Honest Impulses 04: Working Together

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

The teaching kitchen was the most efficient room Linia had been in since leaving home that morning. It was large, well-designed, and to her pleasure well-stocked with the basics. The low, blocky building made of local brick was on the eastern edge of the city, far from the university’s main campus, a leased space that Chef Tezozomoctzinxo had turned into a clean and welcoming space to instruct young people in the fine art of cooking for themselves. Linia enjoyed a guilty hour in the large walk-in cooler, checking the inventory. The heat of Hiroshi’s too-powerful sun seemed ready to blast all the way through the thermoprotective layers of ergasynthetic flesh, sub-integuments, and revenant frame to wreak havoc with the cryocooled core of her brain.

Linia had discussed with De Ette and Nozomi having her core replaced with a modern, SAE-derived equivalent that wasn’t quite so energy intensive or heat sensitive, but she loathed the idea of running her faunos on an emulation layer no matter how accurate it promised to be. She liked her mind just the way it is. She scowled as she remembered Doctor Swatdjtwai and his condescending attempts to “correct her primitive brain and its behavioral irregularities.” Her friends loved her just the way she was, original temperate mind core and quasi-organic heat redistribution system and all the rest.

On a day like today, she relished a cool place to radiate efficiently and in silence, letting her thumpy heart pump coolant out to her skin and heat out to the world. The sound of the kitchen door swinging open interrupted Linia’s musings on the state of her brain and body. A voice called out, “Hello? Is anyone there?”

“Be out in a moment!” She felt behavior modules slide about inside her brain as the organizational state-of-mind agents receded and the social ones multiplied in their place. She pushed her way through the utility fog into the gleaming kitchen.

A short, slightly heavyset human woman with pale skin and wide, round eyes behind broad circular spectacles, wearing the age of her early 20s, stood by the door. She wore a loose white tunic with orange sleeves and baggy dark-grey cargo trousers.

The woman bowed. “Excuse me, I’m looking for Professor Hunda?” She rubbed her hands together nervously, which made her rather prodigious bosom wobble. Linia quirked an eyebrow as her mind rather forcefully made an issue of registering that wobble. Enjoying it. “That’s me,” Linia said. “But you’re very early. Class doesn’t start for another two hours yet.” The woman stood up straight and looked Linia over. Her face went through several shifts, anger among them, ending in a sad, almost exhausted expression. “I’m sorry, is there something I can help you with?”

“Oh, no, Professor. ‘Tis just the heat. I’m no used to it.”

“Nobody is. It’s not ‘professor,’ though. Just ‘Miss Hunda,’ please. I’m not even an associate, just an adjunct instructor. Why are you here so early?”

“I’m no, I mean, I’m no here for the class, I am, ‘tis just, I came about the listing on the campus job board?” She held out her Handbook.

Linia fished her own Handbook out of a pocket of her apron, tapped it with the other woman’s, looked at it, nodded. “I see. What’s your name?”

“Shandy, Miss Hunda. Shandy Oxenhollar. It says ‘Chandra Grace,’ but nobody calls me that.”

“I see, Shandy. Can you cook?”

“Oh, aye, Ma’am!” The smile that lit her face was guarded but real. It made Linia feel good to see it.

“Well, then, let’s see you cook.” She pointed back into the cooler. “Make me a salad.”

“That’s no cooking,” Shandy said. “There’s no heat involved.”

“Oh, Shandy, you’ve already won my heart!” Linia said, laughing. “Make one anyway.”

“Aye, Ma’am,” Shandy said, smiling in return. Twenty minutes later, Shandy produced a small bowl of cabbage salad, just enough for the two of them. The dressing used emulsified egg, mustard, mustard powder, macadamia and refined olive oil, lime, dill, pepper, poppy seeds, and a teaspoon of raspberry jam. Light green Napa cabbage was colorfully punctuated with shredded carrot and julienned sticks of bright red pepper.

“This is amazing,” Linia said as she tasted it. “You picked one of my favorite recipes, your knife skills are first rate, you work clean and you left clean. Where did you learn to cook?”

“Mother taught me. She always said that a good woman knows how to cook. Might help me land a husband someday.” Linia wondered what the grimace on Shandy’s face meant.

