Anar, Urim 08, 03262
Honest Impulses 05: Domestic Gall
"It's Thursday," Linia murmured in Misuko's ear.
"Grmp!" Misuko pulled her pillow over her head, determined to get as many extra milliseconds of sleep as her excessively health-conscious lover would let her. They both knew Linia had awakened her at the very top of her cycle and she wouldn't be able to go back to sleep anyway, but she loved the game and she loved the way Linia played it.
"Oh, yes you are," Linia said, correctly interpreting Misuko's grunt. "You have Practical Management at ten and History of Archaeological Practices at one, and a meeting with Professor Mertum at two-thirty."
Misuko tossed the pillow aside and sat up, allowing the yellow bed sheet to fall off her chest. She delighted in the way Linia's eyes examined her in detail. "You look good," Linia said softly.
"So do you." She couldn't see more than Linia's face and hair through the thick housecoat. Linia pointed through the door and Misuko rose and followed, taking her housecoat off the hook by the door as she passed. On the table Linia had set out tea and a bagel thick with cream cheese and jam. "You're spoiling me," she said with her mouth full.
"I'm getting us ready for work," Linia said as she sat across from Misuko, a glass of one of her unfit-for-human-consumption smoothies in hand. "Now eat up. We both need a shower." She pouted. "A quick one."
"You'll get your hands on me later, beloved." Misuko reached across the table and stroked Linia's face gently. "I love you."
"I love you, too," Linia said in that breathless tone that made Misuko squirm silently. "I'd offer more, but we don't have time." Linia paused, staring off into space.
Misuko looked at her. "Thoughtful?"
Linia smiled. "In a way. I'm just getting organized for class tonight. There's dinner in the preserver, by the way. I made it yesterday."
"Oh, that's right. You said you got an apprentice?"
"Assistant. 'Apprentice' would be very different. She's actually very good. Great knife skills, good taste, good head for recipes, and very diligent. I hope she makes it through the entire course." Her face took on a worried look. "Although she did burn her hand touching my motorcycle when I gave her a ride home last week."
"Oh fah! You didn't tell me about that. Is she okay?"
Linia nodded. "She will be. She didn't know gas burners get hot that way. It was minor and we got right to the nurse's station."
"Good. I worry about you on that thing."
"Misuko, the helmets alone are Jovian rated. It would take something truly cataclysmic to hurt someone wearing one."
"I know, but... I hope you drove her carefully."
"We were never safer." She looked down at Misuko's plate. "Done? Let's go shower."
After a shower that was not too quick to prevent Misuko and Linia from using "Wash me?" as excuses to fondle and caress in ways that left both of them breathless, Linia handed Misuko a soft red lunchbox. "You know," Misuko said, "I can always buy lunch at one of the eateries on campus."
"But would you? If I didn't give you this, you'd probably forget until your stomach reminded you, wouldn't you? And then you'd get something from a vending machine or grab something from a cafe without even thinking about what it was. I know you, sweetheart. So take the lunch I give you, that's made for you, and eat when it's actually lunchtime."
"Yes, dear," Misuko said in her best mocking voice.
"Better. What do you think, by the way? I bought it yesterday with my first paycheck." Linia stood back and let Misuko examine her. Linia wore a dark green pleated skirt that reached to her calves, a white blouse and heavier tunic with a textured green-on-green necktie that offset her brown hair delightfully, and tall white socks a little thicker than the dress demanded.
"You look gorgeous."
"You don't think the tunic's a bit much?" Linia said.
"Linia, unless you want them altered, you're stuck with the boobs Steven ordered for your frame." Misuko grinned at her. "There's no way anyone could help but notice them. If you're trying to discourage the ones who like femHumans from looking you in the eye, that tunic is one way to do it."
Linia frowned down at the outfit, shrugged and pulled on the dark green jacket that went with it. "You gotta get going."
"See you later, honey."
Misuko shoved the last bite of Linia's sandwich into her mouth as she walked down the hill to Hiroshi University's Vocational Drones & Remotes Tradecraft Dome. The scorching hot day was typical of Hiroshi at this time of year, where the equator routinely saw temperatures as high as 70C. Only the poles and Hiroshi Plateau were cool enough to be human-habitable, and only the Plateau had anything vaguely resembling human-tolerable day/night cycles.
The Tradecraft center was massive, a domed building fully a hundred meters across at the diameter, with an apron of concrete separating it from the lorry-way, lined off with thick, rounded meter-tall steel pillars. Past the glass doors, the interior was a blissfully cooled foyer of industrial green carpeting and curvy stressed concrete. An open stairway to one side rose to a second floor balcony that overlooked the foyer. A young melFelinzi sat in a plastic chair sized for a Han. "Excuse me?"
"Yes?" the Felinzi said, looking up.
"I'm looking for Professor Mertum."
The Felinzi scowled slightly, then said, "He's in the lab. This way." He stood up and indicated the stairs. She followed, and he led her up and through doors along the wall opposite the balcony into what looked like another, larger balcony.
