Honest Impulses 07: The Picnic
Anar, Yavar 08, 03262
Shandy managed to survive six more days of classes, and her Wednesday morning D&R Maintenance and Engineering class had been a blessed diversion from the rising anxiety. Her last conversation with Linia played over and over in her mind. She hoped Jinny was... what? Ugly? Mean? Sarcastic? No woman who deserved Linia would be any of those things. Linia and Jinny. And Misuko Ffanci. God had chosen to send her the most bittersweet challenge she could have imagined. She'd seen Misuko Ffanci talking to Professor Mertum, but now she'd actually be able to talk to her. She wanted to spend more time with Linia, but now she would be meeting Linia's girlfriend, and she expected Jinny to be just as astonishing as Linia.
The path Shandy took through the University-maintained Wekesa Pushka forest was broad and pounded firm and lined with painted logs that would probably never rot. The forest was named after one of the founders of the University. Fifty kilometers long and barely three kilometers wide, it stretched along the western edge of the Plateau, bending inward at the edges to absorb and direct wind-blown sand away from the city. Beyond the forest lay the Western Drop Meadow and Picnic Shelter W5.
The smell of roasting meat reached her nose even as she broke out from the treeline. The shelter was still over a hundred meters away, the path grew narrow and fingers of grass leaned in to reclaim it, but Shandy was led by the smell and the thick trail of smoke from a raised barbecue drum above an anagrav cargo pallet. Large sections of what had clearly once been a whole pig slowly roasted above glowing coals within the drum. It was the figure under the shelter, though, that caused Shandy's feet to move quicker. "Miss... Linia! I knew you used meat in class but this... it's amazing!"
Linia grinned as she stepped out into the sunlight. "Do you like it? I was tempted to go with a whole pit, but it's not the best way to cook pork. This way gets better results. The pig was a decerebrate 'borg factory I ordered and had delivered by a friend down in Amundsen on his last transit. It wasn't cheap."
Shandy nodded, trying not to imagine the expense. "What can I do to help then?"
"Everything!" Linia said. "Over there is the vegetable plats. Make more coleslaw– yours was amazing— and make a second dressing, a little sweeter. Some of these heathens want a noodle salad. I boiled some lumaconi this morning, it's over in that big container there. Put some pimentos in it, anything to counteract the sugar. I set dough last night, so I've got the buns to make. If you don't recognize something, let me know."
Linia's list of tasks gave Shandy no time to engage in conversation for the next hour. Instead, she let the familiar rhythms of the kitchen surround her even now, perhaps especially now, when the kitchen was a collection of wooden tables, an open-pit barbecue, and a breezy open-air shelter against the sun. Occasionally, Shandy would look up to see Linia's own performance, a whirlwind that moved from table to table, a model of efficiency and preparation, an exhibition of excellence. Each time Shandy struggled to look away. She rubbed at her chest and wished for the strange and familiar not-pain to fade.
Shandy looked up from the grill she'd been recoaling to find Linia holding a reusable squeeze bottle. Even in Hiroshi's bright sun and low humidity, condensation collected on the outside. "Thanks." The cold water shocked her throat going down and she gasped as she finally came up for air. "Whew."
"It's a hot day, and I've got us slaving over a fire. Maybe that wasn't smart. Ah, what I do for love." Linia grinned. "Take a break, Shandy. You've been working far too hard."
Love. "I'm just doing what you tell me."
"And never taking a break."
Shandy grinned. "Work as hard as the boss. That's what my Father taught me." She changed the subject. "What's Jinny like?"
"Jinny?" Linia looked puzzled. "She's nice. Very sociable, very pretty if you like your human females pale-skinned and blonde. Why? You aren't looking for a date, are you?" Shandy felt the blush sweep across her face. Linia grinned. Her voice had an odd note to. "Don't worry. There'll be plenty of people at the picnic for you to meet. But I wouldn't look to Jinny that way. You'd make great friends but she's not into women for relationships. Not like that."
"Oh," Shandy said, puzzled.
Linia said, "You'll find someone. I hope you do." She looked up. "Speaking of the boss, here she comes." She pointed across the field.