“Well, she was half right. It’s landed you a job. You’re hired, Miss Oxenhollar. The school is paying 18 LAU per hour, and I’ll clock you at four and a half hours, one hour of prep before class and thirty minutes of cleanup afterward. That’s 81 LAU per week. Is that acceptable?”

“Oh, aye, ma’am! But what do you want me to be doing?”

Linia smiled. “I’m afraid that I’m going to be doing a lot of the teaching, which means you’ll be doing a lot of the cooking. I hope you’re ready for that. Come back to the office and we’ll go over the details, and I’ll show you the class schedule.” She pointed at the bowl. “Day one is food and kitchen safety, ending with that for knife, grate and mandoline skills. I don’t think this will be hard at all.”

Shandy proved better than Linia could have hoped. As she shepherded her eighteen students through the basics of knife-work, picking out produce, choosing flavors and combining them, Shandy fetched and carried and even helped some of the students through it all. Linia felt sure that if she ever needed to be away from the class she could leave solid guidance and Shandy could have carried a session without her. The students, mostly human but a few furs and even one llerkin, took the better part of two hours to make what Shandy had made in twenty minutes, but now each of them had two full servings, each with some variety of meat or protein added in, to take home that they could say they made themselves.

As the last of them straggled out, Linia looked for Shandy but she had gone as well. She should have stayed long enough to hear the verdict, at least. Shrugging, she tossed her own apron into the laundry hamper, pulled her bag over her shoulders and headed out the door.

Shandy was at one of the tables in the serving room, slumped over. “Ms. Oxenhollar?” Linia reached out and shook her gently. Her sensors told her Shandy was only asleep. “Ms. Oxenhollar?”

“Huh, wha? Oh! I’m so sorry, Miss Hunda! I’m so sorry. I just sat down for a minute to close my eyes and I, I no ken what happened.”

“Are you all right?”

“Aye, I’m fine. Just tired.”

“Then you should go home and get some sleep. How are you getting home?”

“The same way I got here. I figured I’d walk.”

“Shandy, the city has these wonderful things called buses. If you pick the right one, it’ll take you where you want to go, or at least only a block’s walk. At no cost, either. Come on.” Linia offered her hand. Shandy took it willingly and let Linia pull her into a standing position.

Misuko knew not to expect Linia until late. Linia had left a casserole in the cooler for those nights when she would be out. Until she’d taken the teaching job those nights had been rare and mostly involved media events surrounding Isabelle Mannheim. Misuko could navigate the kitchen well enough, although she wasn’t anything one might call a chef. She’d survive. “I think I should take you back to your flat.” Linia hesitated to look inwardly at the SOMagents that caused that offer to come out of her mouth. What was going on down there below her threshold of generational awareness? SOMA ratios that usually only happened around Misuko were everywhere in her brain.

“Oh, no, Miss Hunda, I no could—”

“Please,” Linia said, catching up with her own thoughts. Misuko would be furious with her if she let her assistant collapse in the street. “Wait here.” She went into the kitchen and brought back a large glass of water. “It’s easy to get dehydrated on Hiroshi, and you’ve been running around the kitchen for three hours, and I don’t think I saw you take a drink the entire time you were here. It’ll get worse when we turn on the heat. So get yourself a water bottle and clip it to your belt, and I expect you to use it while you’re working. In the meantime, drink this and we’ll go. You’re tired. You need someone to take you home.”

Shandy looked about to protest again, but she just nodded. “All right. I appreciate that. Why do you always call me Miss Oxenhollar?”

“I address all of my students that way, until they tell me otherwise. It’s formal.”

“I wish you’d just call me Shandy. ‘Miss Oxenhollar’ sounds like the kind of name someone would call my mother.”

“Then I’d be happy if you called me ‘Linia’ outside of class. In class, I try to use the cultural honorifics if I know them. My students need to learn how to change the tone and level of politeness. But you don’t have to, outside of class. You’re not my student, you’re my assistant and partner. And you’re right, ‘Miss Hunda’ is already starting to sound far too old.”

“I will try… Linia.” She smiled as she said it.

