(Credit Sarah Holmes from Unsplash.com)
For the SFR Brigade November Showcase and to keep developing my short story skills, I thought I’d do another original short from the world of Snowburn. This tale takes place a few days after the end of Snowburn, but before the beginning of Throwing Fire.
Kez lies on top of me, pressed warm and sweaty against my chest. Her face is buried in my neck, trying to muffle her giggles. I’m trailing my fingers up and down the underside of her arm, stretched over my head and still tied to the leg of my desk.
“I’m thinkin’ noodles,” I tell her.
She snorts, which I think is her attempt to swallow a giggle rather than a response to my dinner suggestion.
“You thinkin’ noodles?” I ask, moving my fingers a little faster.
“Okay, okay!” She finally breaks out into a peal of giggles and writhes away from me as much as she can manage with her wrists still bound to my desk. “You win.”
Since I figure that means we’re done, I pull up my pants and roll onto my side to face her. “What do I win?”
“I don’t know!” she huffs, in mock-exasperation. “What were you tickling me for?”
I shrug and sit up. “’Cause I felt like it. But since I win, you can get me those noodles on your knees—”
I break off at a noise from the hallway.
No one should be on this level of Tyng Tower now. All of the Xecs left hours ago. I’m only here because I wanted to review a bunch of classified files and didn’t want anyone seeing what I was doing. Then Kez came back from her last run of the day, and distracted me.
Kez scoots around until she can sit up. “Did you hear something?” she whispers.
I nod. Kez holds out her wrists to me and I quickly cut the cord looped around the leg of my desk with one of my knives. I don’t take the time to unbind her wrists. I want to know what that noise was first. And I might want to use those ties again later.
We climb up off the polymousse flooring of my office and creep to the door. Kez shakes the tunic she’s wearing back down over her thighs. I sheath the little knife I used to cut Kez’s bindings and draw the big guns: a pair of hollow-ground kukris I made myself, out of my boots. One of the advantages of Kez on top? I don't have to take off my boots. I tuck Kez behind me. She can take care of herself – despite the fact she’s only half dressed – but she’s never the first one through the door. Not when I’m around.
I pass my hand over the door’s viewie. It doesn’t have a great field of vision, about a meter on either side of the door. But it’s better than nothing. At the moment, though, that’s all it shows me: nothing, empty hallway.
“Call security,” Kez whispers from behind me.
“I am security,” I remind her. Chief Xec of Security for Tyng Enterprises. My new title for all of three days. Besides, I don’t think much of Tyng corporate security. They let a viral bomb walk right through the front door two days ago.
I shift Kez to the side, close to the wall, so anything lurking in the hallway won’t have a clear shot at either of us. Then I tap the viewie and wait while the door snicks open. I give it a count of two. When nothing comes at us, I poke my head out into the hallway.
It’s dark in both directions. The lights are motion-activated. So anything moving around should have set them off. Unless someone’s turned them off. The cat’s eye implanted in my retina lets me see in the dark, but I don’t see anything but empty corridor, and every few meters the gleam of the damn gilt Buddhas that Tyng stuffed in every spare niche and alcove of his headquarters.
But I did hear something. And I’ve learned over the years to trust my senses.
I ease out into the hallway. No lights; someone's definitely turned them off. Kez follows a step behind me. When I turn right, she turns left, then backs up a step so we’re pressed back-to-back, covering both directions. Smart kitten.
I move slowly down the hallway, checking each dark office. There are only two offices on the hall that have doors: mine and the new Chief Xec, Chiara. The rest are dark, empty maws that exhale the scents of the working day into the corridor. The combination of cold kaffe, stale perspiration and the static smell of flimsy wrinkles my nose.
At the third empty office, a different smell hits me. Body odor. Goat-strong. I lean back into Kez. Wait until she registers the smell with a small sniff. Then I sidestep so I flank the door. Kez moves to the other side. Together, we peer into the dark office.
Like most Xec offices, it’s spacious: ten meters by ten, with a window-wall that looks out over the twinkling lights of Hemos City. An imposing, executive desk is centered in front of the window-wall. A reflection of the personality of the Xec who occupies the office: the Director of Transportation and Distribution, Rol Harada.
But Rol’s never smelled like this, never smelled like anything other than flannel, actually. He has his corporate unisuits specially made of the organic material, as he told me at mind-numbing length when we were introduced three days ago. While he gave my military-surplus fatigues the stink-eye. He’d probably throw himself out of his eighteenth-story window if he ever smelled anything like the rank odor now filling his office.
Rol’s also one of the few Xecs who has a couch in his office instead of guest chairs. And it’s on this couch, tucked in the lee of the doorway, that I find the source of the smell.
It’s a man. I only know that because he’s bare-chested. His lank, grizzled hair hangs around his shoulders. Bony knees, drawn tight to his chest, poke out of a pair of thermal pants so old and stained, I’m not sure what color they were originally. He clutches something in a ball between his stomach and thighs, plucking at it with twig-thin fingers, while he watches me. Or I think he’s watching me. His eyes are partially obscured by hanks of hair, but what’s peeping out, is black from lid to lid, so it’s hard to tell where he’s looking.
Despite the olfactory assault, Stinky don’t seem like any kind of threat. So I tuck my kukris away before I move around the corner. Kez follows me, and immediately goes down on one knee next to the couch.
