Honest Impulses 12: Matters of Scale

Anar, Yavar 08, 03262

Shandy sighed with a vibrant satisfaction as the wind whipped past her at almost three hundred kilometers per hour. She had her arms around the most wonderful woman she’d ever met, and Linia’s solid, calm breathing expanded and contracted in her grasp as the rented skycycle hurtled over the almost featureless desert.

When Linia had given her the ticket after their previous class together Shandy had been unbelieving. She’d gripped the plastic card as if had glowed with the fires of the divine. That emotion had lasted all the way until Sunday, and when Linia had met her at her dormitory in the beautiful, five-meter long skycycle, she had thought she’d entered paradise. Now she was enraptured, and as she held onto Linia she wrestled with the worst sins of all: envy, and lust.

Nothing more than this could ever come of her wanting, but Shandy had wanted for many things in her life without ever even feeling this much. Shandy had reconciled herself that this was all, and that this would have to be enough. It was a good enough. She could stand this much enough.

In her darker, more honest moments, in the bathtub after she had enjoyed the hose’s power to an exhaustion that would grant her dreamless sleep, she admitted the strangest irony to herself: it was Linia’s honesty, a robot’s honesty, that kept Shandy from stepping over the line Shandy had mentally assigned as as “too much sin.”

“We’re coming in,” Linia said over the intercom. Shandy nodded and looked down. Below them two large spectator stands, big enough for several thousand participants, had been deployed to look down a long, empty corridor of desert. Behind that waited two fairly large landing craft and a broad, flat rectangle of aluminum platforms filled with all manner of aircraft. Linia skillfully hovered the five-meter-long skycycle above the parking zone before she eased it into an open space, four spindly legs deploying as it settled. The grav plates at each end of the skycycle turned from angry orange to a low-key sedate blue to indicate they were safe to approach. Sandy dismounted with a contented sigh. Linia said, “I hope you’ll have as much fun going back.”

“I do too,” Shandy said, looking up at Linia with a grin. Linia quirked an eyebrow, then nodded her head for them to move on. Linia handed their invitations to a guard at the edge of parking area, then waved them along a walkway between the two landing ships. It was a long walk; each ship was easily a hundred meters wide, sixty high and at least three hundred long, pointed nose-to-nose. Walking past, Shandy could see the tiny windows of the forward observation decks high above, dark rectangles against the light-grey surface. Steam whistled from vents along one side, and both ships hummed with the banked energies of their fusion-powered gravitic drives.

Shandy had never been off the Plateau before, and now she understood why. Here on the desert floor the temperature hovered near 50C even though it was late fall on Hiroshi’s northern hemisphere. Shandy was grateful for both the hat and the water bottle Linia had insisted they bring, as the sun bore down on them like an insult. The air smelled hot, as if the sand itself sizzled with ancient organic oils, mixed with the more mundane smell of ozone, steam, and the greases used to keep machines moving.

Linia walked past the main entrance to a smaller gate near the front of the stands. She led Shandy to a small, roped-off area with a guard, who let her in without question, and then into a smaller boxed area with actual seats rather than benches. Linia indicated the third row and gestured for Shandy to go first.

Shandy recognized the woman sitting in the row before her. She felt certain no one else on Hiroshi quite resembled that tall, powerful blonde human woman. “Here?” she said to Linia, “I can no sit here.”

“You’re my guest,” Linia said. “This is where the tickets Misuko scored for us said we sit. Besides, you’re not just a student. You’re a contract instructor, and my guest. Don’t think of yourself as just a student, at least for today.”

Shandy stared at her, wonderingly, then nodded. “Aye, okay. I’ll give that a try.”

Gazelle turned around and smiled, and Shandy felt the smile like a pale, quiet echo of what she felt when Linia smiled at her. It was how she felt when Trianna smiled. If the smile reached Gazelle’s eyes, Shandy couldn’t see past Gazelle’s ubiquitous sharp sunglasses. “Shandy? It’s good to see you.”

“Aye. And you too, Gazelle.”

Linia looked up at Gazelle, and Gazelle returned her gaze. They both nodded once. “You ought no to do that,” Shandy said.

“Do what?” Linia said.

“Talk privately so no letting the people around you know. ‘Tis rude and… no so organic. For Hiroshi.”

“She does have a point,” Gazelle said. “For Hiroshi.”

“She often sees things nobody else does,” Linia said admiringly. “Shandy, you mentioned it but never did tell me the story. When did you two get on a first name basis?”

