Anar, Urim 08, 03262
Honest Impulses 13: Passing
For the uncounted time that day Shandy blew a lock of hair out of her eyes, then looked down into the four-centimeter square access hole she'd been working on for the past half-hour, making sure the connectors were just right.
The smell of machine oil, metallic dust, and ozone accompanied the sounds of pneumatic drivers, drills, riveters, and even the occasional power saw. Four bays away, Trianna was working on her own project, something much smaller, some kind of stand-alone drone. She smiled as she watched the other fem lean over, her brow furrowed and her muzzle in that gentle snarl of someone not entirely pleased with her own work, then looked back down. She used a small flashlight to peer into the panel whenever her own head blocked the overhead light strips.
All the indicators in her spectacles suddenly turned green as she examined the output. She took a deep breath, looked down one last time to eyeball the connectors and make sure they were tight. She closed the panel. "All right," she said.
She stepped over to her workbench and picked up the power supply. It was a three-century standard with bank capabilities, a fairly ordinary model. She was surprised that she'd been able to afford it on her account, but it turned out there were special considerations for school supplies, and the power supply, the myomer actuators, and all the rest had actually counted as such. She had no idea how much she could draw on, and she didn't care to try her patron's patience by trying to find out. Whatever the limits were, they allowed her to move forward with her own program and that was enough. She reached into the lower beam, the heavy support structure that attached the legs to the body of the suit, and opened up the power slot. The supply, barely the size of a can of coffee, fit perfectly. Shandy reached up to the front chestpiece, flipped open a small plastic cover, and flipped the switch underneath.
The suit came on. It shuddered briefly, and then lights came on all over the inside of the front chest-plate. A holographic spatial location awareness display highlighted right about where her head would be if she sat in the machine, and more small lights illustrated along the glove slots. "I see you got it to wake up," Trianna said, admiring the machine.
"Ah!" Shandy startled. "Sorry, Miss... Trianna. I did no hear you come up behind me."
"That's because I have quiet feet." Shandy glanced down to see that, sure enough, Trianna was barefoot, a contrast from her own heavy boots. "Is it completely ready?"
"Aye, I think so. Can I ask you to spot me?" Shandy held out the small communicator box she'd rigged for this moment. "'Tis the power kill. 'Twill shut it off if it starts to get strange."
"Do you expect it to get strange?" Trianna said, looking over the strange, metallic-grey machine. "It looks strange."
Shandy loved the suit. It was as archaic as they came, a first-generation fusion-powered suit of heavy duty police armor. It used HMRI and a limited TCNR interface. If it had ever had an anagrav adapter Shandy hadn't found it in the warehouse, so it would never fly. Tactical awareness was entirely via eyes and ears, with a very primitive threat-awareness model in the HUD. "I do no expect," Shandy said. "I just want to be sure."
"Suit up, then," Trianna said, giving her a smile.
Shandy pulled off her boots and slipped on the lightweight nylon slippers that the suit's suspensors required. She climbed up onto one knee and pivoted into the pilot's "chair", an almost vertical pad that she leaned against. She activated the suit's safety harness; the lower half of the chestplate enveloped her and began to inflate, gripping her from her thighs to her ribcage. Its horizontal give would protect her against significant impacts and falls of almost a dozen meters. For vertical give, the actuators themselves would absorb a lot of impact, giving her the power to jump almost twenty meters vertically, roll and come up shooting. At least, that's what the ancient promotional video she'd watched claimed it could do.
She pulled the stripped-down TNCR headset over her head, then slipped her hands into the upper pair of waldo controls and moved them. The suit's massive lower arms mimicked her movement. "Time," she said. She pushed back against the seat with her hips, then downward with her feet. The suit rose easily to a standing position, rocked momentarily, and waited.
"You have the SLA safeties on, right?"
"Aye, Trianna!" Shandy grinned as she took her first step. It felt awkward, but not treacherous. She took another. Then a third. Trianna clapped her hands, then hurried to the wall at the back of the bay. She hit a large yellow button and said, "Open the pod bay doors, Hal!"
Shandy had no idea who 'Hal' might be, but when she saw the sunlight blaze through the vehicle bay door, she stopped caring. She took a few steps forward, almost lost her balance before the suit corrected, then stepped out through the vehicle bay. The suit made heavy thudding sounds as she drove it along the concrete and out onto the sand behind the garage.
