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[personal profile] keaalu posting in [community profile] strangestnotion
The PDA obediently followed him to one of the communal offices. He shooed it towards one of the desks. He usually shared it with 029’s driver, which (hopefully) meant there’d be no-one around to complain he was a little ripe. “Do you have something I can call you?”

“My name is Notion.” The PDA leaped up to the empty chair on the other side of the desk, and sat tidily on its – her? – haunches.

“Russ.” He placed a hand against his chest, then plopped down on his own chair, and grimaced. The cushion was never as soft as it looked. (Even 637 was more comfortable than this, skeida.)

The computer had sensed his badge approach and was already clinking its way out of dormancy. He scooted a pile of databoards with unfinished reports out of the way, giving the holographic controls room to load properly.

“So, missing person, huh?” Russ called up the relevant form. “What makes you think your owner is missing and not just, I don’t know. Visiting friends or family or something?”

“Tuuli has no family, and I haven’t been able to contact her since she left for work the day before yesterday. Her phone is going directly to answering. Texts are being delivered but she is not replying.”

“She’s not just... I don’t know, busy maybe? Forgetful?”

“She would not ignore me,” Notion insisted, firmly. “She is my friend, not just my owner. She would not want to me to worry about her.”

“Hn.” He wasn’t entirely sure how to parse that; a lost and delusional PDA? “All right. Owner’s name and date of birth.”

“Tuuli a’Pemari, 19-04-03-267.”

Russ fluttered his hands across the keys, and waited while the computer searched for her record, checking hospital admissions and police reports. Nothing from the local hospital. No unidentified-but-similar-looking individuals.

The police database was a different matter. Interesting. The fessine had a criminal record. She’d been booked – admittedly for the first time – only a couple of nights ago. She stared back out of the screen at him with a sort of reluctant defiance, her ears back, her pale yellow eyes red-rimmed but luminous against her dark brown skin. Short, untidy dark hair massed like a predator’s nest around her head. Streaks of bright chemical salt and black soot on her skin and clothes proved she’d been in one of the riots.

Russ glanced sidelong at her PDA, his eyes narrowing subtly. “Have you been sent to waste my time because she got herself arrested a few days ago?”

Notion perked her head to one side, confused. “No. Why would you think that?”

“I don’t know. Keep me busy running around looking for her, while she goes off to riot in the city centre?” He spread his hands. “You’re a PDA. She could have told you to do anything.”

He thought of his little sister’s P.E.T.; small and cute like this one, it woke her up in the mornings, helped her with her college assignments, reminded her of things on her calendar. Remind me to buy flowers for Emmy next time we go past a florist, that sort of thing.

What it didn’t do was take it upon itself to go to the police that evening she got lost after a party, had her travelcard stolen, and ended up staying the night at a friend’s house.

Notion fixed him on a very intense stare – almost glaring. “My friend is missing. I am worried about her. Please don’t accuse me of wasting your time.”

Ouch. Russ directed his attention back to the form on the screen. “All right. Uh. So. When did you last see her…?”

They worked their way slowly through the form, and were almost done when a shadow fell across them. Russ felt his ears go back, all on their own. “Ohh; uh-oh.” He ducked his head down close to his shoulders. Only his direct superior could loom so effectively.

“Russ, do you have to sit and stink the control room out like this? And why is 637 asking for a mechanic? That’ll be the second time in two shifts. Don’t tell me you ran it into a wall again,” his senior officer growled, coming to a stop behind him. “…are you interviewing a PDA?”

“Uh.” Russ didn’t bother to actually look up, running through excuses in his mind and knowing none would really satisfy his boss. “Yes. Her owner’s missing. And the mechanic didn’t have time to properly fix 637 up after our last shift, so technically this is partly the same thing as needed repairing last time, but someone chucked a flashbang at us and-”

A’Baldi.”

The laima’s words dribbled away to nothing. He glanced up at the imposing woman and noted her firmly folded arms and impress-me expression. The burly yurra looked similar to a medusi, just slightly more square, plant-footed and less stretched-out of limb. A heavy bruise left her temporarily blind in one eye, explaining why she was currently desk-bound, but she didn’t look any less frazzled for it – her thick dreadlocks had begun to migrate out of their clasp at the back of her neck.