“Come on.” Linia led them through the serving room and the foyer and out into the open air of a cool Hiroshi evening. The ostro winds had come with the darkness, bringing a strong chill this early in the Hiroshi fall. “You might want that,” Linia said, pointing to the heavy sweatshirt Shandy had tied about her waist. She locked the door behind her. She led Shandy into the alley behind the building and into a graveled outdoor storage area, fenced off with chain link. The heat of the day radiated off the brick facing of the building.

A motorcycle, a massive machine with bright yellow fiberglass farings sculpted with hard angles, a swept, extended tail like some dangerous stinging insect, and a huge genuinely incandescent headlamp, waited for her in the darkness. Realization dawned in Shandy’s eyes. “That’s yours?” she asked, her voice hitched in her throat.

“Yes! Isn’t it a beast? It’s my one major indulgence. My girlfriend thinks it’s a crazy thing to have, but I love it.” Misuko was adamant she’d never ride on her bike, but that was fine with Linia.

Shandy froze.

“Something wrong?” Linia asked.

Shandy tore her eyes away from the motorcycle to look at Linia. “You have a… girlfriend?”

Linia heard an anguished disappointment in that hitch in Shandy’s voice. She could imagine two wildly different reasons for it and she wasn’t sure which one bothered her more. “Yes,” Linia said. “For four years now. And we both hope it’ll last for a long, long time to come.” She tried not to breathe hard thinking of Misuko, but she couldn’t help herself.

“Oh,” Shandy said.

“Do you still want that ride?”

Shandy looked up, her eyes wide and slightly wet, as if tears might be immanent. “Aye,” she said, finally.

“Come on then,” Linia said as she straddle the bike. She pulled off the spare helmet, activated it, and handed it to Shandy. “Do you know how to ride a motorcycle?”

“Aye, Miss– Aye, I had one at home. And a horse.” She took the helmet and pulled it down over her head. The straps helped themselves, which made Shandy shiver unpleasantly, but when they were cinched they felt natural.

Linia kicked the bike into life and its methane-fueled motor awoke with a satisfying growl. “Good. I won’t explain to you how to hold on. Tighten your backpack first, though.” Shandy did, then found a rider’s footpeg and launched herself over the back of the bike. “Where do you live?” Shandy told her. “Hold on, then. I can’t do anything to harm you.”

Those arms around her waist roused strange sensations in Linia. She tried not to ruminate on what the wetness in Shandy’s eyes might have meant, but she was getting into a habit of second-guessing her own mindstate a lot these days. She took a snapshot of it to examine later at her leisure. Living with Misuko seemed to demand a lot of that second-guessing: being more than a pale shadow of her owner demanded that, and “being more” was something her owner demanded of her. She relentlessly refused, in the privacy of her own mind, to think of Misuko as anything but her owner and master, even if Misuko continued to act as if Linia used those terms in irony. None of which explained why Linia was having such odd feelings about Shandy. Feelings of kindness and care and desire that should have been inappropriate in any robot already purposed to someone else. She filed the statemap away.

She concentrated on her driving. Her system had allocated an ideal level of attention to the road for in-city driving, with all the safety and security provided by a modern traffic management system that still allowed organics to put hands to the controls. She passed a few other riders, some motored and others muscle-powered. Hiroshi deliberately didn’t have much automation, but it also had very little in the way of traffic culture. Neighborhoods were designed to be highly walkable, the city had an excellent public transit network, and it mostly existed to support the university and its associated activities.

Linia pulled the oversized motorcycle into the small underground parking facility near the dorms. She slipped the bike into a slot between two electrical scooters that looked like toys next to hers. “‘Twas wonderful!” Shandy said as she jumped off and removed the borrowed helmet, her eyes drinking in the bike. Whatever emotions she may have been feeling at the kitchen seemed to have been driven away by the thrill of the ride. Her short brown hair stuck up everywhere and Linia suppressed an urge to tousle and straighten it. “I want one!” Shandy knelt down to examine the inner workings of the bike, peering up under the faring.

“They’re expensive,” Linia said. Shandy didn’t seem to hear her, but she moved to push herself up to a standing position. Linia heard a sizzling sound as Shandy yelped and pulled her hand back from the hot exhaust pipe. “Shandy!” Shandy fell back on her rear, holding her hand. Linia took it. “Let’s move. That’ll burn. Straight to the infirmary.”