"I'm going to close up," Shandy said. Although she wasn't fond of TCNI writing into her brain she'd come to accept TCNR doing a shallow read of her active thought processes, and with it she told the suit to close. The two upper chestplates closed her in, as the upper sensor array folded downward, giving the suit its "head." The two "bunny-ear" camera stalks reached up from the head to give her a 360 degree of her environment from almost four meters. She was able to direct each stalk individually to look around corners and gather sensory data. The suit's internal life support activated, giving her a sense of blessed coolness she hadn't been missing until now. "How's it working?" Trianna asked, her voice as clear as if she'd been standing next to Shandy.
"So far, so good." Shandy toggled the suit's health display. It looked to be in perfect working order. Some items were dark: the weapons system, shared tactical. The suit's combat capabilities had been deactivated. Life support was solid green. She looked at a few gauges that wanted her attention. "There's some excess strain in the right knee. I think there might be some metal fatigue I didn't see the first time through. I'll replace it later."
"Is it dangerous?"
"'Tis well within safety margin." She gave some orders to the suit and the comms came up. Hiroshi said Pierre was available and in the dome. "Pierre?"
"Shandy, hello! What can I do for you?"
"Is the floor clear?"
"It is at the moment. Why? Do you want a run?"
"Please, aye. Obstacle course, fully randomized, difficulty level three, three-meter humanoid drone."
"Three meters, you said?"
"Aye, three," Shandy said. "And open the back bay door?"
"O... kay." Shandy turned and watched as the metal door at the back of the dome, the one that allowed the drones to move from the garage to the exercise floor, rolled up. She strode into the dome, letting her body and the suit adjust to one another with every step. It felt utterly natural, as if being inside a suit of powered armor was where she'd always lived, always meant to be. She blinked, briefly, on the memory of Linia's lips against her cheek and faltered, then grinned. There were reasons to not always be in the suit.
She walked into the dome. It looked so small now, so easy. "What is that?" She heard Sennis say from the observation deck.
"This is my engineering project," Shandy said. "Mark III Tokyo Police Powered Riot Control Suit, circa 2080TCE."
"Where are you?"
Shandy gave a command and the hood popped open. "Surprise!" she shouted.
"Shandy!" Sennis said. "Is not drone. You told me so yourself."
Shandy laughed and said, "Let me run through this anyway."
"Is your funeral."
Shandy drove the suit to the starting line while Sennis finished programming the course. "Shandy, am sending course progress telemetry to your helmet. Is with you, yes?"
"Aye. Thanks." She closed the suit and watched the countdown. When it hit zero, she lunged forward. The suit tripped. She grunted as the harness held her shoulders and kept her head from slamming into the faceplate. The countdown had been a cue, and she'd let herself do the first thing she always did when the cue hit zero, which was direct the machine with her hands. That didn't work with the suit.
She rose and examined the stack of blocks ahead of her, the first step of the obstacle course. She scrambled up them, reached the top, and lowered herself down onto the other side. She ran, her heavy footsteps across the dirt floor until she caught the rings on the other side. With an easy hand-to-hand motion she crossed the pit, then fell to the other side, grunting as she hit the ground.
She ran under a wire as if she were sliding into second base, then monkey-jumped past alternating steel platforms, climbed a pole as if she were born with eight legs, and with one leap of faith that even terrified her somersaulted in mid-air over the last wall, landing hard.
"Ninety-four seconds!" Sennis shouted. "Is record, Shandy!"
"It is nothing of the sort," Mertum's voice said, cutting through. "It is two demerits. One, for having unauthorized equipment on the practice floor, and another for being on the floor during the exercise."
"But 'tis a suit!" Shandy objected.
"That is immaterial. The rules state that no one may be on the floor during the exercise, for your own safety. If you do not exit the floor immediately, I will be forced to suspend your exercise rights, Miss Oxenhollar."
Shandy gasped. "Aye, sir," she said. "Understood, sir."
"Good," he said.
Shandy drove the suit out the back door and into the bay. She sat it down into the harness, popped it open, and stepped out, furious with Mertum for turning what should have been the best exercise she'd ever committed into a disaster. Sennis came running through the door that connected the garage to the dome. "Shandy, Shandy. I am sorry."
