Toebal Riek understood the idea of sunlight. Even though he had been constructed inside a laboratory far enough inside the Castle that he never got to see it, he knew what it was because he was programmed with a basic understanding of how the world works—at least according to the Benecorts.
“What pronouns should we use for Toeriek?” asked one of the scientists while constructing him. The language they were speaking was an offshoot of pre-Cortian in which all nouns were given a grammatical gender, either masculine or feminine. No neuter option.
“Probably best to assign him male,” said the lead scientist. “We don’t want our machines getting the idea that they can produce new life.”
And so, Toeriek was raised on the impression, given the masculine pronouns used for him, that he was biologically male. Despite the fact that he was actually a sexless robot.
But now, Toeriek was free and enjoying the outside world. Female sunlight fell on the male leaves that grew from the female branches of male trees that thrust male roots into the ground, which was usually female, unless it consisted of barren rock or any kind of artificial flooring. Male animals flitted through the underbrush (most animals were assumed to be male unless the beast’s gender was known, except predators, who were always treated as female, usually even if they did have male parts), while birds (a completely different class of nouns) each of which Toeriek would have called “she” if he’d been leaning towards English, flew through the male air while male droppings fell from their female excretion organs. It was all very wonderful.
Until his gaze fell upon something he could not classify.
Human beings, in his pre-Cortian language, were classified as female—being the world’s most effective predators—unless they exhibited identifiably masculine behaviors. This has produced some hilarious circumstances among translators in both directions, as it means many women will be treated as male for language purposes if they are seen to throw a punch, wear certain kinds of clothing or interrupt their interlocutors to make the same point in different words; and men would often be treated as women if they kept quiet or were vegetarians.
So it confused Toeriek when he came upon a young human in the woods whom he could not immediately classify. The human was short and somewhat stout, had short hair, smooth skin, a touch of fur growing on arms and legs, but not enough to be conclusive, and she carried herself (again, as a predator, assume it is female) with an unsettling combination of grace and swagger.
“Hello,” said the human. Somewhat awkwardly.
On the basis of that word, Toeriek decided the human must be an English speaker. This was good, because English was one of the languages Toeriek happened to have stored in his memory banks.
That being said, all of Toeriek’s interactive and humanizing programming was written in his pre-Cortian offshoot and thus, even if his English did come out flawless, he would still only be translating into it.
“I say,” Toeriek said by way of greeting, “what an attractive afternoon we are having this day.”
He could tell immediately ased on the confusing human’s facial ticks that his vocabulary might be problematic.
He feigned clearing his throat, then ventured, “Might I inquire as to your sexual organs?”
“Oh, God,” the human replied. Toeriek dutifully ran this response through his data-banks, but while both “O” and “God” were listed as possible pseudonyms for sexual organs, the respective entries were in opposite categories.
Toeriek decided on a more subtle approach. “What is your name?”
“I’m sorry,” said the human, “I don’t mean to be rude or anything, but are you a robot?”
“Robot” was listed in the data-banks as an only moderately offensive word for what Toeriek was. “I am an android,” Toeriek enunciated. “Now, what is your name?”
“Brooklyn Bailey,” the human said. “Why do you ask?”
“I really must classify you,” answered Toeriek. But neither of the names did any good. The name “Bailey” seemed to possibly have a tendency to be feminine, though not exclusively, but even so, it was presented in the position of a family name, which offered no help. And Brooklyn seemed to be the name of a place. This wasn’t working.
“Oh my God,” Brooklyn Bailey repeated. “You’re a robot and even you think you’re entitled to know what’s in my pants?”
“I must know,” Toeriek verified, “my tongue depends on it.”
“Ew!” cried Brooklyn Bailey, and Toeriek could tell the human was exhibiting indications of disgust. Though he did not know what he had said wrong, he seized the opportunity to gain more ground.
“I am sorry to disgust you,” he began. “Please, does your sexual aversion stem more from homophobia or from a rational distrust of what appear to you to be male advances?”
Language, he finally pieced together. Not tongue, “language”.
He explained the slip of the tongue, but the human was still not satisfied.
“Jesus Christ!” said Brooklyn Bailey, “What does it matter what gender I am!”
Toeriek calmly explained his linguistic predicament.
Brooklyn let out a groan which Toeriek felt went on far too long to be entirely natural. “Fine. Look, I don’t care what you call me in your language, I don’t speak your language; if your language defaults to female, fine, whatever, I guess that makes up for all the Earth languages defaulting to masculine, but I speak English, so when you’re speaking in English, to me or to anyone else you’re talking to if you’re talking to anyone else without me—which would be kinda creepy anyway, because I don’t know you, but here we are—you refer to me as they. OK? They/their/them, those are my pronouns.”
Toeriek stored this in his memory banks, which meant that from now on, he would refer to Brooklyn Bailey only by their preferred pronouns.
“Thank them,” Toeriek said to Brooklyn Bailey. “Do they want me to leave now? I am enjoying their conversation.”
Brooklyn Bailey rolled their eyes and sighed, then proceeded to re-explain second person with the patience of a gender-neutral saint.