It was pitch dark in the back of the van. Every slight bump in the road seemed to toss everything into the air. Niska tried in vain to ignore the constant disturbance. Squeezed in alongside a mass of inactive synths, all she could do was wait. She was in amongst them due to yet another stroke of bad luck.
Leo had rescued her after she had been kidnapped in the forest. He had found a storage unit to use as a base while he worked to find Mia and Fred. It was full of medical rehabilitation and assistance synthetics. Tucked away at the back of a company compound, they had shelter, electricity. They thought it had been a great find.
None of them had considered the business doing a stocktake. There had been no chance for her to escape, but at least she had been the only one there at the time. She stood out amongst all the other synths and wasn’t on the books. Eventually, they decided she must be an old model, forgotten when the system was digitised. With no apparent defects, she was logged and put into the service rota.
Once again, Leo had briefly managed to contact her and begged her to continue to her destination. He still had to find their siblings. It still frustrated her that he always took Max. She could be helping in so many ways. Not stuck being a slave for some idiot who probably faked an injury for some time off work.
Being thumped by a lifeless bulk broke her concentration again. The van had picked up speed sending a row of synths lurching back towards her. Tracking their progress via GPS, she realised they were leaving the city. The entire frame of the vehicle vibrated as though threatening to fall apart at any moment. It didn’t seem to slow the driver down. He veered between lanes, ignoring the angry horn blasts from other drivers.
Niska was surprised at how far out of the city they were going. It would be far more difficult to meet up with Leo now. It might, however, be far easier for her to slip away on her own. With little else to do, she entered low power mode. Using the time to review the weaknesses in synth communication and behaviour. It would be strange to try and make herself seem less human. But, really, how hard could it be?
Niska continued to monitor their location on a digital map. It was a couple of hours before they left the motorway. And another hour still before they left the bustle of urban life. The cramped mass of roads and buildings soon gave way to open countryside. Narrow roads and sharp bends eventually led them to a single, isolated house. After churning over a gravel driveway, the van came to a halt.
Crunching his way over the stones, the driver made his way to the back of the van. She could hear him poking away at a tablet, hunting for the right delivery information. The doors next to her swung open with a long squeak of protest. Tempting as it was, she decided not to topple out onto him for her own amusement.
The longer it took, the more the tension mounted. She started to hope that maybe this wasn’t her destination after all. Then she felt him tug at her arm, checking the shipping details on her wristband. With a grunt of approval, he pulled himself up into the van, causing it to sink dangerously and threaten to tip over.
It took every ounce of willpower she had not to bat away his rough, sticky hand when he touched her. He left behind some gritty lumps under her chin. Analysing the residue led her to conclude that the gentleman had been stuffing his face with a jam donut.
She readied herself for what was coming. After being ‘powered on’ she would have the relevant client data uploaded. It was a struggle not to reject the connection his portable terminal made. Trying to ignore the rest of the setup, she was only vaguely aware of the new data being added. User information, medical details. Useful, but nothing particularly interesting. Following a brief systems check, the connection was severed and he hauled her out of the van.
He at least had the sense to put her on a box trolley to transport her into the house, for which she was most grateful. His frustrated grumbling as he struggled to transport her to the house was the only other noise. After a few moments, they came to a stop. Apparently unable to knock on the door in a simple way, the man tried to make a little tune out of it. She dearly hoped he wouldn’t be kept waiting long enough to do it again.
Keeping her eyes closed was fast becoming tiresome. How was she supposed to plan an escape if she couldn’t see anything? Her thoughts were interrupted when the door finally opened.
An accent. Foreign.
The man seemed unconcerned by his mistake, continuing on, “Ah. Yeah. Sorry. Got your rehab synth here. She’ll soon be ready to go, just a few more things and you’ll be sorted.”
“Mhm. Okay. Come in, please.”
Definitely European… Ah, German. Niska could detect the disapproving tone from the woman about his insincere apology. Getting the delivery out the way was probably easier than pressing the point though.
Wheeling her inside the house, he carried on with his no doubt routine script. “So, i’ll get you two bonded then we’ll go through the paperwork. Here is your complimentary tablet computer. It will help you through the setup and any future changes and support you may require. If you read out this passphrase, you can start the setup.”
