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     Shocked and frightened, Notion stumbled backwards, tighter into 637’s ankles. For an instant, she was convinced the blow had killed her friend.

     She could hear the murmurs in the background. What’s a cop here for. What do they know? Do you think they’re after the woman? Try get the PDA, it may have data on what they’re up to. No, see if you can get the walker away first. Dump the cop into the river, currents will get rid of the evidence.

     Notion backed into the fallen laima’s side, crouching low, cringing, ears flattened. She had to do something quickly, before they acted on the murmurs. Russ still hadn’t come round, laying where he’d fallen. His metrics were stable for now, but a blow like that would need medical evaluation. She’d sent a call to the emergency services already, but it would be a while before anyone could get here.

     637 stood passively to one side. It hadn’t moved since Russ had been attacked.

     Notion looked up at the walker. “637? Please. Can you return to your vehicular mode? I need you to help carry your driver.”

     Its expression remained unchanged; passive. “Commands can only be actioned when given by a vehicle’s paired driver or officer with override authorisation.”

      “Can you not see your driver is injured?” Notion gestured with both hands, frustrated. “He cannot give you a command. We need to get medical attention, now!

     Its head perked to one side. “An ambulance is already on its way.”

      “An ambulance will get here too late-! There will be nothing here when they arrive!” Notion sent another more urgent emergency communique; police attacked, send backup.

      “An ambulance is already on its way,” the walker repeated.

     Notion weighed the handful of options that presented themselves to her, and found that the least appealing was probably the only one that would keep all three of them functioning. Can’t just sit here and hope help arrives in time. You have to try and control 637 yourself.

     She leaped for it, using its plating as a rudimentary ladder as she scrambled gracelessly towards its shoulder, where she’d seen markings indicating the location of electronic access ports. It didn’t move to stop her.

     Notion flipped her right hand back to reveal an access spike in her wrist. She found the port she was looking for, on the back of its right shoulder, and plugged in.

     Immediately, unfamiliar code tangled with her firewall. 637 jerked beneath her, as though it had momentarily lost its balance, but quickly recovered. She flashed through its top-level code, looking for the most basic commands – everything was so convoluted. After a very hasty examination, she finally found the transformation drive and sent a command to it. Obediently, 637 reformatted itself, almost sending Notion flying when her perch vanished from underneath herself.

      “Come on, Russ.” Notion turned her attention to the spur. She crawled under his shoulder and tried to boost him up, but he was heavy, almost too heavy for her miniature hydraulics. She wouldn’t be able to carry him unaided. “We need to get away from here.”

     He groaned and tried to speak, but she had no idea what he was trying to say. He pushed himself briefly upright, but his elbow buckled quickly.

      “Come on, Giedrius!” she scolded, shoving and dragging at him. She could hear the approach of people that sounded distinctly unfriendly. “Get on your bike-!”

     At last, the spur managed to wobble up to his knees, and haul his way onto 637, leaving emulsion paint smeared behind him like a trail of white blood.

     The voices in the background were louder. Notion could hear running footsteps.

     Notion braced herself against Russ’s back, dug her foreclaws into the softer plastic of 637’s driving platform, and plugged back in. The same bewildering array of protocols flashed up in her processors. She had no time to look through them. Working from the snapshot she’d taken last time, she grabbed for the one that looked like engines, and engaged.

     637 bucked dramatically as the force of its propulsion system kicked against their collective inertia. For an instant, it felt like they might flip clean over-

     Sending up a punishing spray of loose gravel from the road’s surface, 637 finally achieved forward motion, and just in time. They accelerated hard down the street, towards the city and safety, leaving the voices swearing in the dust.

     Safety? 637 handled like a wild animal. If not for her computerised reflexes, Notion would have probably piloted them straight into the river.

     This was not a good idea, she told herself, struggling to mimic the casual ease with which Russ had slipped them through traffic. She tried to echo his movements, but 637 responded irregularly, missing turns, mounting pavements, forcing pedestrians to leap for safety. They tore through the streets with none of Russ’s practiced grace. She lost count of how much street furniture they look out – signs, bins, tables. Other drivers screamed abuse as they passed, scraping paint and smashing lights.

