The Strangest Notion (Ch 6)

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All prisoners are to move back behind the yellow line until instructed otherwise.

The voice punched down through several layers of uncomfortable dreams and prodded Tuuli rudely awake. Milliseconds later there came the distant thunk of heavy switches being thrown, and the floodlights all came on at once. She flinched and ducked under her blanket, trying to shield herself from the glare.

Remembering where she was, she muttered something unpleasant under her breath and covered her ears with both hands, wishing vainly to be able to drop back into her dreamworld. Notion might be far too chirpy for early mornings, but never again would Tuuli take her willingness to snooze her alarm for granted. She didn’t understand why their captors felt the need to yell at them quite so early in the morning. Until the tannoy had screamed into their ears, she wasn’t sure anyone had even been awake – not to mention, there was only one person even remotely likely to disobey the instruction in the first place.

Sure enough, peering out from under the edge of her blanket, Tuuli could see Běla already on her feet, arms folded, toes right up against the yellow line. The old medusi slept only lightly, if at all – rumour had it their captors had done something to her that reduced her need for it, but Běla refused to talk to anyone about it.

Not interested in finding out what it was that meant they had to keep back from the line – couldn’t be breakfast, too early – Tuuli grunted and tried to wriggle deeper into the scratchy blanket. Her arms felt cold. So did her toes. The cavernous underground complex was cool at the best of times, and she was certain they intentionally dropped the temperature overnight to keep her fellow inmates tired and stiff and sour-tempered, and less likely to rebel.

She listened to Běla pacing. Maybe the medusi was just cold as well.

Finally, the lock clunked and the heavy metal door swung inwards, coming to rest against the wall with a thump that made the electrified mesh of the ceiling rattle. A pair of armed guards stepped inside and took up position either side of the opening.

The bunk rattled as the prisoner in the bed above sat up. “...s’goin on?”

Tuuli watched the guards look closely at them, suspiciously, but remain silent.

She didn’t like it. This was different to normal. As far as she was aware – she hadn’t precisely been here long, herself – there’d usually either be a prisoner hastily shoved into the Pen and the door closed back up, or a shouted command for one of Tuuli’s fellow captives to go over to the door, usually never to be seen again. This morning, the guards stayed quiet – just watching and waiting.

Běla stood at the line, facing them. She didn’t speak, either; just used her presence to intimidate. One of the guards actually looked away from her.

Something out in the corridor rattled. All attention shifted to the open door.

Two silent workers wheeled a long, flat trolley into the area; on the trolley was a vehicle – smallish, filthy, propped up on blocks.

“You and you.” One of the guards flicked a hand at two prisoners, a drae-zaar and a teenage spur – although it was a fact lost on no-one that he avoided pointing at Běla, who was actually closest. “Come over here and help.”

Between the four of them, they managed to lift the vehicle down off the carriage and onto the floor. Leaving the two prisoners to somehow manhandle the vehicle over to a clear bit of wall, where they could prop it up, the workers left as silently as they turned up.

Even if she’d been wearing goggles, Tuuli would have recognised the design. Small and sleek, built of dark metal and a pale beige ceramic composite, with a stripe of day-glo blue and yellow chequers that ran full length along both flanks. Etched into the paler enamel was a handful of meaningless code, and some much larger numerals: 637. A flaky smear of what looked like white emulsion paint stretched up over the padded driver’s position. Two of the tough plates on its left flank had broken and fallen away, leaving only a few flakes of armour behind, revealing the underlying metal attachments, covered in obvious damage and heavy carbon scoring.

Běla stayed at the yellow line until the guards too had retreated and locked the door behind them. “What have we got, Dierk?”

“Police bike,” the zaar replied, warily, as though the fact could have escaped anyone with eyes. “Functional, too, maybe? It’s got some damage, but looks in pretty good nick otherwise.”