"'Tis no fault of yours, Sennis," she said. "He's probably right. But there's no rule that says you have to have his permission to bring non-school drones onto the practice floor!"
"What's this about?" Trianna said, joining them. Shandy and Sennis explained, and Trianna frowned. "He's right about the safety thing. But you're right about the authorized equipment. You could appeal."
"He'd just find a way to mess me up worse," Shandy said. "He hates me."
"No, he doesn't," Trianna said.
"Am with Shandy. He likes nobody, Shandy least of all. Is a bigot for TNCI and implants. Shandy is all-girl and likes her head way it is."
"Thanks," Shandy said, grinning at him. "I think." She took a deep breath, put her glasses back on, and tapped the rim. "I have to go. I have a..." A what? A date? An appointment? "A class to go to."
Trianna took a deep breath, and Shandy watched Trianna's chest rise and fall with it. "All right. But think about the appeal, Shandy. It's not worth it for you to go out with more demerits on your record than the ones you really deserved."
"Did you ever get demerits you did deserve?"
Trianna grinned. "All the time, Shandy. All the time."
Misuko's apartment hadn't been all that hard to find. The squat, two-storey apartment occupied a corner of a block, its roof adorned with the colorful fluttering flags that both collected water from the wind and shaded the streets below. It was sun-bleached stucco yellow with weather-beaten brown trim, the door was heavy and had glass panels on the top half leading to a broad foyer with a wide staircase that led up to the second floor with four doors. Misuko and Linia occupied apartment 202, in the corner to the back and the left. Shandy knocked. Footsteps followed.
The door opened and Linia stood there, smiling down at her. "Come in, come in!" She paused. "That's different."
Shandy had changed into a colorful blue dress decorated with white and orange drawings of musical instruments. "I don't think I've ever seen you dress up."
"'Twas my thought, I should dress up for Miss Ffanci."
"I appreciate that. I'm not a stickler for dressing up, but that looks good on you," Misuko said, appearing behind Linia. "Come in, come in. Welcome to our humble abode." She gestured. Shandy saw the kitchen, main, bedroom, and a little side room with two desks on opposite walls.
Shandy nodded slowly. "Something wrong?" Linia said. Shandy shrugged. "Tell me?"
"Mertum gave me two demerits today." She sighed and began an explanation of what had happened at the dome that afternoon. "Sorry, I'm no going to be in a good mood."
"Well, let me see if I can fix that," Linia said. "And I like your dress, too."
"'Tis so strange," Shandy said, picking at one of her sleeves. "Took me a while to realize no one had said anything about my clothes. It happened all the time back home. Does no one here care if I dress like a boy?"
Misuko said, "Shandy, Hiroshi is a university town. People come here from dozens of different worlds. Nobody has any idea what it even means to 'dress like a boy' or 'like a girl' on someone else's homeworld, and if they have opinions they keep them to themselves. There are worlds where the very terms 'boy' and 'girl' don't even apply. There are some familiar dress styles, but nobody's going to tell you you're doing it wrong here. They don't know what 'wrong' means." Misuko gestured down at her own outfit, purple camouflage cargo shorts and a red t-shirt that fit tight across her torso. "This would be a scandal in Ottiwells."
"Aye," Shandy said, grinning. "But no in Edo?"
"Not so much. Edo is... human, but cosmopolitan in a way Landing is exactly not. Anyway, I'll let you two get on with whatever it is you need to practice. Linia didn't tell me."
"It's a surprise," Linia said. "Come on, Shandy, let's do this."
Shandy had never actually been on the receiving end of Linia's teaching mode, and experiencing it was new. Linia was patient but she made it clear she expected Shandy to learn after only at most one repetition, and Shandy worked to keep up, memorizing, noting, double-checking the cookbook Linia had open to the recipe. "There are tricks to keeping it from deflating. Like a water bath to regulate the temperature, so it doesn't scorch and stick to the sides of the pan. But then the pan has to be one with a latch and a guaranteed seal. Like this."
Shandy nodded. She'd seen cake pans like that before and hadn't known what special problems they existed to solve. Now she did.
They had fun while they worked. Shandy stirred the initial custard harder than she'd meant to and a dollop splattered onto the tiled island workspace. "Uh, oh," Linia said. "You got some on your nose."
Linia dipped her finger into the splatter and touched it to Shandy's face. "You do now."
