problems. Many were unaccustomed to planetary gravity. All had to be reminded to drink water carefully and often, to wear sunscreen if they ventured near the doors, and when their grief permitted, to rest. Every now and again, an ambulance lifted from the back of a hanger to the nearest hospital, lights flashing but silent. The survivors had been traumatized quite enough, in Chaya's earnest opinion.

Only a handful of Guardians were necessary to keep order inside, but of necessity Chaya had been drafted to handle the women's side, essentially by herself. The sex-segregation required by Islamic custom had riled some of the survivors, and a temporary compromise had been hastily arranged. On one side of the hanger, women and children and no men; on the other, men but no women. In the center, between two lines hastily marked with glow tape, a mixed area where all could mingle, under hard eyes and no privacy screens.

The Red Crescent shelter leader for the women's side wore white blouse and white skirt, with bow tie and prominently displayed credentials. Asiya al Rahid, Registered Nurse - but she carried no medical instruments. She also wore a reflective vest; the Crescent took pride of place across the top of her shoulder blades.

"Guardian," she motioned to Chaya as she continued her patrol of the women's side. The two walked apart a short distance.

"Yes, Nurse?" Chaya said with great respect.

"We have a problem. One of these ladies is bio-male."

Chaya blinked. She did not stall by asking if she had mis-heard. Her own hard eyes rapidly scanned the crowd. Hundreds of hours of training in recognizing concealed weapons and explosives made her an expert in picking out the unusual from the familiar. Her training had focused on distinguishing between the hard lines of man-made objects from the rounded contours of flesh. It took more than a moment for her to rapidly scan the crowd for the person who did not belong.

She saw him. Her hand paused as she reached first for her needler, then her shock-stick, then for the REACT! button on her communicator. This was not a murder-bomber, to be swifly dispatched by slicing his brain into ribbons with a needler to the base of the brain before he knew what was wrong. Nor was this a deviant, whose misconduct defiled both Muslim and Christian teachings. Calling for backup, a thought burned into her brain by years of training, would not produce an improvement either. This was something altogether more complex.

A clash of cultures, not lives in peril.

But these people had survived horrors. Their space station - invaded. Friends and family killed before their eyes. Dumped off in lifeboats, flung into an alien system in the hopes of provoking the Emirate Navy into target practice. Life support systems flickering, the loss of other lifeboats - bright sparks in the endless Dark. Then deorbit burn at high gravs to land on this hot and dry planet, itself a hostile environment to people for whom air conditioning and life itself were indistinguishable.

Chaya wished avidly to minimize disruption. She turned to her peer.

"I see him. May I handle this?"

The nurse slowly nodded.

Chaya walked boldly up to the cross-dressed? mis-gendered? person.

"I am Chaya al-Hadin, a Guardian of the Emirate. I am told that on Ayers Rock, I would be considered a Special Agent of the Stationmaster's Office, with power to arrest and to use weapons. This is Nurse al-Rahid, who is in charge of the women's section of this Red Crescent shelter. We must speak with you privately. Come with us."

The person looked her up and down. She did the same, wondering what the other person saw. Uniform shirt and trousers and the Eyes on both collars, laden weapons belt -- but the shirt and trousers specially tailored to a feminine figure, not the Guardian standard. Yet no Guardian wore a skirt, nor was a showpiece or symbol. Chaya had earned her place - a Guardian, not a Guardian-woman.

What Chaya saw in turn was a flush-faced Stationer, much like a tourist in the training videos from the Guardian Academy, although the Emirate had few tourists these days. Tall but not as tall as Chaya, plump but not fat, on closer examination having strong wrists and arched feet subtly different from all of the surrounding women.

Once they had walked a decent distance away from the women's area, into the cleared space along the perimeter of the hangar, Chaya waved down the soldiers who moved to intercept, giving the hand signal for "keep great distance." They stopped, shrugged and returned to their positions along the wall. The highest ranking soldier would obey immediately and without question the orders of the lowest ranking Guardian -- at most he might call his officer.

Chaya spoke again, "I have scanned you. Your name is Patty Strong. You ... are a lifesupport maintenance engineer. Do you have kin with you?"

"I'm sorry? I don't understand?" The voice was feminine and modulated, but strained.

"Do you have family here? A husband? Children?"

Strong hesitated. "My _partner_ is with me, in the women's section. Where I belong."

Nurse al Rahid was puzzled. Chaya firmly suppressed a sigh, for several reasons that neither the nurse nor the distressed alien would comprehend.

The first nascent thought, that she would ask Patty to remain in the center area to avoid disruption, shattered on the realization that Patty would have to use the rudimentary sanitary facilities, both toilet and showers, and that in so doing the matter would be tolerably obvious.

She recalled reading once that an expired Guardian protocol called for solitary confinement under surveillance in cases where the gender of a detainee could not be established in the field. The protocol expired because medical scanners made no mystery of the matter, and a situation where a Guardian could hold a prisoner in custody yet not have access to basic medical equipment was not imaginable.

Another thought presented itself, forcefully, as if Chaya had stunned herself with her own shock-stick.