     Russ just clung on, helpless to do anything except dig his nails into whichever tiny vents and crevices he could find on his vehicle’s flanks. He didn’t even dare try reach for the handlebars. Every high-speed corner felt like it was going to be his last. Every minor collision threatened to take a limb off. He gritted his teeth, so tight his jaw ached, able to concentrate only on hanging on. He clung to the vibrating machine with both arms, having to trust that whoever was driving it knew what they were doing.

     He could feel his blood surging, pulsing against his temples. His bike’s motors screamed like jet engines in his skull. Were they always so loud? The vibrations of a destabilised engine spread up through his jaw, through his ears, right up into his brain. Any second now and his head was going to split open like an overpressurised can of fruit.

     Notion glanced down at their injured passenger, wondering if she should stop and let the ambulance find them. If only she could turn on 637’s siren! Warn people, get them out of the way. But it was taking almost every last flicker of processing power to just steer them – she didn’t have the power to spare to go looking for the controls.

     And they were almost there! Almost back to the station, and safety. Just a little further.

     637’s wobbles were getting worse. They slammed through corners so close that twice, its fishtailing rear end clipped the stonework. She could feel the damage alerts flash up in its registry – echoing in her own mind. She could feel its programming fighting against hers – something alien pulsing in her own processors. A whole cascade of something ugly, a distorted fractal of hideous complexity bloomed out from its core memory.

     It felt like some sort of exchange was going on. A virus? Not possible! Her firewalls were absolutely top of the range, she’d have known-

     Except… it felt like she was the one infecting the bike. She was doing something to it.

     They blasted up the alley towards the training yard at the back of southeast station. Off-duty personnel fled out of the way of the out-of-control vehicle.

      “How do I stop you?!” Notion screamed, already recoiling from a collision with a helpless forensics technician. She scrambled for programming, looking for the brakes, a way to steer into a frictionless skid, anything-

     637’s gravity emitters turned off.

     The bike impacted the road and screamed across the tarmac, throwing up a shower of sparks, before hitting a kerb and launching itself into a cartwheel. Notion felt herself thrown free, forcefully unplugged, gyroscopes going so wild she had no idea which way was even up-

     She watched in disbelief as 637 transformed mid-tumble, and somehow caught Russ a fraction of a millimetre from smacking his injured head on the concrete for the second time in less than an hour. Momentum carried the pair on, until they finally came to a halt in a tangle of arms and legs up against a pile of plastic sacks of recycling.

     Disoriented, Russ struggled to work out which way was up. For a single instant, he found his vehicle’s face, and-… couldn’t work out what he was seeing.

     The soft, pale-grey features no longer bore the gentle, passive smile, the look specifically designed to reassure and encourage the public.

     Fear.

     For a single horrifying instant it stared down at him with fear painted clear as day across its face.

     Then it folded itself up, and – completely driverless – fled down the alleyway, in the direction from which they’d just come.

     A wave of nausea washed over him. Russ flopped onto his front, and vomited onto the tarmac. Must have hit my head a lot harder than I thought.

     No time to question things. A swirl of alarmed friends and colleagues gathered around him. They carried him into the back foyer and hastily peeled him out of his paint-covered driving leathers. The station medic attacked him with monitoring equipment and questions – Russ, what happened, do you know where you are, what’s today’s date – and he could hear the crunch of something being enthusiastically smashed in the background.

     All he could concentrate on was the horrible look of fear staring down at him.

     Fear. On his walker’s face.

     He groaned, pathetically. Maybe it was all one big hallucination. Had to be. Confusion, he knew that was a symptom of a head injury. Any minute now, and he’d wake up in hospital.

     His superior’s hand came out of nowhere and gently pressed a hastily-crafted bundle made of smashed ice and thermal undergarments from the uniform store against his temple. “Hold that,” she instructed. “An ambulance is on its way.”

     He automatically tried to push it away. “Wha--?”