"Linia!" Shandy sputtered and wiped it off with her hand, then licked her fingers. She giggled and Linia giggled a response.
Shortly after they put it into the oven, Shandy heard the sound of rollers on the wooden floor. Misuko was leaning back, her head visible through the door to the office. "I smell honey, and almonds. What are you making in there?"
"I told you, it's a surprise, beloved," Linia said. "You'll get to know in a little bit." Misuko wrinkled her nose. Linia stuck out her tongue at Misuko. Misuko chuckled and rolled back to her desk and her work.
The timer chimed and Linia took the cake out of the oven, hot water bath and all, and placed it on the insulated counter. She took a gleaming chrome cylinder about the size of two drink cans stacked on top of each other and placed it in the bath and turned it on. "See, there's another trick with this, and that's that we can use a water bath circulator with a chiller to bring it down quickly. We'll have to do this in class because we don't have all night there, either.
"Now, for the llerkindi, we're going to do..." She pulled out a different cookbook. "I'm not going make you make this one, but you do need to be prepared for it. There's an herb called dathara." Linia pulled out a small spice jar and offered it to Shandy. Shandy sniffed it and immediately felt warm inside. "It's a bit like catnip for humans, huh? Don't eat it, though, you'll get really nauseous."
"It smells amazing, though!"
"It does, doesn't it?" Linia grinned, then glanced at her watch. "Probably another ten minutes. How were your other classes today?" Shandy immediately felt her melancholy return. "That bad, huh?"
Shandy shrugged. Linia shook her head. "I don't know why he's so determined to dislike you," she said.
"I don't either," Shandy said.
Linia picked up a small remote sensor and ran it over the cheesecake. "It's ready. Oh, Misuko!"
"I figured that part out. But what did you... cheesecake?"
"It's what we're making for the next class. Shandy had never heard of cheesecake. So we had to practice."
"I bet," Misuko said. "Oh, Shandy, you're in for a treat. Linia's cheesecakes are amazing! If she made them more often than once or twice a year, I'd balloon up into a sphere."
"I'd just have to exercise you harder, beloved," Linia said, and wrinkled her nose suggestively. Misuko grinned back. Shandy blushed, then coughed dramatically. "Oh, Shandy. I'm sorry."
Shandy looked at the two of them. So pretty, so... right. "I should get used to it." She tapped her glasses. "And I should go soon."
"Then let's get decadent," Linia said, holding up a pie knife.
Shandy joined them at the table as Linia cut thin slices of the cake for the three of them, placing them on the table, and was delighted to learn that it really was as good as Misuko's expression suggested. Far too heavy to have more than a few bites but far too good to ignore, especially when so freshly made.
As they did, Misuko asked Shandy about the politics back home. Shandy wasn't quite as aware of them as Misuko had been, but then Misuko's father had been a lawyer with an active interest in the planet's comings and goings and, especially, the ongoing tension between the planet's three major nations. Landing, Ludd and Edo made a recreational pastime of accusing one another of some violation of the Abi World Charter, whether it be Edo's machines having just a little too much self-direction or some court case in Landing violating the Personal Conscience clause. The Charter itself was overseen by a nominated committee of twenty-one, seven from each nation.
What Shandy could recall was that Landing and Ludd were still arguing that the Charter's imposition of the reproductive lottery were violations of the Personal Conscience clause. Edo, already somewhat resource-limited by its vast deserts' hard limits on its subterranean water table, argued otherwise. "Same as it ever was," Misuko said.
When she finished her dessert, Shandy sighed and leaned back, drinking from the glass of water Linia had also provided. "'Twas wonderful, Linia."
"You made it. I just pointed."
"Sometimes, just pointing is all you have to do," Misuko said.
Shandy yawned. She tapped her glasses. "'Tis late."
"Definitely getting on to bedtime," Misuko agreed. "Thank you for coming over, Shandy. And thank you for giving me a look into what's going on back home."
"'Twas a pleasure to be sure!" Shandy said. "Thank you for the invite. See you soon." She hugged Linia goodbye, and to her surprise Misuko opened her arms for an embrace as well. The little jolts of pleasure she felt at Linia's touch weren't there, but the pleasure of just being held made Shandy feel serene and appreciated. "Thanks," she said to both of them.
"See you soon," Linia said. Shandy nodded and made her good-bye.