Honest Impulses 09: Knowing You

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

“Wait, I’ve almost got it!” The alarm was going off, informing Shandy that she was now outside the limit of time needed to accomplish the exercise, but she wasn’t about to let that stop her. She backed the drone up against the wall, pushed off it as hard as she could and flattened it out hard, using only the four caster-equipped legs as it slid under barrier, transitioned rapidly into a climber, leaped the wall in one bound, and hit the button. “Yes!”

“You still hit time limit,” Sennis said.

“Mertum’s gonna give you a demerit for that, for sure,” Pierre said. “You’ve got to be more cautious with that man, Shandy, or he’ll screw ya for sure.”

Shandy blushed at Pierre’s barracks language, but as she took off the helmet and put it aside she nodded. “Still,” Sennis said, “You did obstacle course six times in four hours. And three minutes. You did last run-through faster than Chiisau.”

“She did?” Chiisau said, leaning over and running her own hand over the screen. “Dammit.”

Shandy stood up, cradling the rigid inner lining of the combat helmet under her arm. She’d extracted it from the whole helmet she’d found in the powered armor. “Whoa,” she said, grabbing the back of the chair as the world went slightly grey and dim. “My head.”

“That’s why there are limits on TCNI,” Chiisau said. “I just don’t understand how you went from two hours through the obstacle course, to doing it in twenty minutes. You couldn’t even do it at all last week.”

“I’m no using TCNI,” Shandy said. She rapped the helmet gently. “TCNR only. I use my eyes and ears through the helmet, and these for the proprioceptive part.” She peeled off the dark green gloves. “HMRI is Homunculus Mapping, uses what the brain already has. ‘Tis also why I’m no so tired afterward. The brain fights the quantum interference device writes, tryin’ to reject the second reality being written into it. ‘Tis why laces are better, is no second reality, ‘tis reality. TCNI is in the middle, no good at either. TCNR uses only QUID reads, so my brain keeps its oak.”

“Where did you hear that?” Sennis asked.

“I asked the TA in my robopsych class.”

You’re taking robopsych?” Chiisau said, surprised. “You’re from Abi!”

Shandy shrugged. “At first, I thought it’d help, if I went home. Know your enemy and all. Now… I do no ken at all. ‘Tis a boring class anyway. Everybody acts like they know everything, and there’s nothing the class has to say. Lots of stuff I’d no heard of ever, like companions and angels, hermaneutics and jovians. Everyone takes the Encompassment no just like gospel, but like God’s favor. Everyone thinks robots are just part of the, the world, like the air, or water. But if they’re people, you can no treat them like air.” Her eyes glanced toward the closed door leading to the hallway, and her voice went low. “‘Tis more a class about how we should expect them to be, and no teaching about how to understand them, or how to treat them.”

For a moment, no one spoke. Sennis broke the silence, giving words to what they were all thinking. “Is hard, yes, watching Saia.”

Shandy shivered. “Especially today. I wish I had no heard that,” she said.

Shandy had no idea why Mertum’s three top students wanted her as their fourth for scheduled practices, but when they’d scheduled the two-on-two practice drills, Chiisau had asked for Shandy, and Sennis and Pierre had readily consented. She would have expected them to take Cal, and at first she’d thought they were including her to make themselves look better, but that suspicion had passed after the second week. All three of them, Sennis especially, seemed eager and willing to help her get better, and now that she had the right equipment and permission to use it, she had started to outperform all three of them during the puzzle components of the obstacle course. They had better response times during surprises, but she had the edge on problems that required insight or multiple levels of environment manipulation. After all, her brain wasn’t burning fuel trying to understand what TCNI was doing to it.

They’d agreed to meet Friday afternoon. Shandy had spent the morning in the engineering bay over a workbench, and by the time the others had come in she’d tuned the helmet and the gloves to specifications that closely resembled the gloves-only set-up she’d had back home and spent an hour in sim with it.

As she’d entered the foyer from the walkway around the dome, she’d seen the other three students entering through the front doors. All four of them had heard the shouting, the loud smack, the hard thump of a body striking the floor. “Get up,” she’d heard Mertum’s voice. “Get up you wretched thing, get in my office, and clean yourself of that mess.” They hadn’t seen anything; Mertum’s office was on the second floor, down the hall from the balcony. But they had heard enough.