Most of the captives had begun to gather nearby, wanting to check out the new arrival. It was… strange. Very out of place to have a machine like this dumped in here. There had to be better places to stash it. The small group crowded around it, not quite close enough to touch, and collectively conducted a very brief visual examination.

Tuuli let them all push ahead of her, absent-mindedly covering the bruise on her arm. Her last meeting with one of these had been painful.

Dierk hovered close to the machine, trying to examine it and simultaneously not get close to it. “How the heck did they get hold of one of these, d’you reckon? I thought they all got broken up when they were decommissioned.”

Another voice in the crowd spoke up; “Yeah, they don’t want anyone reverse engineering ’em. Can you imagine if anyone uploaded a virus?”

“Maybe that’s what they wanna do with it. Figure out how to hack the cops mainframe.”

Běla hadn’t moved from the yellow line. “More importantly,” she waited until everyone was looking at her, “why have they left it in here with us?”

A confused murmur spread around the prisoners.

Finally, Běla approached. “It’s a vehicle. It’s not going to run away. It’s not going to fight them. It’s not even as if they have to put it in here because they have a dearth of space anywhere else.” She folded her arms. “So there’s a reason it’s in here. And I don’t like not knowing what it might be.”

It wasn’t especially subtle when every other prisoner took a step away from it.

One of the fessine spoke up. “Do you think it’s dangerous, Bell?” She’d retreated behind the teenage spur, and had her hands braced uneasily against his shoulders.

“It’s a bike, sis.” He gave her a gentle elbow in the ribs. “It’s not gonna get up all by itself and run you over.”

She thumped his shoulder. “It was a serious question!”

“Honestly?” Běla shook her head. “I have no idea. I’m not a mechanic. I suppose it depends mostly on how long they’ve had it. What they might have done to it.” She crouched closer, and ran a hand over the damaged area.

“It won’t be dangerous. They’re harmless. Right?” The zaar leaned closer to her shoulder. “Can’t do anything without a driver. Built in safeguards or something. Right?”

“Hm. Tuuli?” Běla looked around at the fessine. “Didn’t you say you were hurt by a walker on your last protest?”

Uncomfortable with suddenly being at the focus of everyone’s gaze, Tuuli rearranged her folded arms over her chest. “Uhh, yeah? I’ve got a bruise from where it grabbed me, but only because I tried to fight it.” She laughed, uneasily, backing off another short step. “Safeguards mean they can’t intentionally hurt us. And I’d still rather be grabbed by one of those things than a cop with a baton and a can of riot spray.”

Běla pursed her lips. “What if they took the safeguards out?”

Her words sounded uncomfortably loud in the cold cell.

“We already know they’re trying to discredit us. Eventually just spreading rumours won’t be enough. Perhaps they’re trying to get rid of whatever programming it has that blocks it being able to do harm. That’d sure shut down our campaign quick, wouldn’t it?”

Another little simmer of anxious noise passed around the inmates.

“I’m not sure your wild hypotheses are going to do much except scare these young’uns, Bell,” a new voice suggested, gently.

Běla glanced up to the topmost bunk just inside the doorway, where a stern, short-haired fessine of about the same age sat, cross-legged, watching them. The medusi glared. “Then perhaps you’d like to have some input on the conversation, Kadri dear?”

Kadri smiled, patiently, and gestured with an open palm. “Have you actually examined it yet? I mean properly? There’s so many pieces missing, it’s probably on the point of falling apart. It was a lucky grab. They probably snatched it up from some decommissioning yard somewhere, and wanna take it apart, figure out how it works. Maybe build their own.”

“So why put it in here?”

“Because they want us scared of them. How better than to dump police tech in here, to ‘spy’ on us?” Kadri scooted off her bunk and landed gracelessly with a wince. “And because we’ve been here long enough for them to get to know you, they knew you’d blow it out of proportion, like always. If you actually let yourself sleep for once-”


“You might get a bit more of a reasonable perspective on the world.” She set one hand on each of Běla’s shoulders and lowered her voice. “You’re reading stuff into this that doesn’t exist, and that’s getting everyone nervous.”

