Honest Impulses 08: Raij Against The Machine

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

The following morning Shandy walked to the Remotes and Drones Practice Dome in a bruised haze of aching sleeplessness and barely suppressed misery. She’d woken to thoughts of how she’d been once again fallen into her own innate, inescapable wickedness. How Misuko Ffanci, the woman she’d long admired as a rebel and hero, had herself fallen to the same temptation. How her own country, her own leaders and the men who said they spoke for God, how they’d lied to her about Misuko. How Misuko had failed to be the super woman she’d expected, but was instead something else, something more strange and nebulous, as if Shandy saw her through a kaleidoscope. How her chosen career was a failure and a joke.

She pushed open the door and stepped into the cool air of the lobby. “Ah, Miss Oxenhollar.” Shandy cringed inwardly as Mertum singled her out. She looked up. He leaned against the balcony overhanging the foyer. “May I speak with you a moment?”

Her skin prickled at something other than the cooled air. “Aye, sir?” she said, vaguely proud that she’d remembered the ‘sir.’

Shandy moved toward the stairs, but he shook his head and started down himself. Her dread changed to curiosity. He stopped in front of her, bent forward slightly and said, “I, ah, had a long talk with Misses Ffanci and Hunda last night. And that fascinating AI, Nawazi.” Shandy felt her insides tighten at their names. “I wasn’t quite aware of the… educational limitations of your upbringing. I feel I may have neglected the Hiroshi University Charter with my pedagogical methods. Therefore, I should like to give you the opportunity you deserve. Behind the practice dome and garage there is a large storage shed. When I first arrived, I surveyed the contents, most of which are terribly out of date. However, among it all you may be able to find an HMRI interface or similar equipment that may be more suitable to you, hmm?” He pulled out his Handbook and tapped at it, then with it gestured toward the main practice hall. “There. I have unlocked it for you.”

Shandy stared at him, not entirely sure she’d heard those words come out of his mouth. She almost wanted to believe that he’d been replaced with a robot himself. She finally nodded and said, “Thank you, sir.”

“Why don’t you take—” He looked around momentarily just as Sennis stepped into the lobby. “Mr. Comitolous, is it?”

“Sir? Yes that is my name,” Sennis said. “Do you need me?”

“I do not,” Mertum said. “But Miss Oxenhollar here is in need of an assistant. I’ve asked her to look for something in the storage shed behind the dome. The shed is full of very old equipment. Who knows what may fall on you while you’re out there? If one of you should get hurt, the other can get help.”

Sennis face took on a similarly dazed look to Shandy’s. Mertum said, “Well, you have your assignments. You can be excused from this class.” He turned and started to walk away, stopped, and said, “And if you do find something, Miss Oxenhollar, I fully expect to see you log a full eight hours of practice time before next Monday. Is that understood?”

Shandy nodded, her pain momentarily pushed aside by his unexpected generosity. “Aye, sir,” she said. “Understood.”

“Good. Go on.” He made a little shooing gesture with his hands.

Shandy turned to Sennis, who was staring at her. “With what did you drug him?” Sennis said.

“With no thing. He just said that he spoke last night to Misuko and Linia and…” Shandy’s chest clenched saying the names aloud. They had saved her. They had said something, whatever it was, that had convinced Mertum to give her a second chance. She covered her pain with a shrug.

“Ah, first-name basis, ne?”

“Nae! No, nothing like that. I mean… Let’s just go.”

Sennis gestured for her to follow him and he led her along the hallway that ringed the practice dome. They came to a door. “I think this is it,” he said. “No sense being outside until we truly must.” The sun still blazed without a hint of relief. Shandy checked the water bottle she had clipped to her belt, satisfied that she’d remembered to fill it earlier. The bottle Linia had given her. Her fingers lingered on it as Sennis pointed. “That is the one. I think.”

“Now that looks more like a garage,” Shandy said. “What you folk call a garage looks like a military repair bay.” The shed, made of riveted aluminum on a concrete foundation, could have held six to eight fairly large vehicles as much as five meters high, and it had two vertical garage doors along the side they were facing. The roof was single and sloped away from the walkway to discourage sand build-up. “Let’s see if the garage doors lift,” she said. “Otherwise, ‘til be an oven in there.”