Raij Mertum, the tall man with the dark, rough features she had seen at the Faculty Corral two weeks earlier, stood at the edge of the balcony. His black turtleneck and silken slacks looked pressed and impeccable, hardly the kind of image Misuko expected from a vocational teacher. The sounds of machinery, a rumble suitable to an era of steam and steel but lacking the rhythm of an assembly line, clanked and clattered in Misuko's ears. "No, no! Shut it down!" he shouted. Muttering, he walked over to what Misuko recognized as a full-on TCNI command chair and ripped the sensory adapter pad off his victim's face. "That's not the way to control it! Have you run it in the sims?"
A bewildered femHuman, short and a touch heavyset, looked up and said, "I did do it in the sims! You saw me do it, sir! It's the TCNI. I can no use it without a good visual array, sir. An HMRI feed would..." Something about her accent sounded familiar to Misuko.
"Miss Oxenhollar," Mertum said with his teeth almost clenched, "You must learn to use TCNI writes. TCNI is far superior to HMRI at any scale. When class is over, you will go back to the sims and practice until you understand what the machine is trying to tell you. You will never earn something approaching mastery over these machines until you begin to get close to them." The young woman stared at him for a moment as her lower lip trembled, the scrabbled a pair of spectacles onto her face. She waited, her face pale and sweaty.
"Ah," he said, turning to see Misuko and the young Felinzi. His expression smoothed into a glimmer of amusement. "Can I help you?"
"Professor Mertum? I'm Misuko Ffanci." The anxious young woman's eyes widened at the mention of her name. "We corresponded last week about a mentor and four students for the remotes operation I'm planning at the Indigo dig site. I was wondering if you had those names for me yet?"
Mertum's smile was crystalline. "Ah, Ms. Ffanci. A shiny new associate professorship, I understand. All that previous legal ugliness conveniently swept under the rug, I take it? Well, yes, actually, I have been considering what names I shall provide you with for your expedition. I had considered going myself but I have other obligations this summer. I'm sure you understand. In any event, I am still without a mentor for your team. I am sorry. A harder assignment to fill, as D&R isn't exactly a class people take and then stick around for more." He chuckled, seemingly at a joke she didn't share. "I shall fill it nonetheless. In the meantime, I have nine students this year, and I'm quite sure I can find four that will fulfill your needs."
"Thank you, Professor," she said, trying to mean it but not trying too hard. "All that legal ugliness" would probably follow her around for the next century, if not beyond.
Another young woman walked up to Misuko. "Raij?" she said, her voice gentle and light. "I brought your lunch." Misuko recognized her as well from the Corral. She wore a hair-hiding headscarf and matching dress with a body-obscuring wrap hung over the left shoulder and draped down about her waist. Her skin was a lighter brown than Mertum's. She kept her face down.
He glanced at her as if he had been addressed by a lightpost. He looked down at the package the woman carried, took it. "That will be all, Miss Oxenhollar, you are dismissed for the day." They young woman sitting in the command chair twitched at the name. Mertum hadn't even looked in her direction. His victim fled with only a brief glance at Misuko.
"Saia," Mertum said, "I'd like you to meet Misuko Ffanci. She has something in common with us, for she has a companion as well."
Saia turned her head and nodded. "So I have heard. I'm very pleased to meet someone who's so well-served by the Conspiracy." Misuko smiled, pleased that Saia would use robot culture's self-mocking term in her presence. Then she stiffened slightly as Saia straightened: a scar ran from just below Saia's ear to her jawline. To Misuko's eyes it was relatively fresh, no more than a year old. Maybe that was why she wore the cowl all the time. "May your companion be everything you wish her to be."
"She... she is," Misuko said, recovering. "And more." Misuko met Saia's eyes. She was suddenly glad to have the scar as a distraction. Those empty eyes reminded her of just how little she knew about other human-robot relationships. For all her comfort with Linia, Nozomi, De Ette, even Santu and Nawazi, she knew next to nothing about the ways ordinary people chose, programmed, and manufactured companions. If she had met an organic with those eyes she would have leaped to rescue her from whatever had created such profound sadness. What she had seen of Gazelle Moor was all purpose and protection. Misuko could understand that. Saia Mertum looked lost to all human reassurance.
Saia chose to carry that look on her face. As Linia had taught Misuko through countless repetitions, it was in her beloved's best interests that she look that way. No robot could escape, or even wanted to escape, that essential piece of the code down in the core of her being. All robots carried it. It was like the commandment "survive!" in a human brain and supposedly even harder to override. It was brutally straightforward in its meaning and subtle in its application, the kind of algorithm that exposed early attempts to describe robot morality such as the infamous Three Laws as woefully naive.
"Saia," Professor Mertum said, "Why don't you go to my office? I'll join you there in a few minutes." Saia nodded, bowed her head and walked away, heading for the doors. The professor was silent for a moment as he watched her go, then looked up and said, "I'm afraid that most of the students I'd like to introduce simply aren't here at the moment. It's nice to have met you. Would you like to have dinner tonight, Professor Ffanci?"