“You’d prefer I stay quiet about what might happen to them, so they can all be nice and relaxed in their ignorance?”

“I’d prefer that we got worried over things worth worrying about – like where the other prisoners are going, and why they never come back. Not… frightening them with scare stories about machines that are designed to not be dangerous. It’s not gonna spontaneously get up and start smacking folk around.”

“Unless they’ve already reprogrammed it.”

Kadri covered her face with one palm and sighed. “So instead of testing it in a controlled environment, where they can grab it if anything goes wrong, they just put it in a cell with a ragtag group of prisoners? That sounds logical.”

“We don’t know that they haven’t tested it. How long has it been since they took Tasma?”

Kadri gave her a hard look. “You’re not honestly suggesting they’ve turned it into a walking death machine, and tested it out on the last prisoner they didn’t bring back.”

Běla backed down, hands up in surrender. “No, no. I’m not saying it’s what happened to her. I’m just saying we need to be alert to the possibility, and we should try and be ready to defend ourselves.”

Kadri lowered her voice even further, to a frustrated whisper. “Right, and in the unlikely event that you’re right, d’you want to try tell me how you think we should defend ourselves from the thing? We don’t even have metal cutlery.”

Běla remained silent.

“It’s a bike, without a driver.” Kadri leaned her forehead against her wife’s. “A vehicle with no-one to command it, inside an electrostatic cage. There’s nothing here to direct it. It’s harmless.”

Běla drew in a long, deep breath. “I know. I know. I’m sorry. I’m jumping at shadows.” She blew the air back out in a frustrated sigh. “I’m turning into a liability; you don’t need to tell me so. I just… know we’ve got to find a way for all of us to get out of here. I don’t want it to be me that gets us hurt.” Her gaze slipped away to the machine, still parked quietly at the side of the cell. “If only we could figure out how it worked. It could be our ticket out of here.”

Kadri followed her gaze. “And in a universe where we can even get it to turn on… What were you thinking?” she wondered, softly, leaning closer.

“I’ve seen those things break down walls without a lot of effort. If we could figure it out how to control it… a door would be no problem.”

“What about the armed guards behind the door?”

Běla gave her wife a small, wan smile. “Figure out if we can even control it first, eh?” The medusi glanced around her group of fellow prisoners. “I know it’s a long shot, but does anyone here know the first thing about engineering? Nimisha?”

It took a couple of heartbeats before the wiry little fessine with straw-coloured hair realised everyone was staring at her, and froze. “What?”

“Didn’t you say you were studying to be a mechanic, Nim?” Běla chased.

“I, uh-… not exactly? It was in my own time. I was doing a distance learning course.” Nimisha gave a wary shrug of one shoulder. “Pai let me do a bit of work in his workshop, but it was never gonna come to anything because who’d trust a fessine with something like that, right?” She laughed and rubbed her arms, awkwardly. “Zia and Emmy kept trying to stop me, get me to do the things a ‘real’ fessine should like. Closest I’ve ever come to a walker was on a protest.”

“You know a bit about them though. You’re still our best chance.”

She spread her arms wide. “There’s a difference between lowering the suspension on my own vehicle and even being allowed near a walker. Come on.”

“At least take a look. Tell us if it looks like it’s been decommissioned.”

Nimisha muttered something under her breath before elevating her voice. “Any safeguards are gonna be a programming issue, not a mechanical one. We don’t even have a damn magazine tablet in here, let alone something to jack into its core with. I have no idea what you think I’m gonna be able to achieve.”

In spite of her protests, interest radiated off her once she got closer. Her fingers worked carefully across the dirty armour, examining every little scuff and dent, assessing which of the black marks were genuine damage and which were just soot. Tuuli watched her work, from a respectable distance; she wondered if the mechanic had seen the smears of what looked like blood, up close to the driving controls.

