Anar, Urim 08, 03262
Honest Impulses 16: Scrambles
Shandy had turned over, awake, even before the alarm went off. It was her habit to rise early, a habit born of years on the farm, one that she hoped she didn't lose. There was something good about being awake before everyone else, about momentarily having the day to yourself, to being aware that very few people were awake with you. It was as if thought itself had a volume, took up space, and being awake early in the morning was a bit like having that space to herself.
She stared up at the flat, light brown faux-wood platform of the bed above her, smiled wanly, and reached up to run her hand through the bells and chimes that she'd hung around the frame, letting the music ring and jingle through her.
Someone knocked on the door, hard. Authoritatively.
Shandy rose and pulled on a housecoat, belted it. "Coming," she said, to make sure whoever at the door knew they weren't wasting their time. She opened it.
Detective Damarcius was waiting for her. "I'm sorry to intrude so early, Miss Oxenhollar, but I'm afraid it's necessary. May I come in?"
"Huh?" Shandy didn't know why the officer stood at her door. Her brain tired hard to right itself, explain what was going on. "Oh, aye," she finally managed to say.
"Thank you." Damarcius closed the door behind himself. "As I said, it was necessary that I speak to you before you go to your classes this morning. I'm afraid something has arisen from our investigation. I have to emphasize, Miss Oxenhollar, that you are not a suspect in the death of Saia Mertum. But we are trying to determine the sequence of events that led up to her death. I need to ask, do you feel you need a lawyer present to talk to the police?"
Shandy stared at him. She finally shook her head. Damarcius took a deep breath, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small object, a bolt about four centimeters long and one centimeter thick, with a flat mushroom head about two-and-a-half centimeters across, with two tiny holes on either side. "Do you recognize this?"
Shandy nodded. "'Tis a rescue bolt. There are eight of them on my... my engineering project." The shaft had a small charge of explosive. In the event the suit was disabled and powered down, she could lift a panel and hit it, and a tiny strand of detonation cord would lead to all eight, cutting the clamps that held the chestpiece shut, allowing the occupant to escape. The mushroom head was reinforced to shape the explosion into the clamp. The resulting bang might deafen the occupant, even bruise her, but she'd at least be able to get out. She glanced up at Damarcius. "Did she, did Saia use one of those to do, to, to..."
Damarcius nodded. "We've examined the suit. All eight of the bolts you ordered are in place. She didn't taken them out of your inventory. Every last bolt is accounted for, and the paper trail of parts ordered matches the inventory on the suit. We thought she might have used one you took out of the suit, but those were recorded as destroyed correctly, and the material that was left says the bolt she used was of recent manufacture. Do you have any idea how she could possibly have acquired one?"
"Where did you get that one?" It couldn't possibly be the original; the original would have been shattered and shredded by the explosion; only the head and a bit of the bolt would be left.
"This is a facsimile. Plastic and inert."
Shandy thought, fast. "Could any of the ones left in my suit be facsimiles?" She knew the word, but she'd never had to say it out loud before, and she cringed at how her accent seemed to mangle it in her mouth.
"We thought of that, so we had them examined. No, they're all the real thing. I'm sorry to tell you that we had to execute a warrant against your property to determine these facts. It's never fun to invade another privacy, or to have it invaded by the police. I understand that." He took a deep breath. "As I said, you're not a suspect, and our initial thought that Saia Mertum had taken one of your bolts to cause her own death led us to those actions.
"Miss Oxenhollar, how do you feel about robots?"
"Differently than I did," she said.
"Could you explain that?"
"I came here from Abi because I wanted to learn about them. I'm sure you've had to read about Abi." Damarcius nodded. "I was good with machines and such, and I was fast learning how to drive machines. They said 'tis no job for a woman, but I thought I could come here and learn without being influenced by the machines. But everything they told us on Abi was no true, was it? I've made a few friends here, and two of them are robots, and they're good people. 'Tis the people people who are terrible to the robots, no the other way 'round. Mertum took advantage of Saia's programming and swore at her, hit her, beat her up, and she... she just took it, and 'tis wrong for a world to let that happen, isn't it?"
Damarcius looked at her, curiously. "Do you think she killed herself because of his abuse?"
Shandy shook her head. "'Tis what I mean. She no could. They no can. 'Tis no allowed in their programming. Whatever happened to her, 'twas no his abuse that led her there. 'Twas something else. He needs something, something that could only be gotten by, by what she did." She shook her head. "Whatever it was, it should have been caught a long time ago."
