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[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] strangestnotion
     Notion spent another anxious night curled up on the head of the bed, gaze fixed on the doorway, worrying, hoping.

     This wasn’t just a scatter-brained fessine staying out too late and forgetting to tell anyone. She knew for absolute certainty that her friend was in danger, but with a complete absence of evidence, she couldn’t figure out how to convince anyone else. The young police spur had begun to look like he was leaning towards believing her… until his senior officer had turned up.

     If I was fessine, would you believe me?

     She ran through the other options she’d come up with, carefully evaluating each, and finding none that really satisfied her. The best seemed to be to contact a left-leaning news outlet, or one of the activist groups, who might be concerned enough to look into it. Anonymously, so no-one knew she was just a machine and dismissed her concerns. And even that wasn’t a guarantee. She knew there was a good chance that the response would be “Tuuli who?”

     This is why making decisions is difficult. Even making the right ones does not always generate the desired outcome. She watched sunlight steal slowly into the hazy morning sky, turning the clouds an ominous shade of pink.

     And if Tuuli does not come back, what will happen to me?

     
Across the other side of the room, the communications terminal built into the countertop ding!ed softly.

     Someone was calling them!

     Galvanised into action, Notion leaped for it, like a cat after a bug, and skidded across the countertop, ignoring the pile of carefully-folded clean laundry she sent tumbling to the floor.

     You have a new video message, the screen said, in big gold letters. She swiped a hand over it, almost aggressively.

     As Notion had half-hoped, half-dreaded, Tuuli smiled back at her. Nothing in the image gave the slightest hint to where she might be – just a featureless pale grey brick wall, like any of a million public video booths across the country.

     “Notion? Hey. Listen, I-… I don’t want you to worry, but I won’t be coming home tonight. I’ve met someone.”

     Notion sat down with a plop. If the police officer had been right? This was exactly what all the other missing people had said.

     
“Someone who makes me so happy, No’. I can’t wait for my family to meet them. They’ll be so pleased for me, I know they will.” She drew a sharp breath, and gave an excited little laugh. “Please don’t be scared. I’ll come and get you as soon as I can. Be good, all right? Love you!”

     Notion sat and stared at the blank screen for an unhealthily long time. She felt-… she didn’t know what she felt.

     Worry, sure. Worry was what PDAs did; They were practically designed for it. Making sure their owners were healthy, met appointments, turned up for work, paid their bills, got home safely.

     Got home safely.

     
Fear, now that was a completely different animal, and one she was wholly unfamiliar with. Granted, there had been scary moments in their history – moments they’d feared being unable to pay the bills, feared losing their home, overestimated the severity of a viral illness one winter… but nothing that had left her feeling so paralysed. Notion’s abilities to plan and monitor could get them out of most fixes – but this was something no amount of planning could solve.

     What could she do?

     Notion twisted around and plucked the card from the little compartment where she’d stowed it. Would that police officer even be allowed to help her? She held it in both hands and for a long time, just looked at it.

     He might be allowed to help you, or he might not – but if you don’t tell him, he definitely can’t.

     
It took the officer a little while to answer the call. His hair all stuck up on one side and he wore a shapeless grey top that looked like he’d slept in it, and she realised that he probably had. She’d probably woken the poor spur up.

     “I’m sorry to bother you, officer Giedrius.” She ducked her head, apologetically, ears folded. “But you said to contact you if I heard anything new.”

     “Please, it’s just Russ. ‘Giedrius’ makes me think I’m in trouble.” He wiped his face with one hand, then propped his chin up on it, elbow on the desk, as though it was too heavy for his neck to support it unaided. “You heard something from your owner?”

     “Yes. Tuuli just sent me a video message. She did not tell me where she was, and said she was well, that I wasn’t to worry about her, but I do not believe her. I think she was attempting to give me a clue that she is in danger. I believe she was under duress.”

     The spur still looked half asleep; Notion watched as he tried to swallow a yawn, but only made it more obvious. “What makes you think that? What exactly did she say?”