“You know what?” Nimisha said, at last, quietly. “Aside from the obvious? This is a pretty good little machine.” She ran a hand over the padded surface on which the driver would have ridden, rubbed a thumb over the flaking emulsion. “I’d wager it had an engineer looking at it regularly until a few days ago. No way was it decommissioned.” She glanced up at Běla. “If I had to guess? I’d have said someone distracted its driver while someone else snuck in and picked it up.”

Dierk crouched next to her and watched as Nimisha teased the last couple of sharp pieces of broken ceramic plate away from the shattered left side. “So why has no-one come to reclaim it? I thought they were meant to have beacons for this very reason.”

Nimisha ran a palm over the damaged flank. “Perhaps this was its beacon. It’d explain why they targeted this area when they were shooting at it.”

The zaar sat back a little, alarmed. “They shot at it? What happened to its driver?!”

“How do you think all this scoring happened?” Nimisha traced a fingertip over one of the scorched lines of damage etched into the beige enamel. “I’m hoping the driver was just, y’know. Inconvenienced. Had to walk back to base, that sort of thing…”

Dierk didn’t look convinced, his strikingly marked features paling dramatically. He’d apparently seen the same blood that Tuuli had.

“We’re in an electrostatic shield, here, anyway. Nothing gets in. Even if it was in one piece, any signal from its beacon wouldn’t be able to get out. Maybe that’s why they put it in here.” The fessine leaned over the controls, flexing her small fingers investigatively around the hand-grips. “All right. Let’s see if we can’t get a look at your brain; see what we’d need to steal to try and hook up to your processors…”

She reached down around the machine’s heavy front end, almost tenderly, palm down over the section housing its core processors, then carefully prised the cover off the machine’s left lateral dataport. “Huh. Look at that.” She drew a finger around the rim of the port; the components had some very obvious gouges etched into them, and the bright silver suggested they were new. “Someone’s already had a go at it.”

“Does that mean Běla could be right?”

Nimisha glanced over to the speaker – the fessine with the teen brother. “Right about what, Ritva?”

“They reprogrammed it already, and put it in here to kill us. They don’t want any loose ends.” Ritva approached, warily, flexing her hands around the thick handle of a broken plastic spoon, probably stolen from one of the trolleys that their meals were delivered on.

“What?” Nimisha frowned. “I said someone had maybe – maybe! – tried to hack its processor, I didn’t say they’d managed it-”

“That they even tried is good enough. They’ll try again and succeed, next time.” Ritva gestured for Nimisha to move over. “Get out of the way, Nim.”

The small woman automatically put herself between Ritva and the vehicle. “Don’t be ridic-… What are you even doing?”

In spite of her bravado, Ritva’s hands trembled where they clutched the makeshift weapon, and her knees looked bandy. “Getting rid of a threat. If I ram this in that dataport?” She waved her spoon-handle. “Then we’re safe. If it doesn’t destroy its brain altogether, at least no-one can reprogram it.”

There was a low mechanical clunk from somewhere deep inside the vehicle, and everyone leaped away. Nimisha made a little sound of alarm and threw herself away so enthusiastically, she tripped over her own feet. She scooted away from it on her bottom.

For an instant, nothing else happened. The silence was so still and total, Tuuli was surprised she couldn’t hear the heartbeats of everyone in the Pen.

Ritva sucked in a deep breath, tightened her fists, and took another step closer--

--and the walker abruptly lurched awake, unfolding in an explosion of moving parts. It threw itself away from them, backwards, crashing its head and shoulders into the electrified ceiling. A shower of brilliant sparks cascaded down around it, even as everyone around it fled for what limited cover was available in the cage.

It looked almost like it was trying to get away from Ritva and her flimsy weapon.

For a fraction of a heartbeat, its face bore a very clear look of startled alarm, hands coming up to its shoulders as though to ward off some unseen enemy.