In the distance a woman wearing a long, light-blue summer dress and white wide-brimmed hat approached along the same path Shandy had taken to reach the shelter. She was tall with long, black hair that blew lightly in the breeze. She walked with calm self-assurance, her arms swinging with unstrung ease. Like Linia, her appearance was serendipitous rather than deliberate; not a classic beauty, but a complete beauty. Shandy would have recognized her at twice the distance.
"Misuko!" Linia waved her arms as the other woman approached, and the other woman waved back. It took two more minutes, long, long minutes for Shandy as she watched the heroine of her recent years come closer. Her eyes grew wider. Misuko Ffanci was tall, but somehow she wasn't as big as Shandy had expected. Finally, she stepped into the shelter and went straight to Linia. "You found us!" Linia said.
"Honey, it's the only shelter in use in this corner of the park." Misuko wrapped her arm around Linia's waist. Shandy's stomach knotted as the two women draw close and kissed in a way only lovers ever should.
Shandy watched, unbelieving, then turned away, clutching her apron. It made perfect, terrible, undeniable sense. If Misuko really was as competent and moral as the newsies said she was, of course she was good enough for someone as decent, thoughtful, and humane as Linia to love her. And to be as moral and competent as the newsies has maintained, of course she would have someone as organized, disciplined, and domestic as Linia to support her.
When all she had known was that Linia was committed to someone, she had hoped to be as good as that someone to be deserving of a love like Linia's. Now she knew better. Now she knew the standard against which she stood.
"Misuko," Linia said. "I think we're shocking my assistant."
"What? Oh! Oh, I'm so sorry. Is this her? The one you said was such a miracle worker? Hi! I'm Misuko Ffanci." She shot a mock glare toward Linia. "Someone forgot to tell me your name."
Shandy turned around, locking her face into something resembling calm. Terrified, torn, heartbroken, her brain racing to find something sensible to say, something that would win approval in this woman's eyes, she managed a formal curtsy and said, "I know who you are, Miss Ffanci, I'm very happy to meet you finally. I no did think I'd ever get the chance. I'm Shandy, Miss, Shandy Oxenhollar."
Misuko hand hesitated halfway out. She started to say something, paused, then finished, "I recognize you. You were in the Drones & Remotes Driving class. And that accent... are you from Abi, Miss Oxenhollar?"
"Aye, Miss Ffanci. Please call me Shandy. I'm from Landing. Ottiwells, in fact. I was. I... I escaped." Shandy managed to twitch a grin. It was hard, but it was undeniably nice to be recognized, even when it meant confessing to being from the most neo-primitive of the Abian nation-states. Misuko's Edoans didn't let machines that imitated moral decision-making on their soil, but their attitude toward general purpose computing was positively liberal compared to the Catholic Landing, which insisted that human beings should do everything for themselves.
Misuko smiled. "'Escaped' is a very interesting way to put it. That sounds like a story I'd like to hear. It's so rare to meet another Abian out here, on Hiroshi. Is Ottiwells a city?"
"'Tis a county in the southern quarter of the country. My parents have a farm there. I used to drive equipment and could fix every machine. Father said that was no work for a woman, though. So I came here. I want to learn to drive bigger things."
"I see. Like starships?"
"Oh, no, Miss Ffanci. I was good with the maintenance drones. I want to learn to drive construction ones. Maybe someday the military kind as well." She was letting herself warm up to the conversation. "I no just wanted to spend my life being some farmer's broodmare. I hope you don't think ill of me, taking up such a strange profession."
"Shandy, please stop calling me 'Miss Ffanci.' It's making me dizzy. Just call me 'Misuko.'"
"I'll try, Mis... uko."
"I'm sure you will," Misuko said, clearly amused, but with patience and acceptance. "And I don't think ill of you at all. I hope you'll get along well here." Shandy wasn't sure, but she thought she detected a note of warning in her voice. "Linia seems to like you. She can't stop talking about you. Is Shandy really that good, Linia?"
Shandy stared at Linia, and Linia nodded. "Shandy's amazing. I think I'm in love." Shandy looked down at the floor to cover yet another raging blush.
Misuko gave Linia a puzzled look. "I thought you had eyes only for me?"
"Usually." Linia said, her eyes on Misuko, her face so alight and alive it seemed to glow. Her attention was so completely on Misuko it was almost palpable. Then she paused and her mouth tightened. "Too much?"