     Notion repeated the words in Tuuli’s voice “I’ve met someone, someone who makes me so happy. I can’t wait for my family to meet them. Please don’t be scared.”

     Russ just stared blankly at the screen for a few seconds, and Notion feared he’d dozed off again. “She doesn’t sound under duress,” he said, at last. “Are you sure she’s in trouble?”

     “I know my owner, Giedrius!” The PDA paddled her feet on the spot, frustrated. She wanted to shout in his face and wake him up. “This is not what she would do! She would not claim her family will be happy when this is the very reason they have not spoken a single word in fifteen years.”

     As though sensing her desire to scream at him, he finally sat up straighter and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “You think it’s a clue?”

     Notion leaned closer into the feed. “Yes. I know it is. Would you please come and see?”

     He twitched an ear. “You could just transmit it.”

     Notion shifted, uneasily. “I would prefer not to. In case someone is monitoring our connection.”

     “If they’re monitoring, won’t they have seen you’ve called the cops?” He managed a tired grin. “You’d rather I just rocked up to your apartment, in full uniform, plus policebike, because that’s not a million times more obvious, or anything?”

     “You could be visiting any of the apartments in the block. There is no surveillance in the hallways.”

     “You got an answer for everything, don’t you? All right.” He sighed. “I’ll get it signed off, then I’ll be over. Once I’ve woken up a little.”

o0o0o0o0o

     Russ had hoped to be able to slink out without too much fuss, but his sergeant had apparently been keeping a closer eye than he’d realised on him. She blocked his way before he could get to the garage door. “Didn’t I tell you to spend your next shift at your desk?”

     Russ stuffed his helmet down over his ears and offered his biggest, most inoffensive grin. “No, you told me I’d probably be pulling another triple. I just wanna check out that missing fessine from yesterday, that’s all. Her PDA reckons she’s phoned in and confirmed she’s fine.” He carefully left out the bit about the PDA not believing it. “Besides, I need to make sure 637’s still running well. It lost a bunch of antennae yesterday.”

     Her glare softened, a little, and she stepped aside. “All right. Report in when you get back. Be nice to get another open case off your desk at last.”

     Down in the garage, 637 had picked up his signal, and was already out of its gantry and making for the lift when Russ turned up. It seemed fine – responding to all its usual prompts exactly as it should. It shifted to its vehicular format when they reached the street, and glided gracefully away once he’d climbed aboard.

     They slipped easily through the congestion-choked streets, making their way out to Notion’s suburb. Most of the automatics moved out of their way, sensing their approach, but 637 was sleek enough to be able to slip easily between those which couldn’t.

     Russ left 637 parked in the shelter at the bottom of the tower, alongside a single lonely private conveyance. “Behave yourself,” he told it. It was a nice surprise to find a garage all the way out here; most people living in the suburb couldn’t afford their own vehicles. And if they could afford the vehicle? Fuel costs were ridiculous.

     He cast an eye up the building’s towering sides. What was a fessine doing living here on her own? The tower was designed for singletons, sure, or small families – but single spurs, or medusi, or immigrant species. Fessine shouldn’t live alone, it put them at risk. (Well, she probably understood that better than anyone, now, right?)

     He reached for the buzzer to ask Notion to let him in, and found that his police chip had already unlocked the front entrance. He passed through the empty entrance hall, got into the lift and punched the button for the fifteenth floor. The whole place smelled of disinfectant. He pursed his lips, trying not to wonder too hard exactly what had just been cleaned up.

     The lift groaned softly with the effort, but reached the fifteenth floor quickly. He stepped out into the corridor – fairly well-lit, but quite narrow and windowless. A voice from a short distance away drew his attention, and he hesitated. The speaker evidently hadn’t heard the lift’s doors open.

     “Come on, Lee-Lee.” A door rattled subtly as the owner of the voice knocked on it. “Lemme in, we can talk?”

     Russ looked up the corridor towards the voice, and spotted a small, skinny fessine with a chaotic mane of spikey scarlet hair. She leaned tightly into the closed door, ear pressed against it.