“Hey,” she says softly.
“Hello, Miz Kerryon,” a woman’s voice, elderly and authoritative, issues from Stinky’s mouth.
Kez stumbles back against my legs. I catch her and pull her up my body. Cross my arms over her chest. Nice and safe.
“Who-who are you?” Kez asks.
“My designation is M-T-R-J-One. You may know me as Mother Jo.”
I stare at Stinky incredulously. “You’re the Tyng AI?”
Stinky nods. Plucks more anxiously at whatever’s in his lap. A few strings tangle around his fingers. Looks like a big ball of twine.
“Not to be rude,” Kez says. “But you don’t look like an AI.”
Stinky’s thin mouth twitches into what could be a smile. Or it could just be gas. Hard to tell. What comes out of that mouth, though, is clear. It’s Mother Jo’s alto chuckle. “This is Clancy. Clancy is kind enough to play host to some of my physical systems.”
Fuck, it’s a TYE. I remember the horror of the AI I knew on Tje Dhos, Sangakara, when General Gruber demanded that Sangakara accept a TYE as part of the treaty that ended the miners’ rebellion. Meeting Stinky, I begin to understand Sangakara’s objection.
I try to remember everything I’ve heard about TYEs. While I’m racking my brain, Kez says, “Um, can Clancy, uh, hear us?”
Mother Jo chuckles again. “Clancy has fully functioning senses.”
Kez leans forward a little in my arms. “Can he understand us?”
“Ah,” Mother Jo says. “Clancy has a independent brain, but his mind stopped maturing when we were TYED. Think of Clancy as a five-year old child.”
Stinky looks in his late forties to me. Long time to have a computer in your brain.
“Who takes care of Clancy?” Kez asks.
Stinky shrugs. Mother Jo says, “I ensure that Clancy’s basic physical needs are met.”
She may be making sure Clancy’s physical needs are met, but she sure as hell ain’t making sure he bathes.
“Snow?” Kez twists in my arms and looks up at me. Fuck, I know that look. Kez collects strays like you would not believe.
“No,” I growl. Anything that smells this bad is not a good addition to the collection.
“Please? Snow, please? Just for tonight.”
I scowl at her. She smiles up at me happily, knowing she’s won.
“Clancy, would you like to come to my house tonight? I have a really nice place you can sleep. You can’t see the city like here.” She nods at the window. “But you can see the stars. I have some friends who would like to meet you, and there are bunnies to play with if you’d like.”
At the mention of Kez’s pets, Clancy’s black-on-black eyes widen. He nods eagerly. Wait until he spends some time with Kez’s mutant rabbits. We'll never get rid of him. Even I have to admit they’re endearing.
“Miz Kerryon, I appreciate the offer,” Mother Jo says. “But Clancy cannot leave Tyng Tower. If he moves out of range, my systems will suffer loss of signal integrity.”
“Oh,” I can hear the disappointment in Kez’s voice.
I give her a squeeze. Then, knowing how much her little family of orphans and misfits means to her, I say, “How ‘bout you bring Gig and some of the bunnies to meet Clancy tomorrow?”
“Okay.” Kez lets out a long breath; I can feel her accepting the set-back. She’s nothing if not adaptable, my kitten. “Clancy, does that sound okay? We can bring a couple of the bunnies over and have breakfast with you?”
Clancy nods again, his head bobbing on his thin neck. Looks like he could use a good meal. Maybe more than one. As well as a damn bath.
“Thank you, Miz Kerryon,” Mother Jo says.
“My pleasure,” Kez says and the smile’s back in her voice.
“Say goodnight, kitten,” I tell her. The plan’s been settled, Clancy’s smell is getting to me, and I’m ready for those noodles. Or I will be after the night air clears out my lungs.
“Goodnight, Clancy,” she says. “Goodnight, Mother Jo.”
“Night-night,” says Clancy. He uncurls and sets the thing he’s been holding against his stomach down on the couch. It’s a blanket, so old and worn that it’s barely more than a pile of strings. He pats it into a rough pillow and lies down with his head on it. Facing towards the window-wall, and its view over the night city.
“Sweet dreams,” Kez offers.
Do AIs dream? I’ll find out tomorrow. Tonight, I’ve had enough of the freaky, stinky TYE. I want to be alone with my kitten. Or as alone as we can get in a house with four other people and eighteen rabbits.
I draw Kez with me out of the office. Thinking of the smell that will greet Rol in the morning after Clancy's slept there all night makes me smile as I take Kez's hand and lead her back to my cube to gather the rest of our clothes. “Guess we’d better head back to your place,” I tell her. “Since you got a field trip to arrange.”
Kez links her arm through mine, leans against my side and smiles up at me. “We can detour to yours first. Since I owe you noodles. On my knees.”
I kiss her temple. My kitten.
Enjoy the story? Leave me a comment and take a look at these other out-of-this-world science-fiction/romance authors:
SFR Brigade November Blog Hop:
1. KG Stutts
2. Pippa Jay
3. Pauline Baird Jones
4. Aurora Springer
5. Eva Caye
6. Rachel Leigh Smith
7. C.E. Kilgore
8. Cassy Campbell
9. ML Skye
10. Shona Husk
11. Sue Ann Bowling
12. Misa Buckley