“The PDA?” she prompted.

“Uh, yeah. She came down here because her owner is missing. We’re just doing the missing persons report.” Only after Russ had finished speaking did he realise how stupid he sounded. He shot Notion a pleading look. “You could help me out, here?”

“Russ…” His superior sighed, faintly. “How many fessine have we had reported missing in the last couple of weeks, that haven’t been missing at all? That are absolutely fine, and have just been swept off their feet in some whirlwind romance? Or have been having an affair they didn’t want anyone knowing about, or have found new jobs, or even just found some nice family, and settled down?”

Russ pursed his lips. “See, ma’am, I wonder if there might actually genuinely be something going on here?” He finally felt confident enough to meet her gaze. “We don’t know that all these other fessine have definitely just changed their minds and settled down. Some were major players in the campaign circuit-”

They contacted us directly!”

Russ swallowed the rest of his protest.

“Or their families, or their friends. We heard the rumours, don’t worry about us, we’re fine!” The yurra finally unfolded her arms and began to pace. “What better way to keep the police busy than have them chasing after missing persons who aren’t even missing.”

Silently, Russ recognised that those had been his exact words to Notion not ten minutes previously.

“This political instability is making everyone edgy. We’re so busy scaring ourselves by jumping at shadows, nobody knows what’s actually a problem, any more.”

“Shouldn’t we at least consider someone might take advantage of that?”

“Russ.” His superior sighed and wiped her face with one hand. She sounded as exhausted as he felt. “Go fix your bike, go take a damn bath, and go see the medic. Then go hibernate, for at least the whole of the next shift. You’ve just pulled a triple, and I can’t guarantee your next shift won’t involve more of the same. This whole situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and I need as many good drivers out there to help try and keep the peace as I can wrangle.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And hand the PDA in to lost property, on the way.”

“Right…”

Notion watched the yurra walk away. She looked… deflated. He didn’t think he’d ever seen a PDA look disappointed, before.

Russ smiled, apologetically. “Sorry. I guess our time is up.”

Notion shifted her paws on the spot, and folded her small hands together. “At least we completed the form.”

Russ held out a slip of polycarbonate with a chip embedded in the top corner. “Listen. Here’s my card. If anything else comes up… call me.”

Notion took the card and tucked it into a small compartment on her flank, hidden under her fur. “Your superior told you to leave it alone.”

“I can add details to a report without needing her permission. Who knows, your owner might be the first genuine one we’ve had!” He tried to force a smile, but it didn’t feel very funny and the PDA didn’t smile back.

She looked up at him with a stern, chilly set to her brows; it was hard to shake the idea she was glaring. “If I were fessine, would you take me seriously?”

“Hey, I do take you seriously. I probably take you more seriously, as you’re a machine and you just state the facts. You don’t get worried over irrational things like us laima.”

“If I were fessine, would you take me seriously?” she asked, again, more softly. “Or would you assume I was just over-reacting, or stirring trouble?”

Russ opened his mouth, but found he had no reply.

Notion had already dropped down to the floor. “Would you let me out, please?”

“Uh-… sure.” He scrambled around the table and followed her across the office to the foyer and public entrance. He opened the door and stood aside, letting Notion out onto the steps. “Um, listen. Are you gonna be able to get home on your own?”

Notion glanced up at him and smiled, subtly. “Well, the municipal transport network doesn’t consider me a person, so I don’t have to pay fares. I just have to try and be safe.” She cast an eye to the sky. “It’s not too late in the day. There’s a lot of people about, and my theft alarm is quite loud.”

“I could see if anyone’s free to drop you off…?”

Her smile became a little more genuine. “So long as I keep to public thoroughfares, I should be fine. But thank you.”

“And I meant what I said earlier. If you hear anything – or don’t hear anything – lemme know.”

“I shall do. Thank you.”