Sennis nodded, bent, and pulled on one of the doors. It swung open. The air that blew past Shandy and Sennis reminded Shandy of one of Linia’s convection ovens. Everything reminded Shandy of Linia. She pushed past the memory, peered inside. “Whoa.”

Sennis joined her. Hiroshi had plenty of light to go with the heat, and the indirect glow reflecting off the school buildings and the sand was enough to dimly illuminate the inside of the garage. “It is huge pile of junk,” Sennis said.

“We shall see,” Shandy said. From where they stood, the left side of the shed held four multilegged drones, large construction types, all showing signs of disrepair and neglect. The largest, it’s back brushing the ceiling, had two massive claws and a thick, heavy arm ending in what looked like a ram plate projecting low from the front, spotted with rust. Along the right side stood a rack of shelves two meters high filled with ancient, greying boxes and miscellaneous equipment.

Sennis opened the other garage door to let light onto the equipment racks. “For what are we looking?”

“Anything other than TCNI that I can use as an interface. A full HMRI suite would be wondrous, but whatever we can find.”

Sennis nodded. “I will start at that end.”

Shandy made her way down, one hand guiding her eyes to item after item, trying to guess if any of them would hold an answer to her problem. She reached the end of the first rack. The back of the garage was dim and murky and, as she turned to begin her way up the next one, she saw something lying against the back of the wall, covered in a dark green camouflage sheet of some kind. Curious, she pulled the sheet off and gasped. “Shandy?”

“Sennis!” she shouted. “You have to see this!”

He joined her, and they were both staring at a dark grey metallic humanoid shape kneeling with its back against the wall, its fingers locked onto its thighs. Standing, it must have been more than three meters tall. The head had a complex arrangement of lenses, some of them cracked, and two rabbit-like ears, one snapped off about halfway up. “Is some kind of old humanoid drone. And so? Ones drive in class are far more sophisticated than whatever it is. Bigger, too.”

“‘Tis no drone,” she said, still staring at it in wonder.

“Is not?”

“No.” She walked forward, climbed up onto its legs, and with her hands felt around the chestplate. She looked closely, found what she suspected was the panel she wanted up near where the chest joined the neck. She pushed and prodded, and it popped open. “Aye!”

“What are you doing?”

She turned the key she found. It took some effort, but then she heard a latching sound. Another panel popped open by her knee. She reached into that one and snapped the small lever she found there. The chestplate moved. “Help me?” she said. “Push.”

Sennis stepped between the machine’s legs. Shandy braced herself against its thigh and pushed the chestplate from above while Sennis pushed from below. The plate cracked open then swung wide until it struck the machine’s other arm. Inside, a bright orange chair waited with a helmet propped above it. Shandy grinned as she pulled open other hinged restraints. The padding was torn and faded with age. “‘Tis no drone, Sennis. ‘Tis power armor.” She reached up and took the helmet after detaching the cable that connected it to the machine. “I could be wrong, of course. But I think ‘tis powered armor. Which means,” she said, holding up the helmet, “‘tis proprioceptive TCNR. The ‘R’ stands for ‘read.’“

“Is what you want?”

“‘Til no write into my head. ‘Tis read-only. ‘Tis good enough, I think.” She looked inside the armor, laughed, and pulled out a pair of heavy gloves. “These are just like the ones I use for the repair drones back home! Sennis, oh! Give me eight hours with these and I’ll have dancing machines!” She giggled. “D’you think I could convince you and Pierre to move the whole suit into a maintenance bay? I’m supposed to pick an advanced project for Drone Maintenance, right?”

“Is everyone from Abi into antiques?”

“Linia’s no antique!” she snapped, finding herself echoing Misuko and coming to Linia’s defense. “She’s… Sorry, Sennis. ‘Tis just that she really acts like a whole person, no just some machine.”

“I suppose that I deserved,” Sennis said. “Serious. How old is this thing?”

“I guess I’ll find out if I get it back to the bay.”

“If is as good with drones as you say, you could do yourself on Saturday night.”

“You’ve a point,” Shandy said. A small rectangle highlighted in her glasses, and she felt an uncomfortable clench in her gut. “I have to go. I have to get to my next class.”