It was Misuko's turn to look thoughtful. Then she smiled. "No. Just surprising. Besides," she said, placing her open hand on her chest, "It's my issue, not yours." She closed the distance with Linia again, wrapping an arm around the shorter woman's waist. "As long as you're there to put me to bed at night." She kissed Linia. Shandy turned away to hide her shock and the sinful upswelling of desire and envy she hadn't learn to quell.
She heard Linia murmur something that might have been her name. "Oh! I'm sorry," Misuko said. "Especially from the Landing. I... It must be..."
"Oh, no, Miss... Misuko. And Linia. It's all right. I came to Hiroshi to..." Her tongue felt thick in her mouth. "It's just a lot. There was no talk about, I mean, about Linia in the documentaries."
Misuko frowned. "Documentaries? What documentaries? My father never told me about any documentaries."
"On Abi. There are newsie pieces about you. One really long one, Staying True Among The Machines. They're all really proud of you on Abi, even in the Landing. About how you're still fully human, with no implants or anything like that but still so accomplished and famous and all. I think they were worried that they made too much of a big about it. The last time I saw a report about you they said a lot to make Hiroshi look scary."
Misuko traded complicated looks with Linia. "Well, it's not. I think those documentaries left out a lot if they left out Linia."
"Or De Ette. Or Nozomi," Linia said.
"Or them, yes." She looked worried. "I don't have implants, Shandy, but mostly because I haven't felt the need for them." Misuko took out a small data slate from her pocket. "Linia, and this, do more to keep me on the straight and narrow than Abi's phobias. I hope those documentaries haven't given you the wrong idea about me."
"Aye. I mean, no. I mean, I'll learn, Mis... uko."
Misuko nodded, smiling. "Keep practicing, Shandy."
"Misuko," Linia said, tilting her head to indicate the path. "We have an early guest. Nawazi."
Shandy looked across the field but didn't see anyone coming. "Oh!" Misuko said, straightening and looking serious. "I wasn't expecting it. Fah, so much to do. I'd better go meet it. It was a pleasure to meet you, Shandy. I'll leave you with the team cook. And social director. And... whatever else she is." Shandy was surprised to see Linia stick her tongue out at Misuko, who waved back playfully before stepping back into the sunlight.
"Well," Linia said. "Back to work. Why don't you get the fruits out for the trays? When you're ready, let me know and we can work on arrangements together. Keep the water bottle."
"Okay." Left alone with her thoughts, the realizations of the past minutes crushed in on Shandy. Long-ingrained kitchen habits kept her hands and the food moving, but she couldn't escape the deep, grieving sensation in her chest.
She heard Misuko's voice as the tall, black-haired woman returned to the shelter's relative shade. She looked up, saw Misuko's companion, and yelped.
"Oh, hello." It, Nawazi, was a machine built of squared-off wedges of brushed stainless steel in various sizes and proportions, from the size of Shandy's hand to that of a large boot, all floating in mid-air in a formation that approximated the size and shape of some gorilla-taurid hybrid walking on all fours. Each chunk of steel had softly rounded edges and gleamed in the light. Its neck was unnaturally long. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you."
"Nawazi," Misuko said in a chiding voice, "Miss Oxenhollar is from Abi. Just recently."
"Oh, dear, Miss Oxenhollar. My apologies. Yes, I heard about your case. I'm so pleased you accepted your scholarship. I'm very sorry about the distress it seems to have caused."
"Thank— thank you." A robot, honest-to-God. This was much more what she had expected than Gazelle Moor or Saia Mertum. He was beautiful in an alien and mechanistic way. "It's all right, Mr. Nawazi." She tried frantically to remember what she knew of robot diagrams while images of internal layouts at several human-knowable technological level buzzed in her head. D&R Engineering was fairly low on the scale. She'd been reading up past the level sixteens and seventeens without hesitation since arriving on Hiroshi, but none of them covered anything like Nawazi. "I was just surprised, sir."
"Oh, I do forget myself sometimes. But then, I have a lot on my minds." It had a lilting, self-mocking voice, but the apology was clearly in earnest. It seemed to stare at her for a moment, then turned its attention to Linia, then Misuko. "I'm so glad that so many of my projects will be in one place. When does Jinny get here?"
"Early, I expect," Linia said. "She usually is."