     “I know you’ve been having second thoughts, about all this, but you can’t just ditch me; please? At least let’s talk about it, don’t-… don’t get your machine to lie for you-!” She gave it a frustrated thump. “I know you’re in there!”

     Russ approached, warily. He vaguely recognised the fessine – or at least, her hair. One of the protestors from a few nights ago. Gonna have to play this one carefully.

     His claws clicked softly on a strip of metal in the floor and she glanced around at the sound.

     Her expression immediately broke into a thunderous snarl. “I shoulda known freaking cops would be involved!” Like a spring trap, she launched for him, fingers curved into stiff claws, reaching for his face.

     Startled, Russ reacted automatically – he lurched backwards out of the way of the flying claws, somehow secured a grip on one flailing wrist, and used her momentum to twist her into the wall. She impacted the scuffed paint face-first with an oof! of surprise.

     He leaned his weight closer, pinned her carefully, one arm twisted up behind her back. “Hey. Calm down.”

     “Calm down?! Skeida-!” she snarled and stamped at his toes, but found only his tough driving boots. “Don’t you touch me, get off-!”

     He ignored the flailing claws, leaning just a tiny bit harder in an effort to stop her fighting. “What’s going on here?”

     “Is she with you?” The fessine’s voice grew harsher. “You have no cause to keep her under arrest! She was involved in a completely peaceful protest, as is our right! It was your guys that incited the riot, if you hadn’t showed up and started shoving us around--”

     Russ had to swallow the temptation to snap back that maybe if they wanted more legal responsibility, they should be willing to accept responsibility for their actions. “No-one is under arrest. Except you, perhaps, if you don’t calm down.”

     She squirmed and snarled. “Yeah, be a good little fessine and do what the ruling class tells you; I know how it works.”

     Russ drew a steadying breath. “If I let you go, do you think you can manage to keep your claws sheathed?” he asked. “Because assaulting an officer is good cause to arrest someone, and I’d hate to see your kind of troublemaker causing a ruction in cells all night.”

     She muttered something under her breath. “Yeah, all right. All right! Just get off me.”

     He released her arms and stepped back. She glared and flashed her teeth, but remained true to her word and didn’t immediately go back on the attack.

     Keeping her in view, Russ stepped up to the door, and rapped the back of his knuckles against it. “Notion? Are you there?”

     The door clicked softly and opened just enough for Notion to peer up around it, keeping it in the way of anyone attempting to enter. “Officer Russ?”

     Of course, he still had his driving helmet on; he hastily pulled it off, and winced as something snagged his hair. “Sorry. Yeah.”

     “Thank you for coming,” she said, softly, retreating just enough to let the two laima enter the apartment.

     “So you’ll let him in, huh?” the fessine challenged, skulking after Russ into the apartment.

     “Hey. She asked me to come, may I remind you? You just showed up out of nowhere and started threatening her.”

     Notion smiled, uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, Lillibet. You already thought I was lying to you, I didn’t want to know what you’d do when you found Tuuli was genuinely not here.”

     “So you called the cops instead? Great, thanks.” Lillibet folded her arms, defensively. “So they can bury it like they bury everything else. I bet you’re loving this, huh, blue-boy?” She focused her glare on Russ. “Another tidy fix to get rid of a troublemaker.”

     Russ shot her a glare of his own. “Guess what, fessine? I’m here because Notion asked me to come. I didn’t know you were here until I got out of the lift. I’m not here to indulge your persecutional delusions, all right?”

     “Delusions?!” Nostrils flaring, she puffed out her chest and stood as tall as she could manage. “Brainless thugs like you are the perfect image for everything that’s wrong with our society! You’ve got about as much brain as your bike; it’s no wonder you never try and see things from our point of view-!”

     Notion cut in, quietly. “Officer? Would you like to see the video now?”

     “I would. Thank you.”

     “Video?” Lillibet followed him across to the kitchen. “What video? You never mentioned that.”

     Russ didn’t bother looking back. “She was probably preoccupied with you hammering on her door, yelling threats.”