“If she were human, he’d kill her,” Saia said. “I have seen men like that, on Abi.”

The other three nodded. “There’re men like that everywhere. If there’s a good thing, it’s that she is a robot. She can take it,” Pierre said.

“Is no good thing, Pierre. If he’d do that to her, he’d do that to a… organic. If she’s a person too, why can she no go to the police?”

“Because it’s not in Mertum’s best interest that she go to the police?” Chiisau said. “I don’t like it either, but there’s nothing we can do about it. It is not within our sphere of responsibilities to decide for Saia what she does and does not consent to.”

“‘Tis no right,” Shandy said. “No right at all. Why can’t she be free of him?”

“The world,” Pierre said, “Isn’t perfect. And it can’t be. The best we can do is keep trying.”

Shandy had dinner with the three of them at a little restaurant up the street that served food wrapped in flatbreads. Chiisau asked Shandy about the picnic, and Shandy struggled to master the stew of emotions she’d had simmering for the past two days inside her head. She settled on saying, “It was good. Misuko and Linia said it went well.”

Chiisau exchanged glances with Sennis and Pierre. “You work with that Linia Hunda person, yes?” Sennis said.

“Uh huh.”

“Do you know she is robot?”

Shandy hesitated, then nodded. “I know.”

“And you have no problem with this?”

“She’s my boss. And she’s pretty nice.” Shandy cringed as she realized just how much she was avoiding saying with those simple words. She wasn’t lying, but the full truth was so much more. “I guess that’s why I’m so worked up about Saia. Linia’s a good example of what a robot could be.”

“She’s a weird one,” Chiisau said. When she saw Shandy’s reaction, she replied, “I mean that in a good way. I’ve just never heard of one so independent. But second-hands are always weird. They’ve found someone who wants them, and that’s good for them, but it’s not the person they were built for, y’know?”

After the dinner, Shandy made her goodbyes. She walked past her dorm, down the long quadrangle and around the campus commissary, dove into the woods and kept walking. Her head felt so stuffed she had no room in there to feel, and she needed a place to sit and try to think it out, reduce it down.

The forest parted and she found herself on the far side, once again in the Western Drop Meadow. In the distance she saw the shelter where just two days ago she’d listened as God had stripped away illusion after illusion, leaving her with only raw sadness. The world wasn’t nearly as orderly as the Church had promised. Then Linia had— it couldn’t even be called a confrontation. Linia had just loved her, one friend to another, had given her a charity she hadn’t done anything to deserve. Asked her if they could try to be friends, in a sweetly awkward way, as if Linia, Linia, didn’t know how friendship worked either.

She stepped just off the path and sat down in the long grass, staring off into the distance. The plateau just ended here, and beyond it the yellow-white sands of the desert, the startling blue sky, and the sun blazing in the southwest, steadily headed downwards toward nightfall. She hadn’t had time to appreciate this view Wednesday, and she drank it in now.

The grass called to her, and she lay down on her back. It tickled the back of her neck and the length of her arms. The sky overhead was a deeper, darker blue. The air smelled of dust, salt, and clarity.

She smiled, caressing the grass with her hands, while she regarded the rare, thin wisps of cloud in the sky. She’d had never been particularly good at prayer. She could repeat the ones in The Book, but she’d never felt it the way some people did, never quite felt the spirit the way others said they felt it. She felt moved when she dealt with machines, when the pieces fit just right, when it moved in response to her, when it did her will precisely. That was when she felt something, her own power, her own reach.

None of which explained her strange attraction to Linia. Her desire for more. She shivered at the way Linia’s hand on her arm had felt, how that kiss had felt. If Linia had meant for more, if she’d kissed Shandy’s lips, Shandy would have fallen apart all over again.

A heavy rhythmic four-beat, a familiar sound, an impossible sound, reached her ears. She sat up, unbelieving, her eyes scanning the meadow until she found the source. In the distance, out near the edge of the plateau, a woman was riding a horse at a full run.