"Oh, good. I have much to discuss with her and you, Linia. Meanwhile, Misuko, I have to tell you that while I myself am currently stretched out with other obligations, I have found a llerkindi AI named Kyril who believes your request deserves further consideration. Vi would like to confer with you before committing, however. Vi does have access to a shipyard. And vi might have access to the Pelcityrans."
"I'm very glad to hear that," Misuko said in a curiously stilted voice. Shandy wished she knew what they were talking about. "Of course I'd be happy to meet with, um, vir?"
"'Vir' is correct." Shandy listened to the strange pronouns, memorizing them. She wondered if she would ever have need of them. "Excellent. I shall send the details to Linia. You and she can work out travel arrangements." The weird, floating island of steel blocks turned its head. "I'm going to lie in the sun until the others show up."
"Go think your deep thoughts, Nawazi," Misuko said.
"Of course!" it said cheerfully as it trotted out. "Just don't touch me when I come back. I'm sure I'll be hot enough to burn flesh. Toodles."
"Speaking of which!" Linia said and ran out to check on the slowly cooking pig.
"'Toodles?'" Misuko said, grinning.
Shandy stared at her fellow Abian. She couldn't believe Misuko was really that dismissive toward one of them. "What... what was that?" Shandy said.
"Nawazi?" Misuko said. "Nawazi is a troublemaker. It's one of the Pendorian AIs. It thinks it's a puppetmaster, organizing people for their own good. It does it by introducing people to each other, and sometimes by sponsoring their efforts. It's paying for Sleeping Beauty, but it says that's all the money it has at the moment. I don't believe it. Pendorians, especially their AIs, are economically disjoint in a weird way, so the idea that it doesn't have money doesn't make sense. It's up to something, and it thinks introducing me and Kyril will be good for some reason." She shook her head. "Still, it's a useful person to have around."
"Nawazi?" Linia said as she returned.
"Mmm," Misuko said.
"It's a pain in the butt. It thinks it's more clever than it really is. I'd trade ten of it to have Nozomi and De Ette come home."
"I'm sure there are ten of it, and you wouldn't want all of them here on Hiroshi. Don't worry, honey, they'll be home soon."
Honey. It was still all too much. The pressure of Misuko and Linia's perfection closed in on Shandy's attention. "Who are...?" she started. "Forgive me, I've no right to be presumptuous."
"Nozomi and De Ette are two AIs who left a few months ago to get married. They're probably in the Sol system right now, enjoying their honeymoon." Linia sighed dreamily.
"AIs get married?" Shandy gasped.
"They can if they want," Misuko said. "I didn't understand it at first. But if you'd watched them, you'd have believed they were in love as much as anyone could be."
"Misuko, more people." Linia pointed with a finger. "Time to be a good host."
"Get ready to feed my army, beloved, because here comes the first wave."
"I'm ready if you are. Shandy, are you?"
"Aye, Linia, I am."
The first batch was only four people, half of them human. More came, falling in with waves and greetings and offers of hugs a messy-handed Linia had to refuse for hygiene reasons. Shandy kept moving right beside Linia, holding off the tremors of all she had learned as long as possible. As the sun dropped below the horizon, lights on the edge of the shelter created pools of brightness surrounded by darkness. Even the lights of the city were blocked by the shadow of the forest, and not even Hiroshi's tiny moon was out. Shandy began to understand just how many people, and how many kinds, there were among Linia and Misuko's acquaintances. As she moved dishes between the prep tables and the serving tables, she met humans, of course, but almost every kind of non-human she had ever heard of: a few Felinzi, an Uncia, a Tindal, a Vulpin, llerkindi, a Han, two Ritan.
Shandy looked up to recognize Sennis and Pierre. "Sennis? What are you doing here?"
"I was to ask you same question," Sennis said. "I received invitation from Professor to attend. Something about internship job, deep water, hazardous environment, good on resume. Did you not get one?"
"I'm here because of my job." She tilted her head toward Linia. "Catering." Shandy lowered her eyes.
Sennis nodded. "I am sure is mistake. You should be here to interview."
Shandy shrugged. "Mertum probably thinks I'd make no good driver for..." She made a little encircling gesture with her hand.
"Bah. He is bigot. You are fine driver."
"Thanks." She tilted her head. "You're holding up the line." Sennis nodded and moved along.