Linia found two of her three compatriots sitting under the ancient pedar tree at the northern corner of the Grass Quad, noted mostly for the promiscuous use of water to maintain its namesake. Hiroshi was too complex to have earned the blanket title of “desert world,” but it wasn’t a water-rich planet by any measure. She sighed as she sat down next to Misuko, rubbed one shoulder against her beloved and kissed her cheek. “Hi.”

“You act like you haven’t seen me for a week.”

“You were already asleep when I got home from cleaning up.” She frowned. “I hope Shandy’s all right.”

“Oh?”

“Last night, she disappeared for a while. I saw her off in the distance talking to Iavid, and when she came back she was different. Quiet. She started crying while she was helping me clean up, but she wouldn’t tell me why.”

“You don’t think Iavid…?”

Jinny said, “I doubt Iavid’s ever done anything untoward to… anyone. I think something upset her before then and she walked off, and he went to check up on her.” She looked up. “That was shortly after Mertum and you started talking. Maybe it was something he said?”

“Maybe,” Misuko said, her brow furrowed.

“Although,” Linia said in a lighter tone of voice, “It may be that she has a crush on you and realized just how unrequited it could possibly be.”

Jinny chuckled. “What?” Linia said.

“Are you sure she has a crush on Misuko?” Jinny said.

“After Misuko showed up, Shandy asked me all sorts of questions about her. What’s our favorite food, what you like to eat even,” Linia said, turning to Misuko.

“She doesn’t see it,” Jinny said.

“See what?” Linia looked at the two of them, who were both smiling at her. “You’re not serious!”

Misuko took Linia’s hand and held it. “Think about it, Linia. Right now, what are the focuses of your life? Cooking and me. I know, the other way around. But you understand what I mean, don’t you? What does Shandy want to talk about with you? The things that interest you. She’s not trying to get into my head, Linia, she’s trying to get into yours.” Misuko smiled. “And maybe your pants.”

“That can’t be right. She’s from Abi!”

“Are you talking about Shandy?” Iavid said as he joined them under the shade.

“Yes,” Linia said.

“Iavid!” Jinny said. “You talked to her. Can you tell us what she said?”

“Only that she was having trouble adjusting to Hiroshi. Landing’s pretty fundamental, all praxis stuff, and adjusting can be hard. It seemed to be stressing her out.” His eyes went wide. “Oh, fah, maybe that’s it. Before that creepy professor guy showed up, had anyone told Shandy that Linia was a robot?”

“How could she not know?” Jinny said.

“Linia,” Iavid said, “She told us how there were documentaries on Abi about Misuko.” Misuko rolled her eyes. “She was angry because none of them ever mentioned Linia. Or any of the other AIs Misuko hangs out with these days. Did you ever mention it to her?”

Linia stopped, reached out to the Conspiracy, and sorted though a keyword search of every conversation with Shandy she’d had since hiring her. Not once in all those conversations did anyone in her hearing mention her robotic nature. She buried her face in her hands. “Oh, no. Oh, no.”

“Honey, it’s okay,” Misuko said.

“No, it’s not,” Linia moaned, shaking her head. “Misuko, she thinks I lied to her. I read about what the Landing teaches. It’s not anything like what they say in Edo about robots. They think that the AI revolution is here to enslave mankind. Shandy probably thinks I was trying to deceive her, to lead her on, that it’s all true!”

“I know what they teach,” Misuko said. “Believe me, my Father knows all about the difference between Landing, Ludd, and Edo.”

“The worst part of it is… I think I did!” She raised her head to look into Misuko’s eyes. Misuko only nodded to her, one small hand gesture indicating she should continue. “I mean, I like Shandy. She’s such a good cook, and such an enthusiastic person, and she so needed help, not like Jinny or Iavid here at all, and I wanted to be her friend, and I think my, my SOMs all avoided the subject because I didn’t want to scare her away!”

“Thanks,” Iavid said. “I think.”