     Lillibet gave him a shove, but couldn’t think of a witty enough comeback. She stepped up to the counter next to him and jostled him sideways, to make the point; not going anywhere.

     The two laima stood by the counter and watched the missing fessine’s short message.

     The instant the feed went dark, Lillibet snorted incredulously, and began to pace.

     “I obviously trust Notion to make the ID, but the more confirmation I have, the better.” Russ watched the fessine pace out angry little circles. “Is that your friend?”

     “Yeah.” The fessine shook her head. “I mean, sure, it’s her. But it’s not her. There’s no way she’d have ever recorded a message like that, not in a dozen lifetimes.”

     “You think? People change.” He shrugged. “Maybe she has just met someone.”

     Lillibet looked back up at him, unflinchingly meeting his stare. “Lee’s parents kicked her out because she wouldn’t get married. I ain’t never seen her with anyone, either. Certainly not in the last few moons. I don’t think she’s got a romantic bone in her body.”

     “And she’s never brought anyone back here, for anything more than a meal or to watch the television,” Notion added.

     Russ narrowed his eyes, warily. “You don’t think she’s just been keeping it from you? I mean.” He shrugged, awkwardly. “You guys don’t precisely have a lot of space here, and no offence, but I’m not sure I’d want my PDA watching me, ah-…”

     “Having sex?” Lillibet couldn’t quite squash the flutter of smug satisfaction at seeing a deep plum blush flood into the spur’s ears.

     “Uh, yeah.” Russ cleared his throat and pushed on. “You’re sure she’s not just gone looking for somewhere a bit more private?” He gave Lillibet a look. “Figures that someone like you wouldn’t understand the concept.”

     “And just what is that supposed to mean--”

     “You’ll keep me informed if you find anything, officer?” Notion interrupted, carefully, before the argument could get too heated. “I can start doing my own research here, if it would help you…?”

     Russ looked down at her. Sitting on the edge of the counter with her hands clasped in front of her and her small ears folded, she looked… strangely vulnerable. He almost laughed; it was a machine. A little electronic assistant, a diary with legs. Computers didn’t get lonely, or vulnerable. But the idea of just heading back to the station felt a little like abandoning a pet in an apartment.

     “Uh, you can if you want, I suppose?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know if there’s gonna be a whole lot to find. If someone’s done something, they’ve covered their tracks pretty well. Tuuli’s the first where anyone has flagged up a problem.”

     Lillibet put herself in the way, stopping him leaving. “So come on, police. What exactly are you going to do now? Slink off home and sign this one off as mystery solved? Fessine’s just found herself a good medusi who’s taught her the error of her ways?”

     “When did I say anything like that? Of course not.” A new thought struck him, and he covered his face with a groan. “This means we’re going to have to reopen all the previous reports and go over them all again. Paksha.”

     “That’ll keep you nice and busy, I bet.”

     Russ glared at Lillibet’s innocent smile. “Hey. There’s this thing called reasonable suspicion, and if I have any reason to think there’s something suspicious going on, like intentionally wasting police time…”

     Her smile promptly fell off.

     Notion followed them to the doorway. “Thank you for coming, officer.”

     “It’s no problem. We’ll see that we get to the bottom of it.”

     She fidgeted on the spot. “…Could I go with you?”

     “Ahh, eh.” Russ grimaced. “Notion? I’m not sure there’s gonna be much you can do. I’m gonna be working. No room for civilians in the office.”

     “If it helps,” she offered, “I am not considered a person. So I also can’t be a civilian. I am also quite fast at conducting electronic searches.”

     Russ rubbed the back of his head and made his hair stick up at the back again. “It’s not just that, it’s the matter of there being, you know, private police matters and ongoing cases being discussed in the office?”

     “My privacy authentications are quite extensive. I will not discuss any of it with anyone.”

     “All right.” A sigh. “All right, I guess even if you can’t help, you can sit on my desk or something. If my boss asks, it’s because I might need to ask you some questions, maybe…”

     After locking up and ensuring the apartment was as secure as she could make it, Notion joined her new ‘friends’ in the creaky lift, and together they made their way down to the ground floor.