"Just hold up a little longer," Linia said to her an hour later as the line wound down. "We're almost done, Shandy. Help me put out the dessert, and then you go rest."
That one moment when Misuko put her hands around Linia's waist kept coming back. As she stood next to Linia over the coolers, taking up cookies, fruit cups, and little chocolates, the names swirled around her. Misuko. Linia. Nawazi. De Ette. Nozomi. Jinny. "Linia?"
"Do a lot of people have implants?"
"In the Corridor, or on Hiroshi? On Hiroshi, not that many. You don't have to be from Abi to want to be pure organic." She pointed to a group of people sitting together. A music box played something thumpy. "Jinny, Iavid, and Benja over there don't have any. Now, I want you to take off that apron, get some food, and go meet Misuko's friends. I know. Jinny!" She waved. "Jinny, this is my assistant, Shandy. She's working too hard and she needs to eat. She's also in the D&R program, so maybe she'll end up on the next expedition. Could you introduce her, gently?"
"Will do." She gave Shandy a long, careful look, took her by the arm, and let her grab a plate of food before leading her away from the shelter. "Come on, I want you to meet everybody." Jinny led her to a raft of blankets describing the territory of a tight-knit twenty people or so. On registration day, Shandy had avoided looking too closely at all the non-humans around her. Now Jinny sat her down among them and began introductions. "This is Iavid, the properties rep." At first, Shandy thought Iavid was just another human, handsome in his dark skin and sharp nose, but then she noticed that his cargo pants with harem flares ended halfway down his calves and his legs were furred, ending in large, padded feet. A Satryl, one of the odder hybrids from Pendor. "Hok, who's not going with us," Jinny said, pointing to a short, heavyset human mel with a quiet grin. Shandy was surprised to see a crucifix on a necklace around his neck, gleaming silver against his dark skin.
Jinny was still talking. "Cordy here is Linia's partner down in biologicals safety." Cordy was the Han, a member of that gigantic species, almost four meters tall, golden-furred and profoundly endowed of bust, with strange eyes and flowing hair. Her neck was long and beautiful, but Shandy only saw it as beautiful, she didn't feel it. Cordy didn't make Shandy's chest churn in terrified, unholy attraction.
"So what brings you to Misuko's shindig?" Iavid asked. "Are you in archaeology, interested in Sleeping Beauty, or something else?"
"Miss Hunda hired me." She nodded toward the shelter. "I didn't know that Misuko was looking for people from the D&R program. I'm Miss Hunda's teaching assistant in the Life Electives Food Prep program."
"Poor you," he said. "She's always trying to get someone to cook with her on the expeditions. She hired you?"
"Aye. I love to work. And I love to cook. I made the coleslaw, the pasta salad dressing, and the beans."
Jinny pointed at her plate with a fork. "You made this? It's delicious. And I don't even like coleslaw. But Linia's is different. She makes it."
"Is there anything Linia makes that you don't like?" Cordy asked.
"Rrr?" said a femFelinzi whose name Shandy had heard but couldn't recall. "I thought you loved Linia's beer."
Jinny said, "I do love Linia's beer. It's the next morning I can't stand." She mimed holding her temples in pain. The Felinzi chuckled appreciatively.
"What's Sleeping Beauty?" Shandy said.
"Oh. That's Linia's corporation." Jinny rolled her eyes and pointed toward the shelter. "Superwomen, that's what they are. Last mission we found some really ancient Brace recordings from the 21st century, and we're trying to revive the woman on those discs. The real name is the Isabelle Mannheim Recovery Project, but everyone just says Sleeping Beauty. Cordy and I are technically employees, but we don't have very much to do right now."
The conversation drifted toward the two expeditions they had shared. Shandy asked a lot of questions, but the answer always came out the same. Misuko and Linia were, in the eyes of their peers, good people. They loved adventure, discovery, and learning. Misuko was the good leader, the brains of the pair, and Linia its organized heart. She glanced up at the shelter.
Linia was standing at the edge of the shelter, one arm around Misuko, her head against the taller woman's shoulder. Shandy's blood beat so much louder, her belly felt so much warmer, and her heart felt evermore confused, as she contemplated Linia. Neither desire or confusion set her toward Misuko, only an admiration for another Abian who, like Shandy, had "escaped."