“Oh, I no would ever call her anything but ‘Miss Moor’ where someone else could hear,” Shandy said. “But I met her out at the meadow.” Shandy told the story of her encounter with Gazelle. Linia listed attentively, her eyes and her smile widening as Shandy related the moment when Gazelle had asked her to ride the robot horse, and how Shandy was torn now between saving for a motorcycle and saving for a horse of her won.

Linia grinned. “They’d never let you bring the horse back to Abi.”

“Aye, I know,” Shandy said.

The gate clacked and the broad, massive figure of a man stepped into the cordoned-off area. He carefully took a seat a few seats down from Gazelle. “Brom,” Gazelle said softly. “We have a guest.”

“Oh!” said the man, his voice deep and resonant. “My apologies. Brom ap Pikna,” he said, reaching out with one hand. Shandy took it and shook, although he felt so big she was sure he could have held four of her hands in one of his, if she’d had four hands. “And you are?”

“Shandy,” she said, taking a deep breath. “Shandy Oxenhollar. Assistant instructor in the food preparation program. I work with Miss Hunda.”

“Ah,” he said. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Thank you, sir.”

The gate opened once more and Shandy gasped as Saia ap Mertum joined them. Surrounded by four robots at once time, Shandy wasn’t sure if she should feel anxious or honored. That made her smile. “Something funny?” he asked.

Shandy shook her head and instead turned to Linia. “Did you arrange this?”

Linia shook her head. She indicated the other three robots. “I knew they would be here, but I would have expected their partners and others to be here as well.” The VIP stands had seats for twenty people, and others whom Shandy didn’t recognize soon joined them. Linia pointed out Jagur Ul, the mayor of Rasmussen and two partners, both fems and not the same species, as well as a few other local notables she recognized.

She turned back to Brom. “Mr. ap Pikna? I’m taking robopsychology as an elective. May I ask you a personal question?”

“Given that that’s my beloved’s class, I may choose not to answer it.”

“Of course! But, why do you stay with your companion?”

“Hmm,” he said, rubbing his powerful chin with equally strong-looking hands. “No one’s ever asked me that before. She ordered my construction so she would have a reliable help and comfort, and I’m deeply gratified to give her the help and comfort she requests of me.”

“Do you love her?”

“I do,” he said. His smile was as genuine as any human’s could be.

Shandy had interacted with Professor Geddouda Pikna only once, at the second robopsychology class. Pikna had been one of the most acerbic people Shandy had ever met, her communication style loaded with a constant barrage of sarcasm and condescension. Shandy knew too many teachers like that, the ones who used hostility as a filter to discourage all but the most tough-minded students, but she’d been grateful that the teaching assistant who actually ran the class didn’t ape his mentor’s attitudes. “Thank you, sir,” she said.

“Is that all?”

“It answered the question I’ve had.”

“It’s the same answer any companion would give.”

“‘Tis the same answer, but ‘tis not the same wording.”

“I see,” he said. “I hope my answer served you well, then.”

Shandy nodded. Linia leaned over and said, “What was that all about?”

“‘Tis true, ‘tis for my robopsychology class. I’ve asked four robots about how they feel about their companions. You’re the only one who said, ‘I love her,’ first.” Linia looked at Shandy, blinked. “The other three started with ‘He needs me’ or ‘She had me made to help her.’ Which is no the same thing.”

Linia shook her head slowly. “No, it isn’t.”

A chime rang over the loudspeakers to get the crowd’s attention. Shandy turned her eyes to the podium set up before the stands. A llerkindi mel in the spangled uniform of a lTPDF officer stood and began listing the outline of today’s demonstration, the ships involved, the officers in charge. The podium had its own, much smaller collection of chairs for the very very-important-persons. Shandy was surprised to see Professor Mertum there, along with Professor Pikna and Governor Moor.

Shandy tried not to let her disappointment show as she watched soldiers demonstrate snappy maneuvers, drive various sizes of gravitic vehicles with and without AI support in the sort of precision usually seen in ballet and group gymnastic routines. It was all very impressive, but not what she had come here to see. Instead, she occupied her time looking at the people around her.