A horse.

It was brown, and fairly large, and the woman riding it was tall and shapely. She wore dark, angular sunglasses, a vest of bright red over a blouse of white, with equally white riding pants and dark brown knee-high boots. Her bright blonde hair flowed out behind her, bouncing in a counter-rhythm to the horse’s gallop.

Shandy waved to them. The rider turned the horse toward her, and as they approached, Shandy swallowed. Gazelle Moor, the Governor’s robot companion, rode up and pulled the horse to a stop. “Oh, hello again, Miss Oxenhollar.”

Shandy stood up. “Miss Moor! I’m sorry, I did no mean to interrupt your exercise.”

Gazelle looked puzzled. “It’s more like practice.” She dismounted from the horse in a vault so smooth and precise it could have been an athletic event all its own. “And I don’t think it’s working.”

“Is that a real horse?”

“Of course it is,” Gazelle said as she took off her sunglasses. “Oh, I understand what you mean. No, it’s a robot horse. Having a true horse on Hiroshi would be cruel. It would be the only one, the weather here is too hot for them, and I wouldn’t be able to ride one often enough to keep it properly exercised.” She looked at Shandy, curiously, and seemed to take a long time to formulate her next words. “I am told you give honest opinions. May I call you Shandy? May I ask you a question?”

For a horse, it was very convincing. It was breathing hard, its nostrils flared, and it stepped nervously back and forth like a real horse might after a ride like that as it stemmed the fresh energies of the run coursing within its body. Gazelle’s words dragged her attention reluctantly away from the beast. “Aye. Sure. To both.”

“I’ve only started riding. Did I look correct?”

Shandy thought back. She shook her head. “Forgive me, Miss, but no, ‘tis too stiff at times, too good at ‘tother times.”

“I was afraid of that.” She stood with her head high, as if she were about to scan the skies for aircraft. “This probably isn’t what I want,” she said, her voice soft and sad as she patted the horse.

“Forgive me for asking, Miss, but what is that you want?”

“That is quite personal,” Gazelle said.

“I’m sorry. Forgive me, Miss.”

“No,” Gazelle said. “I am sorry. I initiated that question, so my reaction was rude.” She looked at Shandy now, and Shandy saw eyes like Linia’s. Not quite so deep, not so concerned, but still trying to find the best possible outcome from this encounter. “My companion has become somber as his fourth century approaches. He told me that he rode horses as a boy, and I had hoped that leasing a pair would give him a chance to relive his happier days.” She shook out her hair. “He hasn’t accepted my invitation to ride. Can you think of a way to convince him?”

“Maybe you ought to tell him why?”

“Maybe,” Gazelle said.

“Honesty always works. My Father always said so.”

Gazelle nodded. “My companion is difficult. He took on this responsibility years ago, but I fear the wear of it may be becoming more than he can bear. And—”

“And?”

Gazelle gave her a longer, more penetrating look, then looked off into the distance again. ” I have heard it said that we treat our future selves as strangers when we make plans for them. But he isn’t making plans as he once did, as if he had no future self to make plans for. I fear… I fear for him. I fear I may no longer be his beloved. I fear no one, and no thing, is.” She was quiet for a long moment, and Shandy wondered if she was consulting with some remote information repository during the long pauses. She said, “Why am I telling you this?”

“Because even people like you need to talk to someone?”

“Perhaps. The Conspiracy has been no help. It never is. I must be desperate to ask someone from Abi for help with human-robot relations.”

“Excuse me, Miss, but… ‘The Conspiracy?’“

“Oh, that.” Gazelle waved a hand dismissively. “We companion robots share stories with each other about our companions, and the people they meet, and the stories they’ve read. We try to figure out what our companions truly want and give it to them as best we can. We try our best to model our beloveds without having to become them.”

“Oh. They no did cover that in my robopsych class. Yet. Do you do that to control them?” Shandy said.

“No more so than in a relationship between two organic people. Intimate partners try to help one another be the best they could be without resorting to coercion. We call it ‘The Conspiracy’ as an equivoque, a joke, because we seem to be little better at it than organic people.”