     The second vehicle in the garage turned out to be Lillibet’s. Unlike 637, her vehicle was a single-mode self-driven automatic, big enough for two passengers – she told it where she wanted to get to, and it piloted her safely there.

     So basically, a floating box. Russ couldn’t quite hide the sneer. Even when they were linked directly into the city traffic grid, and could see all the bottlenecks, the brainless designs resulted in a hundred traffic snarl-ups a day.

     Lillibet quirked a brow at 637. “You drive that? Huh. You’re braver than you look.”

     He shrugged and secured his helmet’s strap under his chin. “I’d rather drive for myself than rely on some underclocked computer to get me from A to B.”

     “Pff. At least that underclocked computer won’t accidentally kill me by getting me into a wreck.” Lillibet hesitated next to her vehicle’s open door, and waved a threatening finger. “I don’t like this, all right? You look after that wee critter. She might only be a PDA, but Notion is Tuuli’s only family.” She crouched and patted Notion’s ears. “And you tell me if he dumps you off in lost property or something. I’ll come get you.” She cupped the small cheeks in both hands. “You sure you trust him? You can come with me if you want.”

     Notion rubbed her cheek against the big fingers. “Thank you, Lillibet, but I trust him. I would prefer to be close to what is going on, just in case.”

     “All right.” Lillibet bumped cheeks in return, and briefly leaned their brows together. “Tell me if he just signs this thing off without looking into it.”

     “Yes. Although I don’t believe he will.”

     Notion watched as the little green vehicle purred out of the parking area, and disappeared into the street.

     “So, uh.” Russ attracted her attention; he already sat astride his bike. “How d’you wanna do this? I don’t exactly have a passenger compartment, but I do have a little evidence store on the back. You might fit in there.”

     Notion eyed the vehicle. The compartment looked very cramped. “I don’t think I will fit without incurring damage.” She sat back on her haunches. “I have seen some motorists carrying passengers who just hold on. Would you be happy with that?”

     Russ grimaced behind his visor, before toggling it on; the face-shield blackened as the display came online. “Not especially, but I guess there’s not much else you can do, short of catching the monorail again.” He stretched out, grasping the handlebars; 637 picked up his engrams and engaged its generator. The throaty purr of the vehicle’s engine reassured him.

     “I’m trusting you to hang on,” he said, as the PDA tucked itself around the back of his neck. “You fall off and cause a traffic collision, I am going to arrest you. And I don’t care that society doesn’t consider you a citizen, because we’ll make history when we go to court.”

     Notion thought it was probably a joke, but made herself as secure as possible. “I won’t fall off.”

o0o0o0o0o

     Fortunately, the pair arrived safely. Notion walked into the police station a step or so behind Russ, convinced that at any second, someone was going to spot her and kick her out… but she needn’t have worried. Everyone seemed more interested in Russ, and not for the healthiest reason.

     “Nice to see you smelling a bit sweeter today, Russo,” one of the zaar officers hooted at him from her desk near the window.

     “You can’t see smell,” he shot back, flashing her an obscene gesture; she cackled gleefully and raised three fingers in a reply salute before going back to her own reports.

     “Some species can see scents,” Notion observed, quietly, hopping up to the surface of the cluttered desk; Russ just gave her a look.

     The spur settled in front of his terminal and cracked his knuckles. “So. First things first. Where precisely does Tuuli work?” He turned the input screen so Notion could reach.

     “Just here.” Notion homed in on the northern manufacturing district. “The Glimmer clothing factory here, just off the centre of Makeside.”

     Russ plotted it on the map. “Close to the docks, too. Hn.” He chewed his thumbnail, absently. “Not the safest area. She ever had trouble before?”

     “I think she has been mugged twice – that she has admitted to me – but not recently, since she started carrying a defence spray.”

     “Hm.” His hands fluttered across the controls. Notion watched him, and realised he was pulling up records for other fessine. “Let me try something…”

     As he worked, a sprinkling of new dots appeared on the map. She leaned closer, watching; the dots were all centred on Makeside, but she wasn’t yet sure what they signified.

