keaalu: If plot notes worked towards my nanowrimo word count, I'd be finished already (Nano Plot Notes)
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When Tuuli didn’t return home after work that evening, Notion wasn’t unduly worried.

It wouldn’t have been the first time the fessine’s plans had been swayed by one or another of her friends and she’d stayed out with them. She’d overheard Tuuli’s conversation with Lillibet, after all, although she didn’t understand much of it herself. In the last month or two, the pair had begun to grow more obviously political, attending protests and meets – although Lillibet was by far the more militant.

Sometimes Tuuli would end up staying overnight at her friend’s, discussing campaign details – and she didn’t always remember to notify her PDA, especially if she’d had something to drink.

At least this saved her the job of stripping and remaking the bed, for once, correct? No scuffs of road-grime or dirt (or blood!) on the clean sheets, from where the fessine had crawled through the front door and collapsed straight into bed without even removing her filthy clothing. Notion shifted uneasily on the spot. The thought wasn’t as comforting as she’d hoped. (She wasn’t going to allow herself to consider the idea Tuuli had collapsed with exhaustion before getting in through the front door.)

She spent most of the day in the window, fingers pressed into the glass, watching for her friend to come home. Waiting for the distinctive blue coat to emerge from the monorail.

When Tuuli still hadn’t returned home the next evening, Notion began to grow concerned. The fessine hadn’t made it to work, either, if the increasingly bad-tempered demands for information her boss had left on the computer were anything to go by.

She contacted Lillibet (who had always alarmed her, a little, and Notion wasn’t entirely sure she trusted the fessine), but she hadn’t seen her either. She promised to let her know “as soon as she knew something” but Notion didn’t feel entirely convinced that Lillibet actually grasped the seriousness of the situation.

Not content to sit back and just wait, the PDA continued with her own research. She tried calling Tuuli’s phone, but every time she was diverted straight through to the answering service, before it had even had the chance to ring. Which meant the phone was either off – out of battery, perhaps? (Or damaged?) – or privacy locked. Why would she have turned the sound off if she wasn’t at work? It didn’t make sense.

She then fired up her own algorithms and sent her a text. Tuuli, I am worried about you. Please let me know you are not hurt.

I will not be offended if you forgot to inform me of something
, she added. But please confirm you are well?

Receipts pinged up obediently to confirm the texts had been read, but Tuuli never responded.

Notion spent the rest of the evening connected to the hypernet, watching multiple news feeds at once, hoping for just a glimpse of her owner. Something to reassure her she was fine, if forgetful. Stayed out too long with her friends; nothing more sinister. She spotted Lillibet easily, in lots of reports – the fessine had recently dyed her short, spikey hair a nearly-fluorescent red that stood out like a beacon, and was waving a huge placard with a fairly obscene message – but Tuuli was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was just somewhere outside the camera’s visual range. Perhaps.

The second morning with still no sign of Tuuli convinced Notion that this wasn’t just the paranoia of a PDA whose routine had been upset. She must be in trouble – hurt, maybe. In danger, even. Perhaps her phone had been stolen. Perhaps she was somewhere she couldn’t call for help.

Should she go to the police, Notion wondered? Could she go to the police? She fidgeted. She knew Tuuli didn’t trust them and might be offended, but who else could she ask? The idea of getting anyone else involved made her uneasy. Lillibet wouldn’t have the resources to go looking – if she even thought Notion’s fretting was serious – and Notion didn’t know any of Tuuli’s other friends well enough to feel safe asking them.

Notion wasn’t strictly just a PDA. Repeated upgrades and hastily-patched clashes of poorly-understood programming had left her with plenty of quirks and a sort of undefinable, unmeasurable sentience – enough to be able to think and make decisions for herself, at least. Although that wasn’t to say she enjoyed making decisions – decisions were tricky and how did you know you were making a good decision? She usually ended up dithering for so long, deliberating over the minutiae of the variables, that Tuuli got frustrated and made the decision for her.