      “Quiet, Russ.” She kept his hands on the compress until he looked capable of holding it himself.

      “I don’need an ambulance. Gotta find my bike.” He tried to sit forwards on his own but his head swam.

      “Pity’s sake, Russ. You’re concussed. Your bike can wait.”

      “Didn’t you see it?”

      “Your bike can wait. Mercy! We’ve got to get you to hospital and get that bump checked out. How is he, Stellan?”

      “His vitals are stable at the moment,” the medic confirmed, touching his blunt fingers very gently to Russ’s injury, making the spur flinch and hiss in pain. “But I want to get the injury checked properly. He’s too bruised for me to see if he has a fracture there.”

     Russ pressed his face into the compress. The cold felt so nice. “Please can you all talk a little quieter…?”

     Ignored by everyone, Notion sat on a countertop, near the wall, hands laced in front of her, trying to keep out of the way. She’d slunk in as unobtrusively as possible, but everybody had more important things to worry about, and nobody paid her any attention anyway.

     She picked drying paint from her fur. She couldn’t really concentrate on anything except that her new friend – was he a friend? She wasn’t sure – had nearly been killed because of her, and what had she done to his bike, anyway? And they were still no closer to finding Tuuli. Perhaps she ought to go back to her apartment, and stay there.

* * * * *

     Laying on a bed in accident and emergency passed in a painkiller-filled haze. After a very brief handover from the station medic and ambulance crew, the emergency team took over. They rolled him through a ridiculously loud and claustrophobic torus that his hazy brain suggested was a scanner, then parked him in a little curtained-off cubicle at the side of the department for another medical assessment.

     Like the station medic, the doctor was ondraii – a petite, copper-coloured female, her dark hair scraped up into a severe twisted plait at the back of her head. She went through all the same diagnostic procedures as Stellan, shining an obnoxiously bright torch into his eyes, checking his blood pressure, asking him what felt like a hundred inane and repetitive questions; Where are we? What’s your name? What were you doing before the concussion? Can you repeat the months of the year in reverse order? Can you remember where we are? Can you remember your name?

     Finally they left him in peace to discuss treatment options, and his senior officer took her chance and slipped behind the curtain. “Hey, a’Baldi. How are you doing?”

     Russ peeled one eye open. “Sore.” They’d replaced his compress with a proper refrigerated medigel, but the scratchy cover didn’t feel anywhere as good as his old icepack. “Do they have my results yet?”

      “Discussing ’em at the moment, I think.” She settled onto a chair conveniently near the head of the trolley. “What were you even doing out there, spur?”

     He snorted, then winced. “Finishing my report so you could hand it off. I just wanted to check there was nothing obvious going on out there. Guess I found proof there’s something illegal going on.”

      “Oh, like we didn’t know that already.” She sighed and rested her chin in both hands, elbows propped on her knees. “So where is 637?”

     He turned his bloodshot gaze on her. “I don’t know.”

      “It’s your bike, Russ. Only you can drive it. How can you not know?”

      “I don’t know where it is.” He sagged back against the mattress. His head had begun to throb again. “It ran away. You’ll have to check its system beacon.”

     She sat quietly for a second or two. “It ran away,” she repeated, flatly. “Russ… You’re gonna have to give me more than that. If you think it’s been stolen-”

      “I don’t know.” He drew a shaky sigh. “Ask around the station. Check the monitoring cams. I’m sure plenty of folk saw it drive itself away after crashing us into the recycling.”

      “It’s not programmed to do that.”

      “I know. I didn’t say it made sense, just that it happened. And I didn’t hallucinate it.”

      “Eh. Don’t stress over it.” She forced a smile. “We’ll figure it out. I’ll have to see if command will let me put in for a replacement vehicle.”

     Russ swallowed the protest; I don’t want a replacement. I want to figure out what happened to mine. “Thanks.” He got the sense she’d have liked to shake some answers out of him, and only his head injury was stopping her.

     The instant she’d gone, a small motion by his feet drew Russ’s attention. He looked down the trolley to find Notion sitting near his feet. “Oh, hey. I didn’t think they’d let you come.”