Linia seemed more interested in the proceedings than she was herself. Brom and Gazelle were watching politely, occasionally moving or nodding. Shandy recalled her robopsychology classes and wondered how much of that was a conscious decision on their part to avoid looking like statues. The question of how deeply the autonomous parts of a robot’s nature rested on microagent feedback mechanisms was one of those issues she hadn’t quite grasped in class. She knew that modern robots like Gazelle and Brom had general-purpose society-of-mind software that gave them personality, as well as special purpose microagent hardware designed to shepherd their personalities away from dangerous ideas (as deemed by their human programmers) about the worth of human beings and humanity in general. She had no idea what someone like Linia had, but whatever it was, it gave seemed to give Linia more humanity than the others.

Her eyes glanced over at the cloaked and hooded figure sitting to Gazelle’s right, leaning against the railing and turned to look away from the proceedings. She couldn’t see Saia’s face at all. When the intermission was announced, Shandy stood up. “Shandy?”

Shandy touched Linia’s shoulder. “I’ll just be a moment.”

Shandy walked over to where Saia sat, tapped her on the shoulder. “Yes?” Saia said, turning. She didn’t seem to have been startled at all. Her face was calm, her eyes wide. The bruise on her cheek had faded. “Oh, Miss Oxenhollar. Can I help you?”

“Why do you stay with him?”

No need to explain who ‘him’ might have been. Saia smiled sadly and said, “He needs me.”

“‘Tis it?”

“I can’t give you a better answer. Not without betraying myself.”

“You mean him.”

Saia nodded. “They are the same thing.”

“Miss Oxenhollar! What are you doing there? Why are you harassing my companion like that?” Raij Mertum’s voice sheered through Shandy’s attention. She jerked, standing so fast she bumped into something. She looked up, horrified as she realized she had just thrust her shoulder into Mertum’s arm. “Oh!” Mertum cried. Shandy just had a glimpse of a small, black comm as it slipped from the hand she had struck. It twirled into the air. Mertum dove for it, but Shandy’s body was in the way. “Get it!”

The comm hit the floor of the stand, bounced, and teetered over a gap that fell at least fifteen meters to the ground. Saia Mertum dove for the box, and Shandy looked down, watching, as the woman reached under her legs and stretched out for the box. She swiped at it and the box spun and fell. Directly below the stands was only desert, but Saia’s desperate grab had instead sent the box in an arc. It hit a support strut and broke apart, then one of the pieces hit another pipe. It made hollow, tinkling sounds against the framework as the pieces fell.

“You stupid, stupid....!” Mertum cut himself off, staring at Saia.

“I’m sorry, Raij,” Saia said hurriedly. “I tried to do the best thing I could think of!”

“You stop…” Mertum took a deep breath, stood up. “Well, this has been a vastly disappointing day.” He glared down at Shandy. “And you, Miss Oxenhollar, I would thank you to not bother my companion in the future. She has her own duties and she understands them.”

“Can she no have… friends?”

“Not in her current state,” Raij said. He glanced around the VIP box, taking in the robots. “None of these can. Saia?” Saia looked up at him, her face calm in response to a barely managed fury. “We will discuss this later.”

“Yes… Raij.”

Mertum gave Shandy one more look that Shandy suspected would reflect on her grades, and then stalked out. “What… what was that?” Shandy said.

“I don’t know,” Linia said.

“What did he mean by none of you can have friends?” Shandy pointed with a finger to take in the four robots.

“I don’t know that, either. I mean, I have friends.” Linia looked worried. “Right?”

“Aye!” Shandy said, grinning to reassure her. She glanced back at Saia, who had resumed her position against the railing and was again looking out into the desert, away from the ceremonies. She replayed the incident in her mind and started to believe that Saia had deliberately batted the comm away in an arc that would cause it to shatter.

Shandy sat back and waited for the show to resume. She was acutely aware of Linia’s presence next to her, and contemplated feigning exhaustion just so she could lean against Linia’s arm, but she knew the other woman would never believe Shandy could fall asleep, not when the tanks were coming up soon. Maybe she could blame the heat.

The announcer’s voice had all the life of an uninflected synthesizer reading technical documentation for an event, but everyone sat forward when it announced the Terror-class Assault Tanks had begun their re-entry into the atmosphere and would be arriving in eight minutes. Meanwhile, on the ground smaller, more nimble battlecraft dove and weaved, sending up storms of sand as they battered the terrain with gravitic lances and generally made a dusty mess of the desert. Shandy tried to be impressed as the show scaled upwards. After a while, the announcer said, “If you turn your heads, you can see the twin streaks of the TAT re-entry pods approaching from the north. We are expecting them to land four kilometers south of our position.