This was a seriously life or death situation. She couldn’t afford not to dither, because the consequences of making a bad decision could be world-ending for both of them, but likewise she couldn’t afford to dither because every precious second that ticked past might mark the difference between finding Tuuli, and… not.

No; she had to go. Law enforcement would be the only service with the facilities to find her owner. Tuuli may be upset, but they’d both just have to find a way to deal with it.

Decision made, Notion still dithered in the apartment doorway.

She wasn’t scared, she told herself. Just… wary. That was all. Wary.

It was a very big world, full of all sorts of dangers that she wasn’t sure she’d cope with. She rarely left the apartment with her owner; this would be the first time she’d ever left it without her. Maybe decisions would be easier if she didn’t have the luxury of time to dither.

Getting down to the street was going to be difficult; she could blend in with a crowd, but sitting alone in an elevator she’d stand out like a sore thumb. She hoped she knew enough about her neighbours’ routines that she could do this safely. She stepped hesitantly into the empty corridor. All of their doors were closed. Everyone going to work should already have gone. Safe as it was ever going to be.

Notion closed and locked the door and stowed the key in a small compartment in her own chassis, hidden under her fur, before walking boldly down the corridor towards the lift. She hoped that if she looked like she was meant to be out here, no-one would question it, and no-one would try their luck. (Maybe.)

The lift groaned its way to the ground floor, and disgorged its single occupant into the block’s small entrance hall with its rows of postboxes. Reassuringly, the postie distributing the mail spared her only a single uninterested glance before getting back to his work. Notion stepped past him, out into midmorning sunshine.

The commuter crowds had thinned, reassuring her that she wouldn’t be trampled, but the pedestrian area at the centre still buzzed with activity. Students from the local college gathered in small crowds around the benches. Young families played on the grass and around the trees.

She could see plenty of PDAs, too – probably as many PDAs as people. Support guides for the visually impaired, intelligent toys for the infants, personal shoppers returning with groceries. Some models even looked like they were designed just to be company. A flutter of optimism reassured her.

The only problem, which she was trying to dismiss, was that Notion was a whole lot smaller than most, and she was alone. And there was a reason most small PDAs didn’t usually go out on their own – they were small, light, and easily stolen. If someone grabbed her? Well, the less thought about that, the better. She’d have to just hope it was an opportunistic grab, that they wouldn’t have a disabler and her theft alarm would be loud enough to deter them. Maybe if she could just fool the casual observer into thinking she was with someone…

Look bold, look unafraid, and don’t dither.

Notion made her way over to Tuuli’s normal monorail station, staying fairly close to hedges and walls and hoping the shadows would make her stand out a little less, but following as close as she dared to individual pedestrians. She sat on her haunches in the middle of the crowd on the platform, near a handful of other PDAs, and boarded the train with them. She sat primly on the floor near the feet of an oblivious fessine, just close enough to make it look to the casual observer like she belonged there but not so close the fessine herself would grow suspicious.

So far, so good. Now, she had to continue the procedure across the entire city, and hope

******

At the city’s south-east suburban police-station, most of the overnight shift were already back off shift when a filthy straggler on a damaged motorbike finally pulled up outside. The civil unrest was taking its toll on the whole city, but the police, struggling to maintain the peace in an increasingly flammable situation, arguably had it the hardest.

Vehicle 637 pulled into one of the parking bays in the side-street next to the police station, and glided with a soft hush of air into the docking clamps. Its operator remained stretched out in the driver’s position for several long heartbeats, before shakily pushing itself upright and removing its helmet to reveal a frazzled young laima officer.

Giedrius “Russ” a’Baldi had pulled a triple shift, and was close to the limit of his stamina. He was dehydrated and had a headache, his eyes were sore, and he’d been wearing his driving-suit so long, the synthetic Overskin had begun to feel like it was moulded permanently onto his body. He knew he stank.