Russ watched the street until long after Notion had vanished around a distant corner. Something about the situation had put him on edge, and he wasn’t sure why. Like his superior had said, plenty of fessine had been reported missing, only to turn up safe and well later on. Some had ‘disappeared’ on purpose, to intentionally waste everyone’s time. And yet, something about this felt… off.

It couldn’t have just been the fact that the PDA had made the decision to come down here. Anyone could have reprogrammed it. A massive prank at the expense of one of the gullible junior officers. No PDA behaved like that. No machine was that self-directed, that smart.

Ugh. Someone had to be playing a prank.

Russ trudged down the steps and around the side of the building, past another harassed, filthy officer climbing unsteadily off his walker in the parking bay, and into the staff lift. Instead of heading up to his dormitory, he went down to the basement garage, where the walkers were housed. It wasn’t normally his favourite place, during the daytime – it was usually noisy, over-lit with super-bright halogens, and stank of fuel and ozone. But he felt a strange urge to check on his bike, to ensure no-one was adding any stupid programming to it, to compound the idiocy with the PDA.

He emerged from the lift onto a wide metal walkway that ran almost full-distance around the huge room, about halfway up from the floor. Around half of the parking alcoves were occupied, each with a single machine, hooked up to a tangled forest of cables; data cables to download scan data and run defragmentation, electrical cables to recharge batteries, fluid cables to pump out and replace lubricant and coolant. Even fuel pipes – walkers ran off high-efficiency cold-fusion generators, but even they needed to be recharged every now and then. A movable gantry gave the engineers easy access for repairs of scheduled maintenance – at the other side of the garage, two engineers were working on 280 right now, reattaching an arm and antigravity lift.

Russ walked around to where 637 was parked. The tall machine sensed the access chip in the spur’s suit, and came online at his approach, head and optics swivelling to watch him.

“Hey, Evs.” Russ settled on the mesh gangway, looking out over the basement, crossing his legs underneath him. “How’s your head?”

637 looked down at him with a bland, non-comprehending smile, and didn’t respond.

Russ swallowed a sigh. “Has the engineer been down to check your damage yet?”

“Yes.”

“What was his report? How bad is the damage?”

“A new plate will need to be composited, but the damage is mostly cosmetic.”

“That’s good. Will you be back up and running in time for my next shift?”

“I have not been given enough information to make that judgement.”

“Huh.” Russ stared out over the quiet garage. The rest of the walkers stood silent and offline in their hookups. None had responded to his arrival, but then he hadn’t expected it – they had other drivers.

He’d been paired with 637 ever since it had come off the factory floor. He’d spent a quarter of a year just learning how to drive it – hotlinked via the complex web of sensors lining his driving helmet, teaching it how to recognise his cortical engrams, and figuring out its behavioural algorithms in return. This right here was one of the reasons fessine didn’t drive these complicated machines. Walkers needed dedicated, serious drivers who didn’t mind turning into extensions of the machine, and vice versa. He knew the machine intimately – all its little quirks, and all the tricks to get it to do what he wanted. He could only drive 637, and 637 only responded to him.

And yet… at least one fessine had a much stranger and closer relationship with a much smaller, less complex machine. And if it was true, she hadn’t even asked it to do anything.

Russ glanced up at 637. “Would you ever come looking for me, if I went missing?”

The expression never shifted from the patient, expectant (stupid) smile. “I’m sorry. I do not understand.”

He’d been expecting the exact same answer he got, but still couldn’t help feeling a flutter of disappointment. “I figure that’s as good an answer as I could hope for, right?”

Hadn’t asked it to do anything? Ha. Who do you think you’re trying to kid? It was programmed exactly for this, and you fell for it. Maybe you wouldn’t have been so gullible if you’d not spent a day and a half with your brain inside your bike.

Russ grunted and stretched his shoulders. His uniform creaked and made unpleasant sticking noises. The sooner he could peel himself out of it and get some rest, the better.

He levered himself up, and clapped his walker on the shoulder. “See you tomorrow, Evs. Sleep well.”

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The Strangest Notion

January 2018

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