“Honey, there are two things you have to do. The first is tell her the truth, which is that you are a robot, and as a robot companion you’re committed to me and my well being, and everything you do is somehow in my best interests, even when you yourself aren’t sure how.” Even as she said it, the tone of her voice conveyed a certain wary disbelief. Linia was familiar with that note, for as much as they’d talked about the parameters of Linia’s programming, Misuko found Linia so believably human she sometimes faltered trying to truly believe in Linia’s deference.

Linia said warily, “What’s the other?”

“You can become her friend. Tell her you like her.” She reached out and took Linia’s hand. “I have no fear that you’ll leave me. You will or you won’t, and I have to believe you when you say you won’t. Nobody else ever made that promise to me. Everything you’ve ever done for me tells me you really are as dedicated as you say.” She reached out and touched Linia’s cheek. “It’s the way that you do it, the way you deal with other people, like these two—” She pointed, still smiling, at Iavid and Jinny— “And the rest of my friends that leads me to really believe it’s not some cruel programming, it’s really love. And I learned that I love you for it.”

“Okay, this is getting sappy,” Jinny said.

“Try not to break up the romance,” Iavid countered.

Misuko ignored them. “The point is, you are humane and lovable and adorable. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Besides, I like Shandy too, what little I’ve seen of her. You’re always saying that one thing you like to do to keep my love is show me how human you are.” She grinned with dark mischief. “I can’t imagine anything more human than you having your own little infatuation.”

Linia recoiled at the idea. “I don’t have a crush on Shandy!”

“Oh, yes you do,” Jinny said. She sighed. “I wish I wasn’t so straight.”

Misuko laughed. “Which one was it? Her? Or me?”

Jinny waved the suggestion away. “Both. Neither. It’s just that you two are so in love, every time you were being cute with each other people would sigh in your wake. It’s so unfair!”

“They do?” Misuko said.

“Yes,” Iavid said. “They do.”

“I still say I don’t have a crush on Shandy.” Even as Linia said it, she remembered the way her mind prioritized the strangely sweet sensuality of Shandy’s arms around her waist as she drove Shandy to her dorm room. “Okay, I, I’ll think about. Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Am I sure? No, of course not! It could all go wrong. But you’ve told that there’s nothing more fundamental to your sense of self than my well-being. If that’s true, why teach? Why hire Shandy? Why do you run the Isabelle Recovery Project?”

“Sleeping Beauty is obvious,” Linia said. “You couldn’t run it and Chance Lifter. As for teach, that was, I think, my just proving to you that I wasn’t staying home all the time, networking the Project with half my brain while I dusted furniture that didn’t need dusting. That would have driven you crazy. I hired Shandy because I needed an assistant.” She sighed. “I wish De Ette were here. I need someone to talk to.”

“She’ll be back eventually. Let them enjoy their honeymoon.”

“I doubt they’re drinking honey,” Jinny said.

“I doubt there’s anything to drink down in the depths of Jupiter,” Iavid said.

Jinny said, “Speaking of Isabelle…” and readily launched into a precis of where the project stood.

Linia listened with half her attention as Jinny rattled off the details she already knew about the project. The lab, down off the Plateau in a desert area a hundred and fifty kilometers to the south, was fully automated and overseen by one of Nawazi’s shard avatars. Instead she pondered the idea of a relationship with Shandy.

Shandy, really? What was going on in her heart? She grimaced. “Heart.” She shouldn’t put the word into quotes. She had a thumpy heart and a coolant distribution network that gave her a pulse and a beat, along with apparent breathing and even the occasional muscle twitch, all in the name of crossing the uncanny valley. She glanced at her human friends. What went on in their hearts?

Like many participants in The Conspiracy, Linia was an avid reader of fiction. She preferred the higher literature, but she delved into the more mundane romantic stuff that Misuko liked once in a while, trying to understand human motivations. Linia believed that the process by which she arrived at decisions and actions, both in the long run and immediately, were as analogous to human thinking as to be indistinguishable, and reading helped confirm that hypothesis. The bundles of emotions that were human beings, and the bundles of society-of-mind agents that were her mind, both worked in the same way: by vote, by luck, by channel, and by expediency. Everyone said she was “so human.” Did that mean she had to betray Misuko by having an interest in someone else?

Except Misuko didn’t think of it as a betrayal. She thought of it as a test. Not a test of Linia’s love, but a test of Linia’s humanity.