Misuko held her face carefully still. She had made this appointment with Mertum days ago. The invitation to dinner felt deeply improper, although Misuko hadn't been a professor long enough to actually be sure. "I can't. I have an... an engagement. My fiance and I make a habit of eating together."
"Your... fiance? My congratulations, I hadn't heard. How does your companion feel about that?" The confusion on Misuko's face made him laugh. "You do mean your companion? What a charmingly anachronistic way of putting it! I would expect no less from an esteemed historian such as yourself." Misuko nodded, grateful that he didn't press the matter harder and irritated that he seemed to be so unctuous about it. "Well, Professor, I shall send you a note when I have assembled all of my students that I believe will prove most beneficial to your expedition."
"Thank you," she said. She bowed in response and said, "In that case, I'll stop taking up your time. I have a class to teach in an hour, and I'm sure you have practicals for the rest of the afternoon."
"More or less, yes," he said. "It was a pleasure to meet you in the flesh. You do your stories proud." He returned the bow, made an elegant gesture with one hand to the melFelinzi, who then led Misuko back to the front door and without more than a shrug held it for her.
The furnace heat of Hiroshi's high afternoon seared her lungs as she inhaled. She felt a brief spate of dizziness, imagined a flame roaring through her chest that blasted her body clean of a stain for which she had no name and no tangible reality. She took another deep breath and headed back into the main campus. She'd lied to Mertum. Linia was working late tonight. Normally, she and Linia would have scheduled a night together. Linia would make dinner while she finished her paperwork, and they'd eat and exchange tales of their day's adventures.
The voice reached out of her past and shook her all the way down to her shoes. She had so missed that voice, for a few weeks at least, once upon a time. She had hungered for it. She turned.
She hadn't been paying attention to where she was walking, and to her left stood one of the campus cafes, a red-and-white striped awning providing necessary shade to an outdoor space no more than two meters deep, with four tiny tables, separated from the sidewalk by an ankle-high white fence. Only one table was occupied, and by a small Tindal fem with the brightest blue fur Misuko had ever seen and a mass of hair so pale and clean that without the blue tinge it would have rivaled Gazelle Moor's. When Misuko had last seen that face, that hair had been short, a mop that had waved overhead like the kites that cooled and watered the city. Now it hung down the back of the chair halfway to her belt line. "Esther?"
"Hey, going somewhere?"
Misuko looked at her watch. "Not right now. Are you doing okay?"
Esther smiled over old pain. "I wish you'd asked me that two years ago."
"Things happened." Misuko stepped into the cafe's shade, sat down.
"Yeah." Esther was quiet. The glass on the table held something clear. She tapped it with her mitten. Misuko watched it. That beautiful mitten. Misuko reflected on what it had done to her, once upon a time.
"I owe you some thanks," Esther said. "I don't know what you said, but somehow my name stayed out of the official record."
Misuko nodded. After the silence stretched out ahead of them, she said, "Esther, I didn't mean for us, for it, for the whole thing to come apart that way."
"Like you said, there were things we never said to each other." Esther's eyes were wet. "And we never were going to, either. I hear the robot's really working out for you?"
"Linia is... yeah. We're good."
"So good you don't have time for other lovers, huh?"
"It's not that," Misuko said. "I've never been able to juggle more than one relationship at a time. I have other things to do. That kind of relationship takes all the attention I can give it."
Esther nodded. "I'm sorry what I said about her. I've seen her on the news, giving interviews. She seems a lot smarter than my first impression."
"I wasn't offering," Esther said quickly.
"I know, I know," Misuko said.
"Is it okay if I say, 'I miss you?'"
Misuko hesitated. Linia would know what to say here. She always knew what to say. "It's always okay to miss people who aren't in your life anymore, even if you know missing them– and remembering them— is the only thing you'll be able to do."
Esther took a deep breath. "Fah," she said. "You always did know how to say something to make it even more romantic. Is that a history major thing?"
"Maybe," Misuko said. "I miss you too."
Esther nodded. "I guess... I guess that'll be enough."
"Yeah." Misuko reached over and touched the back of Esther's mitten, letting those memories of that mitten and what it had done to her, where it had gone, where it had taken her, rise in her memories. "I'm glad you're good, Esther."
"Same here. See you around?"
"Probably." Misuko stood up. "Take care?" Esther nodded. "Bye, then."
As she stepped over the white fence the memories of Esther and her magnificent mittens faded away to be replace with a half-grin and an appreciation for the kind of magics Linia applied to her body, her life, and her sense of permanence. Esther had only excelled at the first. Linia was a diligent researcher ferreting out her body's secrets, so even there Misuko believed Linia was definitely closing in on all the skills Esther had so manifestly possessed.
She looked forward to tomorrow morning already, when she would next have a chance to talk with Linia. There hadn't been much to talk about with Esther. Esther adventures hadn't been very different, day by day. Misuko laughed softly, even with no one to hear it, as the truth registered. Linia was an adult. Just as Misuko was an adult with all the history of pain and loss and regret that comes from living a life that seemed to begging more full every day. She might wish those low moments weren't all there but without them she'd never have known about the high points either. Like finding the Second Chances. Like finding Linia. Like finding an undoubtable love.