"You're a very perceptive young woman. Have you considered a career in law enforcement?"
She smiled through the sadness she fought. "Nah, 'tis no in my nature. I do no ken that I have the patience for it."
"Patience is a requirement," he said, with something that sounded like a sigh. "Thank you for your time, Miss Oxenhollar. I'm going to leave now. I'm afraid that there are other repercussions of this discovery, Miss Oxenhollar. I'm not at liberty to discuss them, but you should probably be checking your messages before you consider heading off to class."
"Aye," Shandy said. "I'll do that." Checking her message queue first thing in the morning wasn't her normal habit, and she'd avoided making it one. She still held onto her old ways and preferred to spend her first hour with breakfast and a prayer before diving back into the world. She let Damarcius out and closed the door behind him, then turned back and picked up her Handbook. It was easier than finding her glasses.
The two top messages were flagged URGENT. Shandy opened the first one.
To: Shandy Oxenhollar
We regret to inform you that Professor Mertum has been put on immediate suspension pending a school investigation. A consequence of this decision is that the Remotes and Drones driving school will be CLOSED until further notice.
The rest of the note discussed how to recover her fees and expenses, if she chose, or how to keep the partial credits she had already earned and carry them over when either Professor Mertum was recalled from suspension or a new instructor was found.
Shandy opened the second one
To: Shandy Oxenhollar
We regret to inform you that the Hiroshi City Police have declared the Remotes and Drones Practice Dome and the Remotes and Drones Engineering and Maintenance Bay a crime scene. As a result, both the practice dome and the maintenance bay will be CLOSED until further notice.
Again, the rest of the note was about recovering any spent costs. She stared at the messages as dismay uncoiled in her chest. That was the entirety of her D&R class schedule. She had only her electives left. She stared at the Handbook as if it were the repository of all everything that had hurt her since coming to Hiroshi, then threw it onto the bed, sat down next to it, and cried again.
When the time came, Shandy roused herself out of her bed and forced herself to walk down to the D&R Dome. She would have been there anyway, and for prior two weeks Linia had been picking her up from the dome to give her time to hang out with her classmates at the cafe up the street. Linia had told her, "I want you fed and watered before I make you sweat over a classroom of hot stoves for three hours." Shandy smiled at the memory, then sighed.
Linia was there, waiting for her. She straddled her bike, her toes pointed straight to the ground to compensate for her short legs, maintaining a tension that few humans could have held for long. She wore a body-tight yellow ride suit Shandy had never before seen, something that looked more like the snug-fitting full HMRI flight suit that Shandy would have bought if she anticipated using the Shirow for more than a year. It glistened, making Linia look more like part of the motorcycle and yet outlined the shape of her body to emphasize her feminine curves. The sight made Shandy's unruly heart beat louder. "Linia!"
Linia didn't react. Shandy walked up. Linia was staring off in the direction of the doors. Shandy had never seen her so still before. "Linia?" She waved a hand in front of the other woman's face. "Linia? Hello?"
Linia shook herself. "Shandy, hi! Sorry, I was expecting you to come out of the dome." She looked again as if seeing the yellow warning tape across the doors for the first time. "How did I..." She turned her head from side to side. "Did you see Professor Mertum go by?"
"Nae," Shandy said. "And thank God for that."
"That's very strange. I could have sworn he was walking by just a second ago. Something..." She looked puzzled. "Huh. That's funny. Something's off with one of my clocks." She glanced down at her wristwatch, touched the face momentarily. "I should have that checked. Darnit, I can't. With Nozomi and De Ette out of the system that would leave Swadjtwai. And there's no way I'm going to see him. But it's good to see you, Shandy. Ready to go?"
Shandy nodded. Linia handed her the helmet, and Shandy comfortably vaulted herself over the motorcycle. She wrapped her arms around Linia's waist, this time knowing the suit was as close to Linia's skin as it could possibly be, and smiled through her sorrow. This was what she would have of Linia, to remember for as long as she lived, the warmth and friendliness of her robot friend. Just a friend.
At the kitchen, Linia told her that she was re-arranging the class a bit. They both scrambled to get the ingredients out and ready. Linia left Shandy with the responsibility for the human students while she arranged the separate lists for the one llerkin and the few furs in the class.