      “I followed you on the ambulance. Nobody stopped me.” She leaned into his legs. “I’m sorry.” Her voice thinned. “I think I might have broken your bike.”

     Russ reached down and briefly petted her cheek. A streak of dried white emulsion made her fur all stick up on her left side. “Eh. You saved my life, I think.”

      “After putting it into danger. I shouldn’t have got you involved.”

     He chuckled, and winced. “I’m a cop, Notion. Who else could you have got involved in this mess? Besides, it was my idea to go out there.”

     She didn’t have a reply for that. Instead, the PDA crawled up closer to his chest, and he could feel her still trembling.

      “Are you all right? You’re shaking.”

      “No.” She curled up under his hand, pressing tight against him. “I’m scared. I think I am broken.”

     He petted her ears, gently. “Well, that was a pretty traumatic experience for a little fluffball who’s barely been out of her apartment in her life.”

      “I am a digital assistant, Russ. Getting scared is not something I should be capable of. Certainly not to the degree it interferes with my motor signals.”

     His fingers stilled very briefly. “We’ll figure this out, all right? Don’t fret it.”

     In spite of the general hubbub of accident and emergency, and the dull throb that seemed to reverberate inside his skull every time he moved, Russ managed to sink into an aching doze, adrift on a foggy sea of painkillers. Notion stayed close to him; a familiar warmth near his arm. He wasn’t sure who was trying to comfort who.

     Finally, the doctor reappeared through the curtain, followed by the sergeant.

     The yurra’s big hand gave him a careful shake. “Russ? Come on, spur. Wakey wakey.”

     Russ grunted and wiped his face with one hand, and sat forwards with a grimace. “Does this mean I’m good to finally leave?”

     The doctor was already programming the prescription card plugged into the side of her tablet. “Yes. Go home, get some rest, and that includes brain rest. No music, no television, no social media, for a couple of days at least. Sleep as much as you need, but make sure you have someone to check in on you regularly.” She unplugged the card – it had turned a shade of dim blue.

     Russ recognised a sick note when he saw one. He sighed.

      “This should keep your manager satisfied. No driving until your reaction speed is back to normal. No work for at least thirty days,” the doctor pressed the card into his hand, “and then I want you on light duty when you go back.”

      “Wait, wait-… Thirty?” He held the card back out at her. “No, I don’t need this. I’m needed at work.”

      “You suffered a brain injury, a’Baldi.” She folded her arms. “Minor, I’ll grant, but if you dive straight back in to work, you run the risk of making this a long-term problem. Not to mention, your job puts you at risk of second-impact syndrome-”

      “It was only a little bump-!”

      “Why do laima officers all have to be so thick-headed?” The doctor clicked her tongue, scolding gently. “You could have had internal bleeding, a skull fracture, a clot, a bruise on the brain. You got off lucky for a blow like that. And it’ll still take time for you to heal. You’ll probably feel a little muddled for a few days. More confused than normal. Not good symptoms for someone who needs to be alert on the job.”

      “But-”

      “Russ?” His senior officer looked tired. She rested her face against one hand. “Go home. I’ll find cover for you. It’s only thirty days.”

      “But I can’t just-”

      “Go home. Even if the doctor would sign you off fit for active duty, you won’t be able to drive until we figure out what happened to 637.”

      “I could do desk-“

      “Go. Home.”

     Russ stared at his lap, and turned the card end over end. “Yes ma’am.”

     She mantled a gentle hand on his shoulder. “I want you back as soon as you can be, too,” she reassured, softly. “But I want you well, first. If you actually give yourself the chance to heal, you won’t make your health worse and end up signed off for longer. Right?”

      “Right…”

     The shadows had stretched out and the streetlights were just starting to come on when Russ finally emerged from the emergency department, dressed in civilian clothes for the first time in days. He didn’t like to admit it, but the doctor was right. He felt… dull. Slow. Tired. All he wanted to do was go back to his parents’ home, and curl up in a dark room, and sleep.