Smell was probably the only thing distinguishing him from his vehicle – of old sweat, rather than engine oil. His driving leathers were as filthy as the bike’s plating, a uniform grey-brown mixture of dirt off the roads and grease and soot stains from scuffles with the protestors who (in his not so humble opinion) were only there to smash things up, not to cause any kind of political change.

He’d escaped mercifully uninjured, which was a small blessing when you counted how many officers had been hauled off to hospital mid-shift, but his walker had taken a home-made flashbang on the side of the head. It had lost a whole suite of antennae, so it’d have limited functionality until the mechanic could get down and repair it. So he was sorta forced off shift anyway.

He hated this whole situation. While he kinda sympathised with the protestors – hey, he had sisters, too! – he really didn’t understand why it was such a big deal. Fessine were a complex bunch with an apparently-genetic inability to make their minds up; they needed a strong medusi to provide for them and protect them, a good spur to cut through the emotions and make objective decisions. Why did they want the right to put themselves in danger with backbreaking jobs and difficult decisions? It was a recipe for disaster if he ever heard one, expecting a fessine to have the emotional stability to do a job requiring complex decision-making.

They were already proving they didn’t know what they wanted with these protests, flip-flopping between “we’re sensible intelligent beings that deserve better than we get” and “fucking stand still and let us throw home-made explosives at ya!” Every time, just as he was beginning to sympathise with them, to fall for the spin… along came something new to ruin his optimism – like the fessine who’d tried to smash his walker’s face in. And for what? He wasn’t the enemy here! He’d never oppressed anyone. If they chose to riot, that was their decision; he didn’t get any choice in the matter, so what about his rights?

What if they were never satisfied? What if they wanted to do everything the other genders did? Join the police, even? Drive a walker?! Just the idea of relying on some hormonal, emotional fessine to provide backup left him feeling uneasy already, and nothing had even happened yet!

You’ve been hotlinked to your walker for the whole shift, and you haven’t slept properly in days, he scolded himself. Of course you’re jumping at shadows.

And now he had all the paperwork to fill in. Scan data to analyse, reports to file. He groaned and let his head sag back down to his bike’s chassis. Would anyone even notice if he slept right there, sprawled out on his bike, camouflaged by filth? Sure, it was a temporary parking bay, but it wasn’t like he was gonna be here forever. Just a quick nap. He pillowed his cheek on one arm and let the other one dangle, watching as 029 and 554 headed out to a disturbance, their brilliant yellow-green emergency lights flashing.

He bit down on a flicker of resentment. No, you can’t go with them. You’ll pass out at the controls and have to explain why 637 crashed again.

His bike’s uncomfortable angles made his decision for him. He ached too much to nap out here. He swung his far leg over the machine’s slender frame and stood up, but a long shift’s driving had left him feeling bandy-legged. Russ had to cling to his vehicle for a moment or two, waiting for the feeling to return to his toes.

Once satisfied its driver was independently mobile, the vehicle hissed softly and unfolded from a compact, agile hoverbike to a tall bipedal machine that looked like a mechanical laima, all the way down to the long, springy legs and soft, inoffensive face – hence the popular designation of “walker”. Independently mobile, the machines could provide backup where needed, and take care of a lot of their own functioning, like refuelling, saving their drivers precious minutes to do their actual jobs.

Walkers had come into their own with the latest riots. Their size and physical strength gave them a psychological advantage, and they couldn’t be accused of police brutality. 637 epitomised the design; soft-faced and obedient to a fault, able to restrain even the strongest of criminals with ease…

And as stupid as a rusty crankshaft. Walkers weren’t designed to think for themselves, and Russ was pretty sure not one single original thought had ever crossed 637’s processors. It might have a laima face, but it was still only a vehicle. His nickname for it, “Evs”, stemmed mainly from the fact it used to take forever to do freaking anything unless he directly ordered it to.