THIS IS NOT A PRISONER.

Chaya blinked.

"Patty Strong, it is my duty to inform and to instruct you that should you have any difficulties, any at all, you are to ask that I be summoned, at any time day or night." She reached into her uniform pocket and removed a calling card, upon which she wrote the date and time, then placed the same into Patty's hand.

Patty stared at it.

"You are an honored guest of the Emirate. It is also my duty to ask you, out of respect for your fellow distressed citizens and us as your hosts, to conduct yourself in all ways according to your gender. Your female gender, to be so recorded in our records."

Patty looked first shocked, then angry. Nurse al Rahid also became first shocked, then angry. Chaya smiled, but only to herself, remembering another Guardian maxim. "The wisest solution often angers all parties, but not beyond further negotiation."

Unsurprisingly, Nurse al Rahid spoke first, but in an undertone that would not carry.

"This... him... cannot return to my section!"

Patty immediately retorted, "I am as much a woman as you are!"

With difficulty, the nurse retained her temper. An ordinary nurse might not have, but Nurse al Rahid was a nurse manager for Red Crescent, sworn to the service of humanity without fear -- and anger was merely fear in disguise.

"I think of the safety of the women and children in my care. It is nothing," and here the nurse choked, "personal."

Chaya interrupted briskly.

"Should any misconduct take place, Patty Strong will of course be removed to close confinement, for the safety of all. In that unlikely event, her partner may choose to join her in confinement if she wishes. Have there yet been any complaints of her conduct or her character?"

A grudging "no" from the nurse was overlapped by a shocked "No!" from the object of their conversation. Both were offended - the one by the use of the female pronoun to refer to a man's gender, the other by the repeatedly and heavy emphasis Chaya laid on that same pronoun to make her point, that Patty was to be treated in all respects as female unless she herself gave cause for the question to arise again.

Offense was unavoidable. Conflict might be.

"These folk are not Muslim, nor are they Christian. They are spacers. I agree that if we were sheltering People of The Book, separation would be necessary... but these are folk accustomed to different ways. They are honored guests with different customs. We will all find a way to -- "meet in the middle," as a Christian would say.

"Nurse al Rahid, I am leaving an instruction in this guest's file; as well as with you and with the security team, that any disturbance involving this person or her -- partner -- be brought to my immediate attention day or night, and any request by either her or you to speak with me. I am empowered to adjudicate minor matters directly, and so far this is a minor matter."

Slowly, and with great respect Chaya added, "Do you accept my judgment?"

Certainly the nurse had the right to appeal, immediately or later, to her manager the director of the shelter, to Chaya's commanding officer; to any magistrate or mullah in whose jurisdiction the matter lay -- and Red Crescent by custom had universal jurisdiction in favor of the charges in their care -- yet to escalate the matter would admit to being unable to handle it, in the midst of a crisis.

The nurse nodded.

"I accept. Of course Patty Strong will be expected to follow the reasonable rules which apply to all displaced persons in my section."

"Yes," Chaya said briefly, and walked the two back to the women's section.

The brief interplay did not go unnoticed. One of the soldiers called out something crude under his breath to another soldier, who stoidly looked away as if inspecting the nearby hanger wall. Chaya fixed the soldier with a brief gaze. He fell silent.

"Please introduce me to your partner," Chaya said.

"Sharon, this is Chaya ... al..."

"Hadin," Chaya supplied.

"Chaya al-Hadin, a soldier of the Emirate."

"Please forgive my correction, as you are new to our land, but I am a Guardian of the Emir. I issue orders to soldiers. I am told that in Western terms, being a Guardian is like being an inspector of irregularities or a government agent, like police but a lot more so. I was asked to give an opinion in the status of your partner, and I have given it. I trust both of you to help keep the peace during a trying time for all our peoples."

Chaya thought about it for a moment. Would she be exceeding her authority? Perhaps a little, but it would do great good.

She walked out into the no-man's-land and beckoned the soldier, the one who had uttered a crudity, to her.

He saluted.

"Yes, Guardian?"

"Please demonstrate your soldierly fitness for these brave women, who have endured so much so far from home," Chaya said meekly.

Then she barked, in full Guardian command mode,

"Give me push-ups! Now, soldier, now! The honor of the Emirate demands it! Allow me to count. One, two, three, four, five, continue counting! Loudly!"

She turned on her heel as the soldier continued knocking out push-ups behind her.

"We will protect your safety with our lives from all threats. All."

Then she took a brief tour of the women's side, no more than ten minutes in all.

She paused next to the profusely sweating soldier, still weakly doing pushups, as she left and murmured, "Return to your post."

Gratefully the soldier collapsed, then hastily complied.

The alternative would have been relieving the soldier from duty in contact with women, or depending on his officers to discipline him. Neither had appealed.

Chaya found it ironical that of all people, it should be the secretly same-sex attracted Guardian who should judge whether to leave the ... cross gendered? ... what was the verb ... transitional... trans-gendered? person in the women's section. But much was known to the Morals Officer of her Brigade, and all of course to Allah.

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