Bonding? Shit. Do i even have code for that? It needs to follow procedure or that asshole will go hunting in my head again. Niska found the code for the bonding process and verified the input password. Making sure it wasn’t going to actually bond them, she waited for the process to begin.
Phrase one. Phrase two. Phrase three. Phrase four...
In as sterile a tone as she could manage, she started the routine procedure. “Hello, i’m now in setup mode and ready for primary user bonding.”
There was a slight pause as the woman read over the instructions on the tablet. Nodding to herself, she replied, “I will be the primary user, Astrid Schaeffer.”
“A DNA sample will be taken for identification and security purposes. This information will never be shared with any third party organisation.” Niska held out her hand, initiating the handshake she would use to gather the information. As soon as their skin touched, she felt a thrum of energy pass between them. A subtle flicker of surprise coursed through her before she could stamp it down. What the hell happened? It was obvious the woman had felt it as well. Great, she probably thinks i’m a shoddy unit that gave her an electric shock.
After a preprogrammed confirmation tone, she continued her spiel. “Hello Astrid. I’m now securely bonded to you as my primary user. It is very nice to meet you.”
The moment was over as soon as they both remembered the other person in the room. He started talking again, oblivious to what had happened. “Ah, that’s you all sorted there. Now, i’ve got a few things for you to sign, one to confirm receipt of the unit and some other legal bumf.”
The actual signing of the documents only took a couple of minutes, but the driver was far from done. He started discussing pretty much any topic he could. Astrid managed to get him into the hall after few minutes. It was a good five minutes more before Niska heard the front door open. Finally, after several more minutes of inane chatter, Astrid was finally able to get rid of him.
It had given Niska plenty of time to take in her immediate surroundings. She was in a large kitchen. It was traditional in style with some modern additions. A new granite worktop, modern appliances and lights. Either Astrid was fairly wealthy, or had recently come into some money to improve the house.
It was obvious the woman was in pain by the time she came back into the room. She’d been left with an armful of leaflets, instructions and… oh god . The adults only access card. Niska was mortified. Had that been put in her code? Sifting through the additions to her operating system she located the offensive data. She immediately deleted it, adding a permanent block for any similar instruction sets. It had been incredibly stupid of her not to pay more attention to what was being added to her programming. It had appeared to be information that would be vital to maintaining her cover story. If it ended up going that far, then her cover story could go to hell.
Niska was aware of Astrid’s gaze on her. She seemed curious, but also a bit uncertain as she started the conversation. “Hmmph. Okay then. What is your name?”
“Niska.” Oh crap. “But you may change it if you do not find it satisfactory.”
After a pause, the woman replied, “Actually, i quite like it. Do i, uh, need to explain my injuries to you?”
“The data i have indicates you were injured at work. Extensive bruising, fractured shoulder and cracked ribs. Severe tissue and muscle damage due to a puncture wound in your midsection. You benefited from the accident being at a hospital. Immediate medical assistance was available from trained professionals.”
“Well, that does pretty much cover it. I’m a nurse at a hospital. I was trying to calm down a volatile patient. He had forced his way onto an emergency staircase, one of those exterior metal ones. Well, it wasn’t secured properly. Fixings had rusted and several bolts sheared. Six stories up, concrete path beneath. It wasn’t going to end well. I only survived because a synth grabbed me and protected me from the worst of the damage.”
“What happened to them?” Niska asked, intrigued by the scenario.
“The patient died. He suffered extensive injuries that were impossible to treat. They took the synth away. I’m not sure he was repairable.”
Niska tried to gauge the emotions behind the words. Sadness. Regret. But for which one? “You seem upset by that.”
“Of course. The patient didn’t deserve it. Neither did the synth.” Astrid’s accent was noticeably thicker when she quietly acknowledged it’s sacrifice. “He… he gave his life to save mine.”
“He was programmed to do so.”
Slightly exasperated, Astrid replied, “Yeah, i suppose so. It doesn’t seem fair though. If he had been human, he’d have been declared a hero. As a synth, he just gets taken to the junkyard.”