     Russ narrowed his eyes. “I’m beginning to think you might have been onto something. Look at this.” He zoomed the map out a little, and turned it so Notion could get a good look. “These are all the places the missing people worked.”

     With only a couple of exceptions, all the missing fessine worked around the same area – none in the same building, but all from the same smallish area of central Makeside.

     “You think someone operating in the manufacturing district is responsible?”

     Russ shook his head. “I don’t know. Could be a coincidence. I guess it may just be because it’s a deprived area, folk are more accessible, less likely to have connections…”

     “Russ?”

     Russ glanced around at his boss, who’d appeared silently as ever behind him.

     “What are you doing?”

     “Still working on the missing persons case.” Hearing her sigh, he hastily added; “I know, I know. You said to leave it alone. But I think this might actually be serious?” He turned the display for her. “Someone was hoping we’d just brush it off as fessine being fickle, and not look into it any further – and we’ve played right into their hands by doing exactly that.”

     The yurra leaned down by his shoulder. “These are the missing persons reports?”

     “Kind of. This is where they worked before they vanished.”

     “So they all worked around Makeside. Why do you think that’s so weird? Plenty of single fessine working out there. Just in case you conveniently forgot the whole political situation in the city right now? They don’t have a whole lot of options that don’t include working there.” She glanced down at him. “I bet you half the fessine that got married in the last half a year used to work out there, too. You know correlation doesn’t always indicate causation.”

     “Yeah, but these were all reported missing first. Then they mysteriously got back in contact and said they were fine, and we just took it at face value and closed the cases.”

     “What’s the time interval around the disappearances?”

     “Uh.” Russ tweaked the display; the dots changed colour. “Older cases are darker.”

     “So the bulk of the cases have been in the last… half a year?” She narrowed her eyes. “Remove the ones we’ve personally verified.”

     Only two dots – the oldest two, both a couple of years old – vanished from the display.

     Russ bit his lip. All the cases remaining on the screen dated from the last half a year.

     His boss made a soft, suspicious noise. “Looks like you were right. Someone’s ‘disappearing’ political activists.”

     The yurra turned and gave Notion a long stare. The PDA felt herself cringe down, just a tiny bit.

     “How long did your owner work over on Makeside?”

     “Approximately eight years.”

     “And she’s only just now disappeared? How long had she been involved in protesting?”

     “Just over a Quarter.”

     “Was she very important?”

     Notion had to pause to think. “Not that I am aware.”

     “And you don’t think it was just because she didn’t bother to tell you?”

     Notion found the confidence to stare the yurra in the eye. “I am her personal organiser. Of course she would have told me.” She flicked an ear, thoughtfully. “I doubt she would have had time to do anything organisational. She only barely had enough time to attend protest rallies.”

     “Hm.” The officer folded her arms and narrowed her eyes, but appeared satisfied for now. “Russ? Put together everything you have so far. I’ll hand it over to the investigative branch later this afternoon.”

     Russ pursed his lips and puffed up his chest, insulted. “Hand it over? But I thought-”

     She smiled and clapped him on the shoulder, tiredly. “You’re a driver, a’Baldi. A good one. But it’s not your place to go hunting down evidence of foul play. Leave it to the experts.”

     Russ huffed quietly under his breath, but nodded. As soon as she’d gone, he turned back to his screen. “I guess we better make sure we’ve got all this down as straight as possible, then.” He glanced sidelong at Notion. “If we went out to Makeside, could you show me Tuuli’s normal route, once she got off the monorail?”

     The PDA nodded, but shifted her weight uneasily on her forefeet. She knew from talking to Tuuli that going to Makeside was a whole different type of danger to taking the monorail to the city centre on her own. “I only have an approximate extrapolation from what Tuuli has told me in the past, but I can try. I don’t think there are many routes.”

     “We won’t be out there long,” he reassured, giving her a hesitant pet between the ears. “Just long enough to get a lie of the land. Maybe just get word out that we’re listening, if any other folk have seen people they know go missing, and they’re just scared to come forwards about it.” He punched in a command and sent the dataset to his helmet’s driving display.