Shandy turned. In the sky there were two streaks of white, each lit with a hot bright point of yellow light at the tip. She touched the rim of her spectacles and used the telescope feature to bring them into view, and through the haze she could just make out the heat-blackened shape of the entry shells. They approached with seemingly reckless speed, zoomed over the stands and crashed into the desert sands some kilometers in front of the spectators. A deep, ugly roar rumbled across the stands several seconds later.

They stood. Even at four kilometers every detail seemed visible. The eight-legged monsters rose, their bulbous main bodies a polished white that made them look like they oozed unhealthy wetness even in Hiroshi’s heat. Their legs were multi-jointed and seemed to narrow down to claws as they reached the ground. Black lines where components met only seemed to emphasize the otherwise seamless gleaming white solidity of the tanks. The body seemed to be in two halves, a lower machine half and the upper main weapon, a massive lance that pivoted with what had to be dizzying speed had there been occupants, to fire into the ground and send tsunamis of sand into the air. They strode forward, and Shandy felt their power in her heart, in her belly, perhaps further down. She understood why her homeworld was terrified of these machines. Anyone who worried about being on the receiving end of one of these monsters would be.

Shandy wasn’t worried. She wanted to be behind one of these things, in command of it. Even if she never fired a shot in anger. Perhaps especially so.

They strode forward, covering three kilometers in twelve minutes, relatively slowly but still faster than an unarmored person could run. They reached the stands, their guns pointed away from the audience, and leaned in with deliberate menace. Many in the crowd reacted by pulling back with appropriate apprehension, but Shandy was only watching the machines themselves, admiring the way all the parts fit together, the way each component supported the next, and how the whole could continue to fulfill its role even with half or more of its legs blown away. In the Landing they’d shown videos of the TAT but never gave any details; on Hiroshi the general design and construction of the tanks was open knowledge and Shandy had spent too much of yesterday absorbing all she could. They were much less menacing when you knew how they worked.

They were still war machines, and Shandy had more than enough respect them for what they could do if they were turned on her and her town in anger. She just no longer believed it was reasonable to fear that they would. The Corridor had better things to do with its time.

The tanks settled down to the sand and a hatchway opened, lowering a set of stairs that unfolded much like Shandy imagined the spectator stands had. She looked at the tank closely, zooming in to look at its different parts, admiring the black machined multi-segmented joints of the legs, like a giant’s jeweled watchband with musculature, before her vision drifted down to the ladder.

She wondered what Professors Mertum and Pikna were doing, standing at the foot of the the stairs. Mertum was gesturing strongly again, Pikna holding up her hands as if to fend off his vehemence. Shandy saw motion to her right as Brom rose and started forward, before he settled back down. She turned her attention back and saw Pikna stalking away from the tank while Mertum greeted two uniformed officers who had come down the walkway. He spoke with them, there were gestures back toward the hatchway, and then all three headed back up and into the tank.

“Nobody seems happy to see Professor Mertum,” Linia said, very quietly. Shandy glanced around. Three of the people around her were robots. They had to pretend they hadn’t heard that.

“The soldiers did no seem to mind.”

“The soldiers don’t know him.”

The announcer returned and in that same dry voice thanked the spectators for coming, the announced that the officers of the various tanks, personnel vehicles, and landing craft would be available for the next hour to answer any questions. “Do we have time?” Shandy asked.

“We have time,” Linia said.

“It was nice to see you again, Gazelle,” Shandy said.

“It was nice to see you as well, Shandy.” She looked up at Linia, who only nodded back to her. Shandy decided it didn’t matter if they were passing messages back and forth. Sometimes, people communicated something with just a look.

She made her way out to the front. Two pilots stood in front of one of the spidertanks, and Shandy wondered why no one else seemed to want to talk to them. One was human, the other llerkindi. “Um, excuse me?”

“Hello, Ma’am,” the llerkindi said. “What can we do for you?”

“I’m in the Drones and Remotes program, and I was wondering… how much of this—” she gestured to the machine looming over them— “requires mechanical control, and how much is just—” She tapped the back of her head.

The human said, “There are direct interfaces, but I don’t believe we’ve ever used them. I’ve trained on them in sim, of course, but everything we do in this is neural lace.”

“Lieutenant Coronis doesn’t have a lace,” the llerkindi said. “TCNI.”

“Oh, yeah. And she’s really good. Too bad she can’t use it in combat.”