Russ looked up at his machine, and scowled at the sooty starburst on its plating. Black streaks raced across its face and poured down off its shoulder. At the epicentre, where the flashbang had exploded, there radiated a small spiderweb of cracks and the slow ooze of oily yellow liquid drew unpleasant squiggles through the damage. He crossed his fingers that the underlying damage wouldn’t be too bad.

He gaze travelled across the grey features to the sophisticated camera optics, and he realised his walker was actually staring at something, away in the middle distance. “S’matter, Evs?”

“There appears to be an unattended PDA on the front steps,” 637 observed.

Russ stretched up onto tiptoe and spotted the little purple blob sitting just outside the doors. “Is that what it is? Huh. I wonder what it’s doing there? Rhetorical question. Guess I better go see what’s wrong with it.” He reached up and gave his vehicle a slap on the flank. “I’ll call the mechanic down for you. Go get hooked up and get recharged. I’ll review your scan data once I’ve seen what that PDA wants, all right?”

637 didn’t waste time uttering an affirmative, it simply turned away to do as it had been told. The big lift to the basement garage opened before it got within range of the sensor; 637 stepped to one side and politely allowed 419 and its driver to emerge, before taking its place in the cage and disappearing.

Russ would normally have joined it in the lift, or at very least taken the staff door in the rear of the building, to avoid getting accosted by members of the public that might have been in the foyer, but the PDA on the steps looked expensive. The idea of some low-life coming along and stealing it, from right under their noses, made the hair on the back of his neck bristle crossly. Hopefully it would just be a simple job of calling its owner to come pick it up, or signing it over to lost property.

Russ hopped lightly up the steps to where the PDA sat. It watched him approach with a really rather worried expression on its small face.

“You are allowed in, you know,” he said, by way of greeting. “Get lost, or something?”

The PDA stared at him and blinked just once. “The doors won’t open for me.”

Of course, the sensors were programmed to ignore biosimulants without an access chip.

“Should have followed your owner inside.” He opened the doors for it and waited while it passed in front of him, into the reception area.

“My owner is missing. It is why I came here.”

Russ hesitated long enough in the doorway that the door alarm started to ping at him. “Sorry?” He watched it head across the foyer towards the duty sergeant. “Did you say your owner is missing? So who sent you down here?”

“I did.” It reared onto its hind legs and placed its hands on the desk, and it was still only just tall enough to be able to see over the top. “I’d like to make a missing person report, please.”

The desk sergeant glanced down at the PDA and was about to speak before something new hit him. “Skeida, Russ.” He glared up at the approaching driver and wafted his hand in front of his face. “Is this why you’re still a constable? Your vocabulary doesn’t extend to the word ‘bath’?”

Russ ignored him and addressed the PDA. “You can send reports in electronically – it’s pretty well highlighted on our site. Did you not check it out first?”

The PDA dropped back down to all fours and turned to face him. “I brought a DNA sample, I wasn’t sure how to go about doing that online.”

Russ gave it a serious look. “So we’re investigating a missing person and a homicide, potentially?”

It actually recoiled. “I-I never said I thought she was dead-!”

“But you brought a DNA sample…?”

“I have watched police procedural dramas on the-the television! It-it seemed like standard procedure!” Its vocaliser hitched, as though alarmed. Which of course it couldn’t be, because it was a PDA, and devices couldn’t get scared. That was something people did.

Maybe it was just this headache, making him imagine things. And maybe he really needed to find some other poor sod to pass this off on.

Russ pinched the bridge of his broad nose. So much for a quick visit to hand it over to lost property. “Yeah, if we need to identify a body. You know they play those things up for dramatic effect, right?”

It shuffled its forefeet. “Are you not going to help me?”

“I… didn’t say that…?” He sighed. Bed was going to have to wait a little longer. “Come on. This way.”

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The Strangest Notion

January 2018

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