"Chiisau!" Shandy looked up when she heard Pierre's voice. In the distance she saw the tall, androgynous figure walking toward them. Chiisau's outfit was even more mechanistic than usual, a robe of glossy panels and a white skullcap over her shaved head streaked with colorful glowing indicators. Chiisau's dark brown skin made the white stand out. Two people, much harder to see in their dark clothes, accompanied her.
"Sennis! Pierre!" Chiisau's accent was lovely and liquid and from a completely different tradition than Shandy's own. "Started without me?"
"You could not be found," Sennis said. "Professor!" He struggled to stand.
Shandy looked up, her jaw tightening. Professor Mertum and his companion, Saia, had accompanied Chiisau to the picnic. Shandy had his measure as a man who looked out upon the world with a profound disappointment, a look he shared with too many of the older men she had known back home. Mertum's robot companion Saia stood a few steps behind Mertum and Chiisau, wearing a dark mauve cloak with the hood over her head. Misuko or Linia must have seen his arrival because Misuko was already crossing the grass to greet him. "Good evening, Professor Mertum," Misuko said. "I'm surprised to see you. I didn't know you'd be joining your students?"
"Only briefly, Miss Ffanci, I assure you." As he scanned the people sitting about the picnic, he looked startled to see Shandy. "Oh, dear, Miss Oxenhollar, you found the picnic. Still, I'm pleased to see you showing some initiative."
"I knew she was in your class, Professor Mertum. Is there a problem with Miss Oxenhollar" Misuko asked.
"She is a difficult student," he said with a sigh, glancing over where Shandy sat. "She will probably pass, but she's resistant to modern driving techniques and has a fair number of detriments on her record. I have several students' records to send you, students I would recommend. I'm afraid Miss Oxenhollar would not be among them."
"I see. Professor, when you do send me those students' records, I'd like to see Shandy's as well."
Mertum looked about to protest but instead said, "Very well. Ah, that's right, you're both from Abi. Well, I won't tell if you won't." He put a finger to the side of his nose briefly. "I did come to discuss the issue of a mentor-leader role. I have a few questions. Do you mind?" He tilted his head to ask that they move away. Shandy watched them until their business concluded and they turned back toward the party. Linia approached, a bottle in her hand.
"I'll have those resumes to you by Saturday," she heard Mertum's voice as he returned. "Oh, my! Is that...?" He grabbed Linia's hand. "You're the Hunda M66NU, aren't you?"
Linia scowled and snapped her hand away from his. Something foamed up out of the top of the bottle and over her other hand. "Not anymore," she said. "I'm an FH-Class SAE-I Revenant after the Triple-R fund paid for my upgrade." She handed the bottle to Misuko, who took it.
"But your brain is still M66, isn't it?" He turned back to Misuko. "The M66 line was quite a surprise when it first came out. Illicitly and deliberately designed to be upgradable, quite a few went mad and killed their owners. And there was that one, in the nation state of Japan, such a bloodbath! Oh dear, oh dear." He didn't sound concerned at all. He sounded entertained.
"Professor, as for Linia, there is nothing wrong with her. She's been accepted into the Encompassment and no fewer than five qualified AIs have vouched for her reliability. She has more votes than the Muses." Misuko's cheek twitched.
Shandy's eyes were on Linia. Linia was staring at Mertum with a glare so fulminating she was surprised he didn't spontaneously erupt in flames. "Yes, yes," Mertum was saying. "And for two of those, their stability is not in doubt, eh?"
"No. It's not." Misuko nearly growled the words.
"Oh, dear. Forgive me, I meant no disrespect. Operational antiques are a recent interest of mine."
"Linia is not an antique," Misuko said. "She is my companion. And my friend. I would ask that you respect her as you would anyone else."
Shandy stared at him, then back at Linia. No. It wasn't possible. Linia couldn't be a robot. She couldn't be. She was so human, so real, so decent. Her being a robot explained... nothing at all. Her chest once again ached badly. Impulsively she turned away, out of the light, and walked into the darkness.
She walked through the ankle-high grass until the brightly lit shelter receded to something she could cover with her thumb. Hiroshi's moon was small compared to Abi's, which Shandy had been told was small compared to Luna. It was still out and full. Between it and the light pollution of Hiroshi ricocheting off the desert dust that twinkled in the air, there was just enough illumination Shandy wouldn't trip over something and hurt herself.