“Why so?” Shandy said.

“TNCI relies on QUID, and QUID requires microsingularity cages. QUID cages can be wrecked with a second-order gravitic pulse.” He shrugged. “These days, any good maintenance shop has the right quipment to make a QUIP bomb. It would wreck her interface. She’d have to go to manual controls.”

“What about HMRI?” Shandy asked. “Could you do it with HMRI?”

The llerkindi said, “I don’t know of anyone who does, but I don’t think it would be impossible.” He grinned. “No QUID at all there. Heck of a work-around. Why? Are you thinking about joining the DF?”

Shandy looked up at the spidertank. “‘Twould be the biggest thing I should ever drive,” she said softly. She had that other reason for wanting to drive a spidertank, but it wasn’t one she had to tell the pilots. Not right away.

The human laughed. “Yeah, I guess they are. It’s a privilege and a responsibility, and we don’t get to do it often, but, yeah, they are the scariest things we have. Not the most dangerous, yeah, but that’s not the point.”

“What’s the most dangerous?”

The llerkindi shrugged. “Orbital bombardment.”

“Oh,” Shandy said. Suddenly, all of The Landing’s fears seemed even more ridiculous. Of course just dropping rocks from orbit would be the most cost-effective method. The spidertank wasn’t a weapon, it was just a scary mask. The real weapons were terrifying— and invisible until they struck.

She thanked them for their time and walked back toward the stands. Linia was waiting for her, leaned against a support post, looking wonderful in her flared blue jeans, brown riding boots, a white blouse that threatened to bust at its buttons, and a sedate blue vest that sparkled if you caught a glimpse of the inner lining. Linia’s long, dark brown hair drifted behind her, and Shandy wanted to stop and just look at Linia for a long minute before they had to leave. She took a deep breath and approached. “Did they answer your questions?” Linia asked.

“Aye,” Shandy said. “All of my questions, and more.”

They got back onto the skycycle. Linia made sure Shandy was completely buckled in before she mounted the bike herself, and asked Shandy to watch and make sure she put her own thigh belts on before they roared into the blue. Shandy did as asked, and then Linia vaulted them skyward.

She tried not to let Professor Mertum’s reaction ruin what had been an otherwise perfect day. She know she ought not let that man have any more of her time than what her sponsor had paid for. She leaned against Linia, held onto the other woman, and thought about how she’d have to wait four more days before they were together again. She considered instead what they were going to cook next week. She tried to see the schedule in her mind and then remembered something about it that had bothered her. “Linia?”

“Shandy?”

“What’s ‘cheesecake?’ ‘Tis no cake made out of cheese, aye?”

“Do they… never mind, that would be a silly question. Yes, that’s exactly what it is. It’s more like a custard, but using a soft, high fat unsalted cheese along with the eggs. You thin it with melted and cooled butter to spread it into a pie pan, and the recipe I use adds lemon so it’ll curdle slightly and harden when you heat it.”

“Oh,” Shandy said.

“They’re a little finicky to make. They can deflate, since they depend on a steaming action to rise. I have an idea. Can you wait a minute, I’ll get right back to you.” Shandy wondered what Linia needed to do. The desert was flying underneath them at 300kph and her arms were around Linia. She could wait. She reminded herself again of the impossibility of her attraction. “Shandy?”

“Aye?”

“Are you free Tuesday evening? You could come over around six and we’ll make a practice cake. I’ve already cleared it with Misuko. Well, the practice visit. I didn’t tell her what we were practicing. She loves cheesecake, so let’s make it a surprise.”

“You mean… go to your house?”

“Sure. I’ve been in your dorm room, haven’t I?”

Shandy felt that incipient panic whenever opportunities became unbearable. She was going to be in Misuko Ffanci’s house, and baking a cake that Misuko would eat. And she would be doing it with Linia. She laughed, and said, “You’ll have to send me your address.”

“Done,” Linia said. “I didn’t think it was that funny.”

“Maybe no,” Shandy said. “Maybe I’m tired.”

“The heat can do that to you. I’ll get you back to your dorm soon enough.”

“Aye. Thanks.” Shandy snuggled back down against Linia out of the wind. It hadn’t been Linia’s comment that had made her laugh. It was the realization that once upon a time being invited to Misuko Ffanci’s house would have been the greatest thrill of her life. Maybe when she was old, she’d again think it had been. But at the moment, being invited to Linia Hunda’s house had it beat.