     Staying close by his ankles, Notion looked up at him; he was still studying the card, lips pursed. “What will you do now?”

      “Go home, I guess.” Russ thrust his hands into his pockets, and set off along the street. “It’s not like I can fake a medical note, not with my boss having been there and heard it all.”

      “…can I come with you?”

     He glanced down at her. Notion trotted gamely along at his feet, with a faint, optimistic smile. “Don’t you have an apartment of your own?”

     She paused for a heartbeat. “Yes. But it’s getting dark.”

      “I’ll escort you back.”

      “You want me to go away?”

     He made a little frustrated noise. “Notion, I can’t work any more. You heard the doctor; I’m signed off for thirty days. You’d be better off back home.”

      “Doing what? Sitting waiting for Tuuli to not come home?”

     He stopped walking and looked back down at her. “If you stayed with me, you’d be doing the same thing. Probably even less.”

     She sat on her haunches in front of him. “I know.” She laced her hands together. “but I would feel safer with you.”

      “Safer-!” He snorted a laugh, then sighed and rubbed the back of his head. “All right. All right, fine. We could pretend I’m looking after you for, for… I don’t even know why. I’ll take you back home as soon as you get bored of sitting in the dark with me.”

     She rubbed against his ankle, just once. “I can be helpful. I can do what the doctor suggested, and wake you at regular intervals.”

      “Ugh. I forgot about that. Yeah, I guess.” He stared back along the street. “Come on then.”

     Together, the pair trudged quietly along the pavement, towards the monorail.

     The day had left Russ more shaken than he liked to think about. First the attack – and it couldn’t have all been just to steal a PDA, surely? – then everything that had happened with 637.

     More than anything, he was worried about it. Worried about his bike. He almost laughed about how ludicrous it was. It’s a thing. A vehicle. Things get lost, fixed, replaced, every day. They’re not alive. They don’t get offended at the concept of being replaced. It wasn’t as if he’d lost a colleague.

     Was it just frustration that he’d have to relearn to drive? He’d been paired with 637 for long enough that driving it felt as second-nature as walking. Matching his neural patterns with a new vehicle could take months – and it’d still be running factory settings, slow and clunky. It could be a whole quarter before he was back up and running.

     No. That couldn’t explain why the look of fear on the normally emotionless face made him feel sick. The machine he’d so easily believed incapable of independent thought – what if it wasn’t. What if they’d programmed in so many safeguards it just didn’t have any choice in anything – fully conscious, forced to experience whatever he wanted it to?

     In a way, a little like some of the fessine he’d been battling with. That was an uncomfortable picture. He tried to push it out of his brain.

     Across the street, the lights of a late-night data-café twinkled. “Come on. I need to send some mail before I get home and get banned from doing it.” Russ stopped at the edge of the street and waited for the lights to change, stopping the traffic.

      “The doctor said you needed to go home and rest.”

      “I know, but I need to do this. Until the sarge convinces the investigation branch that this is serious, our case is going to sit and get stale. This is too important for me to be laid out.” He gave the road a cursory glance and skipped across to the traffic island in the centre of the lights.

     The traffic had already started moving again. Notion bravely chased him across the road, horns blaring impatiently at her. “What do you plan to do?”

      “Right now? Just see if I can rustle up a little help until I can get to the point where just thinking doesn’t make my brain hurt.” He pushed the café door open and let Notion enter the building in front of him. “After that, I have to find Evs. I need to figure out what’s gone wrong with it.”

     After paying for a large cup of very weak, milky keem, Russ slipped into a private berth close to the rear wall, away from the worst of the street noise and bright lights of passing vehicles. Notion managed to squeeze up onto the tabletop, next to the console.

     Russ half smiled. “You’re gonna get me in trouble, paddling those filthy paws on the table.”

     She checked her feet, but didn’t move to get down.

     He pulled his notepad out of his pocket and scrolled through his scribbles until he found what he was looking for; a voice terminal address. After uploading some call time from his personal credit, he punched it in and listened to the usual please be patient while we try to connect your call.