“Linia?”

“Huh?” Linia looked over at Jinny. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to not pay attention.” She replayed what Jinny had been saying at high speed, picking out keywords. “No, there aren’t any press meets for another three weeks. We’ve got one with an aggregator from Earth in late October, and a tentative with some Pendorians in December.”

Jinny nodded and Linia watched her fingers swipe and tap on her slate as she updated the notes with the late December meeting. They moved on to Iavid’s overseeing of the Chance Lifter, including Misuko’s scheduled trip to and from llerkin in late November. Eventually, the meeting broke up. Misuko took Linia’s hand as the two of them walked back to the Humanities and Histories building. Misuko said, “I meant it.”

“Why?”

“A lot of reasons. You are naive, Linia, and I want to see you grow into maturity just as much as you want to help me. And I hear it in your voice. There’s a, a tenderness when you talk about Shandy that I don’t hear when you talk about Jinny or Iavid or Cordy. It’s a little like the way you talk about De Ette, actually.”

“Do I talk to you about that way? And about you?”

“Yes,” Misuko said, and kissed her cheek. “All the time. Even when you wake me in the morning and I want to throw pillows at you. And I love you for it.”

“I’m glad.” They stopped at the entrance to Misuko’s on-campus office, a four-storey thing of granite, concrete, glass and steel, designed to look old and comfortable and lived-in. “You have your two-o’clock.”

“And you have kitchen tonight.” Linia nodded. “You’ll be seeing her there. Be kind to her.”

“I will.”


The hour of set-up and three hours of class time had dragged like a dead horse being towed behind an ancient truck. Shandy tried to engage. She loved baking. Teaching city kids who’d never seen the inside of an oven how to thump and knead dough, how to work with yeast and chemical risers, should have been the class of her heart. The smell of risen bread, the taste of egg crust, should have been her best night yet as a teaching assistant.

Instead, she found herself glancing at Linia, fighting down a toxic melange of anger, frustration, disbelief, acceptable, admiration, desire, and always wave after wave of crushing, horrified guilt.

Linia’s patience was saintly. If there was one reason to believe she was a robot, that was it: she had an infinite reserve of patience, a reset on how much of her patience she let others burn through. Shandy took her patience with a growing aggrievement. By the time the last student had left with wrapped yeast bread under one arm and a half-dozen muffins in a paper sack, even Linia’s patience seemed to wear thin.

Linia walked through the kitchen, running one clean finger along the stainless surfaces, eyes taking in the supplies one last time in a ritual she repeated every class. Shandy watched her through the open door from the dining area, clutching at the ratted jacket she’d taken to wearing when Hiroshi turned toward evening. Linia turned to her, took a deep breath. “Shandy? Got a minute?”

“Miss Hunda…”

“I’m not ‘Linia’ anymore?”

Shandy felt her heart clench even by that little request. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Linia, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean, I hope I didn’t, make today harder or anything. I just, I don’t know how to, how to look at you anymore. Not since I heard Mertum say, say, say—” She sobbed.

“Say that I’m a robot.”

Shandy nodded sharply. “It wasn’t that. It was more than that! It was everything. You were so nice. So good to your students, and they don’t all deserve it.” Linia smiled briefly. “And then you had a, a girlfriend, and then I learned it was Misuko Ffanci, and then, and then I heard Mertum say, and it couldn’t be true, and, and, and… ” Shandy felt the pressure welling up into her heart, her soul, and the tears came and she fell down crying and dropped to the floor.

“Shandy!”

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. It’s all wrong. I’m all wrong. There can’t be anything more wrong and broken than… than me.”

Shandy felt Linia’s arm go around her, and Shandy realized just how long she’d gone since someone had touched her, since she’d been held. She had been starving for touch, for closeness, and maybe she had been for her entire life. Linia’s arm was trembling slightly as if she were awkward and unsure. Shandy held onto Linia’s riding jacket and let go, and she cried, she sobbed until everything that had been bottled up inside her for a month, for four months, for her lifetime, spilled out of her in tears, only to leave darkened puddles on the jacket’s fabric. She cried until she had nothing left, until she could only breathe, until there was a tiny new space of quiet and peace in her soul where her terror and fear and sadness had been for so long.