Trianna had said it wasn't likely she would meet any robots, and yet now she'd met two. Three. Linia was a robot. Underneath that brilliantly beautiful flesh-and-blood shell, Linia was as mechanical, maybe even more mechanical, than that Nawazi creature. Shandy sat, her back to the shelter, her head on her knees. From the distant shelter came he ongoing sound of music, voices, and laughter.
Then the last thing hit her: Misuko Ffanci was in love with Linia.
Shandy cried, the conflict too great, the pain too much to bear. Her heart, her evil, sinful heart, her vile flesh, her special burden had not only led her again to a woman, but to a mechanical woman. One of them.
Another outburst of laughter reached her. "Linia," she sobbed. "Linia. Linia."
An image came to her, unbidden, of the time she'd burned her hand, and the genuine look of worry and concern she'd seen on Linia's face. Linia's relief at the next class when she'd shown Linia her mostly-healed hand. The joy of their riding the motorcycle together. The kindness. She was so compassionate, so perfectly here, in her moment, living a life, her life. She had Misuko's love.
She snarled, even as her tears stained the knees of her trousers. The Censor of Landing had lied to her, had cut Linia out of Misuko's story even though Shandy knew now she'd been an important part of it and had been since the very beginning of Misuko's career. Of course they would cut Linia out. Shandy clenched her hands in her lap.
She looked up. "Mr. Iavid. I'm sorry. I... "
"May I sit with you?"
Shandy almost refused. That would be so easy, to let the whole matter drop, to just finish what she came here to do, this night, this week, this year, get her license and move on. Live somewhere else. She nodded.
He plopped down beside her, but not close enough to touch. "I think we owe you an apology. Nobody knew you were from one of the Abrahamic enclaves until that jackass mentioned it."
"A what?" Shandy said.
"Have you been crying?"
"Nae.... aye. I'm just... I'm just so confused. What's an 'Abrahamic enclave?'"
"As I said, someone should have warned us you were from Abi. And Landing, fah, Landing in an honest-to-God back-to-God cultural enclave, the sort that takes its sort of Christianity seriously." He made a face. "Do you?"
"I no can know anymore," Shandy said. "I think so. I take God seriously."
Iavid nodded, as if that were all he needed to know. "There are Muslim and Jewish enclaves too, but a lot of the deeply serious ones are still on Terra. Christianity's always been a lot more diasporic and varied. I think you should be warned that even our biologists are all historians."
Shandy laughed despite herself. In the dim evening light, she could see Iavid, and he didn't make her feel, not the way looking at Linia or Trianna did. "I'm no like... like that."
"No? We had another Edoan in our group a while back. Have you heard that story?" Shandy shook her head. "He thought, because Linia was a robot, she would sleep with anything. When she turned him down, he tried to beat her head in with a club." Shandy stared at him, and the horror on her face must have been clear because he just nodded. "He was expelled, of course. And the ship had good medicine, so the doc was able to put her face back together. I saw it. It was pretty bad."
Shandy looked back at the shelter. So bright, so loud, so inviting. Could she walk back there, knowing what Linia was, and put on a face long enough? Did she really know what Linia was? "Mr. Iavid, to hurt Linia or Misuko, 'tis the last thing in the world I'd want to do."
"Good. And it's just 'Iavid.'"
She took a deep breath. She let her eyes examine his face. If the rest of him had been human, his was the kind of face she could take home to mother: fit, good looking but less artificially handsome than Cal, a serviceably strong face. He had the darkest skin she'd seen on a human— or humanoid— on Hiroshi, a powerful contrast to the paper white skin of Gazelle Moor. Thinking of Gazelle made her feel slightly warm inside, a faint echo of the way she did when she thought of Linia. She snarled inwardly at her determinedly sinful soul.
"We should go back," she said. She still had a job to do. A duty to keep. "Linia will need me to help clean up."
"Are you ready to?" Shandy nodded. "Then I think that would be wise."
Hiroshi's nights were significantly cooler than its days. Shandy untied the sweatshirt from around her waist and pulled it on. As they approached the shelter Linia waved to her and said, "Shandy, there you are! I was beginning to wonder if you'd run off on me."