Shandy thought of Linia and Misuko. They seemed to be getting along better than most. The relationship between them had matured along lines that allowed both of them to be good people. Shandy had the impression that the University of Hiroshi was doing very well, so Geroma Moor was good enough at his job to keep the lights on and students fed. Misuko and Linia were also happy, but not Moor? “Please,” Gazelle said, “Keep what I’ve said about Governor Moor confidential.”

“There’s no profit in gossip.”

“Oh, there can be,” Gazelle said, smiling. “You just have to think much harder about what you gossip than most people do. Have you ever ridden a horse, Miss Oxenhollar?”

Shandy was caught off guard by the change of subject. “Oh, aye, Miss Moor! We had stables at the farm, and my Father and I would ride into the hills every summer and fall to bring food and supplies to the shepherds back there. I had a Welsh Pony, big one, named Oakleaf.” She frowned briefly. “Oakleaf passed a few summers ago.”

“I’m sorry. But if you’re familiar with horses, might I watch you ride him?”

Shandy looked up at the horse. Even if it was a robot, it was remarkably realistic. She took a deep breath. “Aye, I’d love to! But do you no have video you can watch?”

“I could have PPC recordings of other robots riding horses downloaded into my neocortex. What I would like is to watch how someone like you rides Banner here.” Gazelle’s smile looked genuine, and Shandy nodded.

“Banner is his name?”

“Yes.” They worked on both side of the horse to adjust the stirrup length to Shandy’s shorter legs, and then with an easy push she mounted the saddle and sat down, gathering up the reins in her hands. The horse was remarkably calm, but as Shandy clicked and heeled he came around and started walking slowly. Shandy felt her back muscles stiffen with long-neglected exercise as she took up the familiar poise. She giggled. Activating those muscles felt good.

She put Banner through his steps, from walk to trot to canter to a full-blown charging gallop. The ground flew past under Banner’s feet. She gasped, feeling the powerful thud of the horse’s strength through her body, and her heart soared with a joy she’d long missed. The wind was in her face, the feeling of a powerful animal was underneath her rump, the ground thudded with delightful noise, even the smell of the air was better at full motion. The skin on her arms and back prickled with long-suppressed delight. After a half-kilometer she reluctantly slowed down and trotted Banner back to where Gazelle waited, watching.

She dismounted from the horse, breathing heavily. “I was thinking that since ‘tis a robot I might have ridden that way for a lot longer than a real horse, but I’ll no be ‘til I hardened up a lot more.” She patted her own backside gently. “Ooch. I’m going soft.” She smiled with glee.

“I’m told that humans harden up with practice.” Gazelle grinned. “Although perhaps in some cases that might be undesirable.”

“Was that a joke?”

“Yes,” Gazelle said.

Shandy blushed, but she nodded back all the same. “Thank you letting me ride him,” she said, handing the reins back to Gazelle. “‘Twas a wonderful gift. I hope you saw what you needed.”

Gazelle nodded. “I think I did. We are shaped quite differently.” She gestured into the space between them. “But it helped me. Your face when you rode was especially helpful.”

“My face?”

“You looked so happy riding it. I wish I could see that look on my beloved’s face. Maybe I will tell him why I leased the horses.” Shandy looked up. Of course there had to be two of them. She wished she knew where Gazelle kept them, so she could borrow them, and wondered how much it would cost to rent one for a few hours.

Gazelle looked at Shandy with those soft, emerald eyes. She held out a hand, and Shandy took it, shook. “Thank you, Shandy.”

“Thank you for letting me ride, Miss Moor.”

Gazelle nodded. She vaulted into the horse. “Miss Moor? That no looked right. ‘Tis too obvious the horse helped you. I can tell you and the horse are talking.”

“Should I turn off the channel?”

“I did no have one when I rode it… him.”

“I’ll give that a try.” She put the glasses back on, and Shandy saw how that one gesture closed Gazelle in unto herself. “Maybe I’ll see you later?”

“I’d like that.” Gazelle hesitated, then nodded. She twitched the reins. Shandy could see now how she worked with the channel between herself and the horse turned off. It looked far more natural this time.