“Shandy,” Linia said, softly. “Shandy, I’m the one who should be saying ‘I’m sorry.’ Because I am sorry.”

“What? For what?”

“I never meant to lie to you. I should have told you earlier. I know, I know, you got the full freshfen speech in week one about how, professionally, you’re not supposed to care about the planet of origin, the pattern of clothes, or the hardware under their clothes, when it comes to whether or not your peers can do the job. The more we worked together, the more I thought I should tell you. I put it off. I didn’t want to scare you away. I… I liked you. I thought, the few times we’ve been together outside of class, that you were looking at me with more than just the attention of a co-worker or even a friend.”

“But that’s just it,” Shandy said. “Father, Father always said that I was attracted to the things that tempted, that led to evil. He always told me I was unlady-like, and that all the things I learned about machines were no fit match for a woman, and no husband would want a woman who knew more than he did about fixing the tractors. And he did no know about… about…”

“That you’re attracted to women, too.”

Shandy nodded, moaning softly. “Oh, God, what am I going to do?” She clutched at Linia, tears coursing down her cheeks. “He was right, Linia! Whatever it is in me, it guides me toward you. A woman. A robot. And you’re in, in a bond with Miss Ffanci, and I’ve seen it, and how happy she is, how normal, how strong.” Her voice dropped to a bare whisper, she turned away again. “Only a sinner like me would try to get between two people like that.”

“I’m glad you think I’m ‘people.’“

“You are! I don’t understand anything anymore.” She pushed back to look up at Linia. “You’re not at all what I thought a robot would be like. What are you?”

Linia shrugged. “The easiest thing to say is that I’m Misuko’s companion. She found me aboard the Second Chances, literally on the second day of the dig. My original owner had died in the crash, and Misuko claimed bona vocantia on me. That’s a legal term for ‘finders keepers.’” Shandy grinned despite herself. “I was legally hers for five weeks, at which point I was vetted for the Encompassment, they decided I was conscious and self-aware, and I was set free.”

“Did she like that? You being free?”

Linia grinned. “Oh yes. She didn’t want to own me. Transferring my title to her was important to me, so I could understand my place in the world. It wasn’t something she wanted, except that it would make me happier.” Linia smiled as her eyes unfocused. “She accepted me for who I was, but she saw so much more in me. I’ve spent all our time together just… trying to love her. She’s such a miracle.”

Shandy looked away. “Then I shouldn’t stay.”

She felt Linia’s fingers on her cheek. They were pressing, lightly, guiding her to look up at Linia, to look back at her. “What if I told you Misuko told me to be your friend?”

Shandy’s battered heart surely couldn’t stand another blow. “What? Why would she do that?”

“Because she’s crazy.” Linia’s grin looked wild. “She is. It’s part of what makes her so special. She had a long string of, you can’t even really call them bad relationships. Just ended ones. People leave. When life is measured in centuries people don’t commit to forever. They leave, eventually. Misuko’s had a long string of lovers who last a year, two, at most three, and then they find something or someone else to be interested in. Misuko wants forever. She wants two impossible things: she wants to believe that I’m my own person, with my own desires, my own wants and needs, my own loves, and that I’m going to be there for her forever.” Linia smiled. “I’ve learned that doing the impossible is hard, but I’m doing my best.”

The words beat at Shandy, but the tone, the honesty in Linia’s voice warmed her all the way to her toes. “Linia, you don’t act like a robot at all!”

“People tell me that. What do you expect robots to act like?”

“I don’t know. Saia Mertum, maybe.”

“She’s not a good example. Maybe Gazelle Moor is.”

“I mean, more like that. Subservient. Quiet. Obedient. My parents always believed there was some kind of robot conspiracy to control people. But it’s not really like that at all. Not even the Nawazi thing was really frightening. But you don’t act like any of that. You’re so human.”

“I’m still a robot,” Linia said, tilting her head sideways in a curious gesture. “I’m different because Misuko wants me to be different. She benefits from my being different. She loves me because I’m not subservient and obedient. I’m what she needs me to be, so she can be what she wants to be. She needs someone who’ll push her from behind when she needs it, and block her path when she needs practice pushing on her own. That’s what I am.”