The students began to file into class. Shandy had noticed that they were coming early now, getting a lead on what was to be made and what ingredients they'd have to choose. Shandy understood their foresight, and when class began Shandy was once again in awe of Linia. She didn't make what she did seem superhuman or impossible. A high-functioning human could keep up with her, just as one could keep up with Misuko. Shandy yearned to be that kind of person. She would have to be that kind of person.
As the class wore on the sadness in her chest grew implacably. By the time the last student had left, she was doing everything she could to hold in her tears, and Linia couldn't help but notice. "Shandy? Is something all right?"
Shandy shook her head. Linia looked around the kitchen, shrugged and said, "Come into the dining area." They sat at a table together, cat-a-corner to one another. Shandy draped her backpack over the back of the chair. Linia held her hand out. Shandy took it. "What's wrong?"
"I'm leaving." It was all she could think to say.
"Now? In the middle of the quarter?"
Shandy nodded, her jaw quivering with her anguish. "My classes— have been suspended. All of it. Driving and engineering. The school is to reimburse me— my patron— for the costs, but Hiroshi 'tis no place for me. Next season's schedule requires I finish this one. I no can finish my schooling at all. I no can stay here. Even if I find a place to live off-campus, I could no keep working after you and Misuko leave for her next mission. I would no survive the summer here alone." She shrugged, but tears rolled down her cheeks. "Abi is where I belong."
"I want you to stay," Linia said. "I... There has to be a way."
Shandy shook her head. "I came here with so many confused ideas," she said. "Misuko's right. Landing's no place for me either, but Edo will do. I can take a mechanic's apprenticeship there. Women do that all the time in Edo."
"They do that all the time most places in the Corridor," Linia said. "I can talk to Misuko. We'll find out if the school will reschedule Driving 1 for next quarter. They have, or there'll be no one to fill the classes, right?"
"But what if my patron no does want that?"
"Have you asked?"
"I nae ken how!" Shandy said. She was looking at Linia's hand, the one holding hers, and her mind was full of loud, fuzzy static where thoughts should have been. Linia was right, but somehow that rightness didn't register. "I'm so broken inside."
Linia took a deep breath. "Every human thinks they're broken inside. I used to ask Misuko if I was. I think that a lot. Doctor Swadjtwai tried to convince me that I was, told Misuko I needed to be 'recalibrated.'" She gestured to her head. Shandy stared in horror. "We both refused. He kept saying I had 'behavioral irregularities.' Well, Misuko likes my irregularities. But sometimes I wonder if I'm broken, too. Because I feel things that other companion robots don't. Or if they do, they don't admit to it." Shandy looked up. "I want to help you, Shandy. I want to help the people I love get what they need. Which is why..." Linia paused and took a deep breath. "Which is why I asked Misuko for her consent, and she gave it. I have selfish reasons for not wanting you to leave."
"Consent?" Shandy said. "Consent to what? I thought you didn't need to ask her consent to have friends?"
"I can have friends, of course," Linia said. "Misuko expects me have friends. Mature, whole people have friends, and she expects me to be a mature, whole person. But when you want to ask someone if they'd want to be your lover, it's generally obligatory to ask your fiance if that's okay."
"L... lover?" Shandy asked, shocked. Suddenly the static went away, replaced with intense desire, and then an equally intense loathing aimed at her desire. "Are you joking? You no would, would you? No about that."
"No, I'm not joking."
"Yes!" Linia smiled wide. "Misuko asked me to marry her, yesterday afternoon. Of course I said yes! We haven't set a date or anything, but it's going to be before we leave for the expedition. I'm really excited."
Shandy stared at her, unbelieving. How could one woman contain so many different things, so many promises, so much passion and decency and yet be so much a temptation? "I no... I no... I can no... "
Linia's hand left hers, and reached up to touch her cheek. "Please stay?" She leaned forward and her lips touched Shandy's.
Shandy reacted as if she'd been touched by a live wire. She pushed away from the table so hard the chair fell over, tumbling her backpack. She grabbed it, scrambled to her feet and ran, slamming through the front doors and out into the street, running as fast as she could to get away from this one last moment, this one last, terrible temptation. It had been all true, the terrible lures of the outer world, the black wickedness of the universe and of her soul.
She heard Linia's voice behind her, calling her name, growing more faint. Shandy ran to escape that beautiful, worried, loving voice, and the unanswerable ruin it meant for her.