Shandy swallowed and tried to smile. "Never, Miss Linia. My Father always said that if I hired on, I'd best come ready to finish the job." Her father would have furiously told her to come home if he'd known she'd taken a job in a kitchen, some kind of scullery position. He'd said that about hired farmhands. Shandy was family, and that was different. She took a deep breath and steeled herself.
Linia gave her a long, careful look. "If you're ready, we need to get the washables into the pans. The crew's been good about most of it, but they always put something in the wrong place. I'll be putting the meat away." Most of "the crew" had already left, with only a few stragglers left, talking to Misuko.
Sorting the dishware just wasn't distracting enough to keep her thoughts at bay. She glanced up now and then to see Linia cheerfully spinning bags of vegetables shut with a clip, or tossing sealed buckets of leftover cooked pork into the chillers with unerring precision. Linia moved with flair and grace as if working to a glorious song only she could hear.
Nawazi. Linia. Misuko had described Nawazi as one of the massive, distributed AIs from Pendor, the kind that really did try to run the universe, but from Misuko's comment it apparently wasn't very good at it. Linia didn't seem to want to run anything other than Misuko's calendar and her own cooking classes, and she did both with such cheer. The tensions of trying to believe and suppress so many separate, irreconcilable emotions welled with in her and she leaned over the sorting bin. Tears fell into the wells for the forks and the knives. She worried it was unhygienic, but they were all slated to be washed soon.
Linia was by her side, looking worried again. "I'm sorry, Miss... Linia."
"Are you crying? Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," Shandy said. "I'd no rather. Not now. 'Tis— I'll be okay." She couldn't bear to look up at Linia again. She'd spend it looking for a flaw, a sign, evidence that Linia wasn't just another person, that she was one of those abominable machines the Church warned about. "Just stress. 'Tis a lot to take in."
"If you're sure?" Linia didn't sound convinced, but she also didn't press further.
"If you're sure? Just remember, if you do, I'll be here."
"I appreciate that." She found herself surprised to realize she meant it, too.
In the robopsych class she'd learned about The Encompassment, the supposed "agreement" among AIs and robots that taking care of human beings was a significant part of their reason for existing. She'd thought at the time that that had been just a claim the machines had made to put people at ease, but Linia and Miss Gazelle made it easier to believe.
Shandy finished her chores and duties, and when Linia sent the last anagrav platform off into the sky, bearing boxes and bags and the now-cooled barbecue barrels, Shandy looked at her. "We're done, Shandy. Can I walk you home?"
Shandy looked around. There was no one else. Even Misuko had already left. "No... No. I can make it by myself." She touched the broad glasses Trianna had given her. "My neighbor showed me how to use these, Miss... Linia."
Linia nodded, but her face became still as she regarded Shandy. She nodded. "You're a grown woman, Shandy. See you tomorrow?"
Shandy felt colder than Hiroshi's cool night justified. Tomorrow. She would have to be in the kitchen tomorrow, doing her job. She looked up at Linia and nodded. "Aye, Linia. Of course I'll be there."
The smile on Linia's face felt like a bolt from Shandy's eyes to her groin. "Good. Take care of yourself, okay?"
"I will," Shandy said, eager to get away from this place. Eager to close herself in her dorm room and hide from this world. "Goodnight."
As she walked through the woods, Shandy clutched at her sweater where she expected her heart to be, and tried not to let the tears blur the dim path projected on her lenses. Linia was still... Linia. Beautiful. Kind. Compassionate. Like Misuko. And Jinny. And even Iavid.
Shandy's sins, the one her father knew and the one her mother knew, had collided in one astonishing, beautiful, benevolent woman. Shandy wondered if maybe she leaned too hard on the idea that Linia was almost saintly. Linia had her motorcycle and admitted she liked to drive too fast, had her own mischievousness, even her own defiance of Misuko.
Misuko loved Linia. Not like Linia loved her motorcycle, or Shandy had loved her horses. Misuko loved Linia like one person to another, and lust and desire and physical admiration were part of that love. The Church said God wanted to love all his children, even ones who were lost, like the Edoans, like Misuko, if they wanted Him to. Did He love Linia?
As she came out the eastern edge of the forest and into the lamplight of the dormitory quad, no answer came.