“Oh,” Shandy said as a thought sunk in. “I guess, then, I’d just be someone you picked because it makes Misuko like you more.”

“Shandy,” Linia said softly, “Not everything I do is about Misuko. I have a lot of free time, just because she’s so put-together in her own way. And whatever my subconscious has for motives, there are a lot of people I could have picked. But you’re the first person I’ve… well, okay, the second person I’ve had feelings for since I met Misuko.”

“Who was the first?”

“De Ette. But she’s married. And monogamous.” Linia made a throwing-away gesture with her hands. “She’s very cute. And so are you.”

Shandy blushed. “I wish I knew if your feelings were real or not.”

“Misuko tells me that mine are as real as anyone else’s. And her opinions matter to me.” Her voice was surprisingly fierce. “So do Jinny’s and Iavid’s and everyone else who I count as a friend on this whole planet. Yours, too. If they tell me my feelings are real, then I have to believe them. Shandy, I don’t want to be a burden. I just want a chance to make you happier. For a little while. To be a friend.”

Shandy wondered if she’d cried out her capacity for turmoil. Down in her heart there was only a strange, sullen quiet, and behind it she could feel a found determination. She had come to Hiroshi to prove to her parents that the universe wasn’t a place of implacable evil, and if the banal, mechanical universe was evil, she could resist it. Every time she put on TCNI helmet she heard her father’s disappointment. Every time she saw Professor Mertum she faced down his insistence that the machine was better than humanity. But with Trianna, with her friends in her classes, with Misuko’s Privateers, and especially with Misuko and Linia, she had something else. Something different. Something better. Something like love. Tears welled up, quietly this time. “I’ll risk it,” she whispered.

“What?” Linia said.

“I’ll risk being your friend,” Shandy said, with her voice behind it this time. “I’m scared. I think I could live more with being scared of what might happen to me than being scared and angry at myself for the rest of my life.”

Linia stared at her, eyes so wide with disbelief Shandy momentarily wondered if they could fall out. Her cheeks still glistening with tears, Linia leaned down and embraced her, and Shandy felt Linia’s sob through all the layers between them. “Thank you,” Linia said.

Shandy let herself feel Linia’s embrace and wished for more. It was selfish to want so much more than this. She had so much still to understand, and she knew she did. The curse of learning was always to learn how little you knew. But she knew she needed this, needed touch, needed affection. She was so grateful to be in Linia’s circle of hugs. Time passed there on the floor of the dining room, time until they were both ready to separate. “We should go,” Shandy said. “Misuko’s probably worried about you.”

“Probably. But I think she also knew we were going to talk.”

Shandy nodded. “Let’s go.”

They rode back to the dorm on Linia’s motorcycle. Linia went slow, letting the moment stretch out as long as they both practically could. Shandy wished she didn’t have to wear the helmet, because she again wanted to press herself to Linia’s back, press her ear and hear if Linia had a heartbeat, feel her hands against Linia’s body. Her arms around Linia’s waist would have to do. It was barely enough.

They parted at the walkway to Shandy’s dorm. “We’re here,” Linia said. Shandy waited three beats of her own heart before letting go. “See you next week?” Linia said as she took off the helmet and shook out her hair.

Shandy nodded. “I’ll be there, and I promise to be a lot more attentive.”

“Good. You’d better be attentive, because we’re doing stir fry next week. Fire! Oil! Singed eyebrows and whiskers!” Shandy giggled as she handed the rider’s helmet back to Linia. Linia startled her by taking her wrist instead and gently tugging her back toward the bike. Shandy let herself be pulled, and Linia hesitated. “Do you hug goodbye?”

“Oh. Aye,” Shandy said.

Linia embraced her, then kissed her cheek softly. Shandy’s heart thudded once, loud and hard and surprised, and then Linia let her go. “Take care, okay?”

Shandy nodded. “Bye.”

“Bye,” Linia said. She put the helmet back on and rode off. Shandy watched until the red taillight disappeared around the corner. As she walked back to her room, she wondered how this huge, new, heavy thing inside her made her feel so light and bright, so sad and happy at the same time.