     It took a while to connect. Of course, it’s late. Who’s to say she won’t be off protesting somewhere by now anyway? And what do I say if they want to know who it is-

     A familiar chirpy voice answered the signal. “Greets!”

     He leaned into the microphone. “Lillibet ro’Duran?”

     There was such a long pause on the other end of the line, for an instant he worried that she’d just hung up on him. “Who is this, and how did you get my deets?”

      “It’s Russ. I wondered if-”

      “Who? I don’t know any Russ.”

      “…You tried to kill me yesterday morning, and I got your deets because that’s what I do.”

     Another pause. “Hanging up now, blue-boy-“

      “Wait! Just wait one second, please. At least let me explain?”

     For an instant, the silence convinced him she was gone, but the line open indicator still flickered.

      “I just… wanted to ask a favour. Could you ask-”

      “A favour?” She barked an incredulous laugh and drowned out his words. “Do you guys have special lessons in not taking a hint? Leave me alone or I’m filing a suit for police harassment.”

      “I just wanted to ask if you knew any of the other protestors that have gone missing. If you don’t wanna help, fine. Just… let me finish asking the question first, please?”

     Another pause. “All right. Listening. Make it fast.”

      “So I’ve been looking into Tuuli’s case. She’s not the only one to have gone missing like this. I’m trying to put together a case for my sergeant to hand over to the detectives, but there’s not a whole lot of information out there, and without it no-one’s gonna give this many minutes of their time.” Russ rested his brows against his laced fingers. His head had begun to throb again. “They’ve got way too much to worry about to take notice of a few fessine vanishing here or there. It all looks innocent, above board, nothing sinister. They’re all sending back happy messages, content in their new lives.”

      “So what do you need from me?”

      “Could you ask around? See if anyone from your protest group knows anyone that’s disappeared, or… you know, gone against their principles.”

     Lillibet sounded like she’d begun to recognise the angle he was coming from. “Whirlwind romance, you mean,” she drawled, sourly. “Left the political circuit because she’s found happiness and completeness in some medusi’s arms.”

      “Exactly. I need to know if anyone has heard from them since they last called. If anyone’s even been able to contact them at all.”

      “Sure, I’ll ask around. Don’t think this means we’re suddenly best pals now.”

      “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

     She made a little disbelieving snort. “So how do I get in contact with you?”

     Russ punched the keypad and transmitted his home terminal number.

     There was another pause. “This is a personal frequency.” She couldn’t hide the suspicion in her voice.

      “I know. I’m signed off sick for a day or two,” he lied. “I went out to Makeside. Didn’t find anything except a concussion and a sick note, haha.”

      “A concussion? …You know, I don’t wanna know.” She sighed. “I’ll call you if I find anything. Don’t bother me if I don’t call you first.”

     With a soft click, the line went dead.

     Russ cupped his hands around his keem and took a shaky sip. “So what do you think. Is she gonna help us?”

      “Lillibet can be hostile, and is not often friendly, but she is honest and I think you can trust her.” Notion offered a faint smile. “If she says she will help, she will help.”

* * * * *

     Once he’d finished his drink, Russ took the monorail home. The carriage was mostly empty; the commuter rush had long since passed, but it was nowhere near time for the city clubs to have started to empty. The handful of passengers sharing the carriage stuck to the far ends, giving him a wide berth.

     Notion sat near to his feet with a strange, straight-backed defensive posture; he wasn’t sure if she was putting on a brave face, or actually trying to protect him. He let his hand drift down and ruffled her ears.

     Russ didn’t often go back to his family’s place, in the distant suburbs out to the east of the city centre, where the population was a little less tightly-packed. It was a little too quiet, out there – he preferred the hubbub of the city centre, where he had his own small apartment only a short walk away from work.

     The other drawback was… well, his family was quite small – a nuclear trine with two children, himself and his sister – but his bearer could be, eh… smothering.

     He’d hoped to get in without anyone noticing him, but all the lights were on, and the front door swung open before he’d even got off the gravel driveway.

     Russ groaned. “Brace yourself,” he suggested, quietly.