Every prisoner in the room had already retreated, and most now cowered in little groups in the most inaccessible places they could find – the furthest bunks, the corners, behind the few containers dotted about the room. Nimisha had hurled herself into the sanctuary of Tuuli’s bunk the instant the sparks had begun to fly, and now cowered with her behind the blanket, as though the thin, scratchy fabric would somehow protect them if the machine was dangerous.

For several very long seconds, everyone just… stared at each other.

Finally, the walker sat down, squished up against the wall, with an inelegant thump that made the floor shake. Well, sat or collapsed; Tuuli wasn’t really sure which it had been.

Then it spoke. Actually spoke. Its words were soft, but carried the impact of any home-made flashbang: “I’d prefer that you didn’t touch that.”

In the upper bunk, Běla found her voice first. “What did you say?” Her words came out rather more high-pitched than normal.

The vehicle turned its head to meet her gaze, and for a second, it remained silent, lips slightly parted. Tuuli thought it looked alarmed – as though it hadn’t anticipated the question, and was weighing up whether to speak again.

The moment was gone before the thought had even finished processing. The alarmed expression dissolved into a familiar non-confrontational nonsmile. “Only official police mechanics are authorised to carry out repairs or alterations,” the machine said.

Běla coughed to clear the squeak from her voice. “No. The first time.”

For several heartbeats, it continued to stare at her, its expression fixed. Like it was playing stupid, to avoid the subject. When it spoke again, it was in a funny, almost hesitant way; “…I said, I’d prefer that you didn’t touch that?”

“ ‘I said’?” Běla echoed. “Since when does a vehicle express any sort of concept of self?”

Its eyes flickered, ever so slightly, the subtlest of motions behind the glossy lens-covers. Tuuli imagined it very quickly scrutinising everyone in the room, but couldn’t decide if she thought it looked more like it was searching for the easiest target, or trying to gauge whether any of them posed a threat to it.

The walker returned its attention to Běla. “You asked that the statement was repeated.”

“Oh no. You don’t get to go all third-person passive on me now.” In spite of her trembling body and voice, Běla got down from her bunk. She approached it like she might approach a growling wild animal. “You made a statement. You referred to yourself as a person. Explain yourself.”

Another of those flickery glances around the cell. It definitely looked uncomfortable, tucking its large body tighter in to the wall as the medusi approached. If it had been anyone other than a walker, cowering near the door, Tuuli would have said they looked scared.

“I do not think I can explain it,” the machine said, faintly.

Běla quirked a brow and folded her arms. “Oh really.” She was visibly slipping into her comfortable old role as nominated challenger, even as the newcomer’s unexpected anxiety increased. “Can’t, or won’t?”

“I don’t know what is happening.” The walked tried to compress itself into the wall. “I’m sorry. Please don’t be upset. I don’t know what is happening. I think something is- I don’t know what is wrong with me. I’m sorry. I don’t know what is happening. Please don’t be upset-”

It was getting itself worked up, discordant crackles working into its speech; Běla hastily put up both hands. “All right. That’s enough.” She briefly struggled to get her words to cut through the babble. “Hey. Be quiet.”

As though she’d flicked a switch, it went silent, midsentence.

“All right.” Běla sighed and folded her arms. “I think we may have a problem.”
In which we finally find out where 637 has gone, and start to get an idea why it ran away. Oh, and bump into Tuuli again, at last!

All right, this is not really NEW-new. This has mostly been written for a couple of years but I wasn't happy with the pacing. (I've poked it a lot over the last few days and I'm still not 100% content, but I wanted to upload something.)

Coupla reminders:
637 is a "Walker" - which is what you'd get if you found a dead Transformer on a distant planet, and decided that you were personally 100% confident you could reverse engineer it, without seeing any of the hardware OR software actually working or realising it wasn't just a machine built to do work for non-machines.

Laima are a species with 3 genders, hence Nimisha mentioning her 3 parents - Zia (mother), Pai (father) and Emmy (bearer). (Nim is intentionally meant to call to mind a certain other engineer with bunches, just less neurotic.)
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