     Notion glanced back at him. “Why would they be scared to come forwards?”

     “Well, I don’t know. Got to cover all the options, though. I mean, where are all these women going?” He tapped his screen. “Would you come forwards if you thought you were gonna be ‘disappeared’ as well?” He reached for his helmet.

     Notion stepped a little closer and set her small fingers against his arm. “…do you think she may be dead?” Her voice was very faint.

     “Uh?” That threw him. For a second, Russ just stared at her. “I wouldn’t have thought so. Why bother getting her to call us, otherwise?”

     He knew she didn’t believe him, and when she sagged a little, he let her lean up against him.

     “I’m sorry, Notion. I guess I’d never actually thought about that.” He stroked her ears. Funny how easy it was getting to see the PDA as a tiny person, not just a walking diary. “Come on. We’ll figure it out. I’ve got the resources, and you knew her best.”

     In all honesty, Russ didn’t really want to go out to Makeside without backup, either, but felt the need to get an idea of what he was actually looking at. If the investigative division got out there and found some sort of obvious campaign to ‘disappear’ women, to hide them from the public and let them work more covertly? He’d feel like a total moron. (Not to mention, he didn’t really relish the idea of being a driver for the rest of his life, and that kind of oversight sure wouldn’t look good on his record.)

     He set his helmet down over his head, but something sharp poked him in the ear. Russ glared into the soft lining, and clucked softly at finding a stray wire. One of the sensor nodes had pulled out of place. He pushed it carefully back into place with a forefinger, but it refused to stay. “Great. Another thing I’m gonna have to get fixed.” He buckled the helmet in place, anyway.

     Around the side of the building, 637 waited patiently in the parking bay where it’d been left. Russ pinged it a command; after a moment, 637’s antigravity emitters kicked in and it floated gently forwards out of the parking clamp. The spur narrowed his eyes; it looked sluggish. He pinged it for responsiveness; it came back a fraction slower than normal. Maybe it was having trouble reading his engrams, with that stray node.

     “Is there a problem?”

     Russ glanced down at Notion and managed a smile that looked rather more like a grimace. “Yeah, but only a minor one. Bike’s a bit slow on the uptake, is all.”

     Once again, Notion rode on Russ’s shoulders, trying not to punch too many claw-holes in the spur’s Overskin as she hung on. The ride to Makeside was faster than she’d have liked, but thankfully not very long; they travelled directly along the main artery that ran directly north through the city centre, weaving through crawling traffic like a small sleek predator through a herd of oversized grazers. And Russ was a good driver, even though he alarmed Notion with the chances he took.

     Russ finally pulled up on a piece of derelict land that had once been the location of a warehouse; scattered chunks of soot-blackened rubble on the concrete explained where the building had gone. A For Sale sign still stood at the roadside, but the perimeter fences had been flattened and now the empty ground was being used as an unofficial parking lot.

     The sluggish, estuarine river flowed parallel to the road directly behind them. In front of them clustered an array of buildings – mostly warehouses and factories, hunkering close together like predatory beetles. To his right, a wide trunk road already bustling with heavy freight vehicles struck deep into the heart of the district. To his left, a meat processing plant belched steam and odd smells; he eyed it, warily, but decided that he’d just watched one too many horror movies.

     The civic monorail-line plunged on into the heart of the manufacturing district, but Tuuli’s station was on the other side of the road from where Russ had parked.

     “She works here?” Russ looked around himself, warily. “Brave girl. I can see why she’d want a defence spray.” He directed a thought to his vehicle. “637? Backup, please.”

     After an instant, the walker obediently unfolded, standing at least twice the spur’s height. Its gargantuan size might put off the petty criminals, but it stood out like a beacon otherwise, advertising the police presence to… well, anyone with eyes, really. Just have to hope the benefits of the former outweighed the risks of the latter.

     That’s the only reason I’m keeping my helmet on, he told himself. Nothing to do with protecting himself; just keeping 637 under his immediate control. Russ squared his shoulders, trying to look less ill-at-ease than he felt, and set off down the road.