     Before Notion could ask for clarification, an short, older fessine swooped down the steps and engulfed Russ in a hug. “Giedrius, oh Giddy, I heard what happened, how badly are you hurt? You had us so worried!”

      “Emmy, Em, ow, ow ow.” He winced and tried ineffectually to peel her off him while she made a valiant attempt at checking him all-over for injuries. “Please, could you be a little gentler?”

      “We were so worried about you.” She cupped his cheeks and inspected the wound on his temple before kissing his nose. “Oh sweetheart, that looks so painful. Didn’t we say something like this would happen some day? Your job is so dangerous, we should never have let you apply in the first place.” She threaded an arm around his waist. “Come on, come indoors, and I’ll get you something to eat to make you feel better.”

      “…I really could do with just getting some sleep.” Russ grimaced but let himself be led. “Go on in, Notion. This may take some time.”

     His bearer glanced down and watched as Notion slipped past her. “You finally got a PDA?”

      “Ah, no. This, uh. I’m looking after her for someone.” Russ squinted against the bright light indoors.

     His mother stood just inside the door; tall even for a medusi, she towered over him, and dwarfed her wife. “Russ.” The medusi set her hands gently on his shoulders and nuzzled his cheek. “You took a while getting home.”

     He knew a telling-off when he got one. “I’m sorry. I came as quick as I could.”

      “Emmy was sure you’d missed your stop and sailed off towards the next city. We were about to send out a search party.”

     He smiled apologetically, and gave his bearer a little squeeze; she reached up and bumped cheeks with him. “I know.” He sighed. “I’m sorry. I had to just-… I guess I’m not thinking too straight.”

      “Go get some sleep.” His mother shooed him gently towards the stairs. “Emmy can check in on you every once in a while; food can wait until breakfast.” She raised her voice a tiny bit, to be heard over the fessine’s protests.

      “Thanks.”

     After delivering Notion to his room – which still looked rather like an adolescent spur lived in the house. His bearer clearly still hadn’t quite managed to reconcile herself to the idea he was now an adult – Russ headed to the washroom. He couldn’t quite decide if he liked the idea of a hot shower, or thought it might make it worse.

     His reflection in the mirror made him grimace. He’d not actually got a decent look at himself since leaving the station that morning – to be honest? Checking his reflection hadn’t really occurred to him – but now, standing in the bathroom? He could see why everyone was making such a big deal out of this. The bald white light seemed to suck all the colour out of his skin, made everything stand out with a horrible painful intensity.

     Laima skin didn’t bruise easily, which made the shocking explosion of purple on his left temple all the more dramatic. A thin adhesive strip held together the edges of a small contusion right at the centre of the bruise. Smears of dark brown blood and white emulsion paint made his hair even more chaotically spiky than Notion’s.

     …no wonder everyone had avoided him on the train. He gingerly washed off as much as he could.

     It wasn’t lost on him that 637 had looked rather similar when they’d got back from that three-shift monster patrol, with an explosion of black cracks on the side of its head. At least he hadn’t bled quite so much. Or had he? If only he could have been back up and running as fast as his walker had.

     Skeida, had it only been just over a day ago that this had all started? He propped himself against the sink, finally allowing himself to acknowledge just how tired he was; his arms and knees trembled with the effort.

     He made it back to his room without collapsing into a pile of sleeping limbs in the hallway, and sagged onto the mattress. For a while, he just watched Notion’s small hands as she tried (without a lot of success) to comb emulsion out of her fur. It just made her look spikier. He would probably have laughed, if not for the fact he knew it would have made his head hurt more.

     Instead, he stretched out in the heap of pillows, and wrapped a blanket around himself. “Notion? Explain exactly what you meant by breaking my bike…”

---------------

Author’s note: “Emmy” isn’t the name of Russ’s parent – it’s an affectionate diminutive.
Laima have three genders, so “Mum” and “Dad” don’t work very well, here. Hence you have Emmy (fessine, bearer), Zia (mother, medusi) and Pai (father, spur).

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The Strangest Notion

August 2016

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