Shandy’s face scrunched with the early signs of pain. They rushed to the nearest nursing station on campus, a small clinic room on the ground floor at one corner of Shandy’s dormitory. Linia had shouted at Hiroshi to call ahead to the nurse so he was ready when they arrived.

An hour later, Shandy had a glove, stylishly bright orange with black outlines, on her right hand to cover the burn. “I’m so sorry, Miss… Linia. I’m so sorry. I’m no good with pain.”

“Neither am I. Shandy, stop blaming yourself. I told you in the clinic, it wasn’t your fault. Gas bikes generate a lot of heat, and you didn’t know enough about it to know you could burn yourself like that. If anyone should be apologizing, it should be me. Now, let’s get you home and to bed.”

Shandy led Linia to her room. Shandy greeted other people in the hallway, a few by name, as she reached her door. Her eyes glanced briefly at the closed door across the hall, then led Linia inside. Linia hesitated at the entrance until Shandy said, “You can come in.”

Shandy’s room was relatively undecorated, although the loose-net open-topped laundry basket with three separate compartments, the made bed, and the clean countertops described Shandy as tidy. Linia approved. She looked closely and saw that Shandy had taken the bottom mattress of the bunk bed. The top was unused.

There were only two posters on the walls and Linia paused as her eyes settled on them. The first was done in a soft, almost classical pre-space Impressionism. In it, a young girl in an ornate dress appeared to be teaching piano to what looked like a robot companion of similar size. The robot girl wore a similar dress but her arms had a silver-metal sheen to them, her eyes unnaturally pale. The title read, “Wendy.”

The second was a stylized and highly glossy painting, almost pin-up style, of a Terror-class Assault Tank, a massive piece of military hardware the lTP Defense Force Marines had built “in case we ever need to intimidate someone.” Linia thought the 20-meter-tall, hexapoidal, color-shifting spider tanks were ridiculous, but then she wasn’t an organic and lacked any fear of spiders.

“Sorry,” Shandy said. “I had them printed at the campus, uh, browserie. Guess I’m a little strange. Back home, they said we had to ready for the day the Pendorians decided they wanted our world and landed those things. I think they were no very serous. My mates would say it, and teachers would agree, and sometimes they’d show clips of them on the news, but we didn’t have no kind of army to push back if they ever did land.” She took a deep breath, and in a softer voice said, “When I saw it, I knew I wanted to drive one. I wanted to ken how it worked, how to make it work. I wanted to no be just an operator, but a pilot.”

“‘Mates?’“

“Oh! Classmates. Friends. No like… I suppose I ought to be more careful, some words mean different things out here.” She blushed so brightly Linia couldn’t help but smile. Then she yawned. “Can I get you something? Water? I can make tea, they let me have some of that.”

“You should go to bed,” Linia said firmly, her sense of care overriding all the other questions she had forming in the back of her mind.

“Aye, you’re right, Miss… Linia.” She smiled awkwardly, and Linia liked the way Shandy looked in her spectacles like that. “Thank you for taking me home.”

Linia wanted more details from Shandy’s life, wanted to know where the sadness and the disappointment came from, but it was too late to ask. She had more thinking to do before she would ask anything more. “My pleasure, except for the burn. I’m sorry about that.”

Shandy sat on the bed. “‘Twas no thing you could have done. You could no have ken I was that stupid.” She looked at the gloved hand and frowned.

A response rose and died in Linia’s preprocessors. She said, “You weren’t stupid. You didn’t know. I have to get home. I’m so late. My girlfriend’s probably worried sick about me.” She smiled as she said it to cover the complex shivers of emotion she was holding back. “I’ll see you in class next Thursday, okay? One hour before?”

Shandy nodded. She didn’t look Linia in the eyes. “I’ll be there. Bye, Linia.”

“I’ll see myself out.” As she closed the door behind herself and walked down the hall, she wondered if she should take another mindstate snapshot and look it over in more detail. She reached her motorcycle, straddled it, started the motor. As she eased out of the parking space she decided not.