     No officer liked having to come out to Makeside – certainly not alone. Just a quick look then you can head back to the station. Notion clung fearfully close to his ankles, having to work hard not to trip the spur. 637 paced elegantly along behind them.

     Russ had only been out to Makeside a few times, and it had always made him very ill-at-ease. The street was busy, bustling with other workers and transport vehicles, but shadowy figures collected in doorways and he knew illegal transactions of various sorts were taking place. He usually tried not to look too hard.

     “That is the factory.” Sticking close to the spur’s ankles and failing in her attempt to not make it too obvious she was uncomfortable, Notion pointed at a brightly-lit pale concrete building a few hundred yards in front, on the other side of a distribution yard.

     All its loading docks were occupied, by heavy lorries emblazoned with the Glimmer logo. A regular drip of personnel passed through the main entrance gates, in and out. A small cluster of workers huddled outside the gates, taking a break for a cup of something hot, and a smoke. They were looking at Russ in a suspicious, defensive way that made him think getting information out of them wasn’t going to be easy.

     Russ glanced down at Notion. “Do you know any of her coworkers? Anyone I could talk to?”

     “I think Merit may work here. Tuuli says it is the only umskel’i working here. They campaigned together.”

     “Hn. I guess that should make it easier to find, at least…?”

     A flash of movement from one side snagged his attention. Russ turned to see who was trying to get his attention-

     A slop of thick white paint hit him square in the face, covering his visor and completely blinding him. “Aeigh-!” He tripped backwards and collided with 637.

     Russ’s assailant didn’t wait to see what the officer would do. He lunged straight for Notion – she dove to one side, but not fast enough. The spur grabbed her by her short tail and swung her off the ground.

     Notion squealed in fright, paws flailing helplessly in midair, and switched on her anti-theft protocols, but no-one so much as batted an eyelid at the pulsing alarm – not even the thief, although he seemed unprepared for the way she fought back against him, not the passive little thing he’d expected, not just a handy little gadget that he could wipe and sell for quick cash. He had to use both arms to trap the PDA against his chest, trying to muffle her alarm in his clothing.

     Notion clawed at his thick clothing and felt herself babbling, destabilised with fear, a string of unintelligible noises issuing from her vocaliser. She wasn’t even sure if she was trying to talk, to plead with her attacker. She might have been a machine, but she wasn’t designed for heavy work, and she didn’t have the strength to free herself.

     In the distance, she watched Russ tear off his damaged helmet and throw it to the ground, frustrated. 637 just watched blandly as their attacker ran.

     Notion knew she was going to have to do something to save herself.

     She thrashed against the spur’s chest, scrambling towards his shoulder. She diverted power to her vocaliser, and screamed in his ear, as loud as she could push her components – a disorienting, destabilising pulse of hideous sound.

     The laima actually threw her away from himself with a cry of alarm of his own, reflexively trying to cover his ears, tripped over his own feet and collided with a pile of refuse sacks spilling from a loading dock.

     Unwilling to risk standing around and letting anyone else grab her, Notion fled, narrowly avoiding getting flattened by a delivery truck. Her logic pathways said they weren’t sure that being with Russ was any safer than being on her own, but she hid behind 637’s large feet anyway, trembling. Huh. She’d never lost motor control like this before. Garbled code confused her motor complex and left her shuddering.

     “You all right?” Russ asked, crouching nearby, holding out a hand. White paint still dripped off his shoulder.

     Notion managed a quirky nod, struggling to get her abnormal movement under control. “Are you uninjured?”

     “Yeah, yeah. It’s just household emulsion. I guess it was a handy grab?” He pointed at the can, upside down in a small lake of white. “It’ll wash off. Helmet took the worst of it, but I needed a new one anyway.”

     A second can of paint – this time with its lid still firmly fixed in place – caught them by surprise. It flew out of nowhere and one of the flat sides cracked Russ a glancing blow on the temple.

     The spur gave an odd noise of surprise, and went down like a sack of old rags.

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The Strangest Notion

August 2016

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