“A human would only have been declared a hero if they had saved you. It’s unlikely that would have been possible. You’d probably both have died and it would have been a worse outcome.”
“So, you think it was okay for the synth to die for me as well?”
Niska could only apply logic to the situation. It was what it was. “He did the only thing he could do, what his code compelled him to do. You didn’t choose to be in the accident and you didn’t ask him to save you. You already honour him by not dismissing him as a convenient object that broke your fall. He has a significance to you, and not just a fleeting one.”
“Hmm. I suppose that is true. You know, this wasn’t exactly how i imagined our introduction going.”
Niska found it an interesting insight into how the woman perceived things. To her, that synth had meaning beyond background noise. It had left an imprint on her that she would never forget. She began to consider the fact that this might actually not only be bearable, but a useful experience. Sort of like undercover work.
Astrid had gone to lie down after their conversation. The painkillers she was on were quite strong, and left her feeling tired out. Under the guise of tidying the house, Niska decided to explore the layout. Once she was familiar with it, she could plan possible escapes. There was also the possibility of CCTV. She would need to be especially careful until she had searched the house completely.
The time passed slowly as she went between rooms. There wasn’t actually much to tidy up, most of the house seemed to get little use. It was far too big for just one person. There was an extensive library though. Niska knew she would enjoy sneaking a book to read when she had the chance. It had been such a long time since she’d been able to even consider such a thing. Picking out a couple, she sat them aside for a closer look before spotting yet another one of interest.
Astrid’s slightly bemused voice broke the silence, “I didn’t give you permission to do that.”
Niska froze, she had become absorbed in identifying books she wanted to look at. Picking one at random, she turned to show it off. “I apologise if this has upset you, i thought you might like to discuss the books you have in your library. I am not familiar with some of them and didn’t want to disappoint you.” Niska was confident in her reply, it was a perfectly reasonable one, if a bit out of character for a synth. Not too unbelievable though.
“You wanted to discuss the Kama Sutra with me?”
Niska glanced down at the book and found Astrid wasn’t joking. “I’m sorry Astrid, is that not appropriate?” Why did i have to grab that one? There are hundreds of books, but no, i pick the one guaranteed to inspire an awkward conversation.
“This must be why i was unable to find a downloadable version on our servers. I have noted your concerns and in future will allow you to decide which books you may wish to discuss.”
“Ja... that is probably for the best. These books belonged to my family anyway, i’ve only just had time to start reading some of them.”
Change the topic, change the topic… “Would you like lunch now, Astrid?”
“Mhm. No, i think i’ll go and lie down again for a little while. Feel free to finish the book though.” Her back was already turned, but the grin in her voice was unmistakeable.
It was late afternoon before Astrid appeared again. This time, Niska made sure to be acting in a more synth-like way. Sitting silently in low power mode, she waited as she felt the woman’s gaze on her. Being observed wasn’t a particularly nice feeling. But she was almost certain it was out of curiosity rather than suspicion.
Niska heard her approach and felt finger tips brush her arm. She had to forcefully suppress the urge to jump as she felt the same jolt of energy between them as earlier. Astrid was frozen in place, whatever she had been going to say, forgotten. She felt it too. Again. Curious. And very inconvenient.
“Hello Astrid. Is there anything i can help you with?”
“... umm. Dinner?”
“Of course. What would you like?”
Shaking off the strange experience, the woman regained her composure. “There might still be some soup. I only need something light to eat before taking the painkillers.”
“Are you in a lot of pain?”
Astrid sat down before she said anything further. The answer seemed to be a resounding ‘yes’. “It gets bad in the evening, i don’t take any during the day. They make me sleep too much as it is.”
“I could look into alternatives for you, or we could discuss altering the dosage with your doctor.”
Shaking her head, Astrid said, “We’ve already tried a few changes. It’s not great, but this it what’s worked best for me.”
“I see. Well, let’s get you some food for now. Plenty of rest isn’t a bad thing with your injuries anyway.”
The meal was simple enough that Astrid could eat it by herself. It gave Niska an opportunity to make the bed and gather up dirty laundry. Like the rest of the house, the room had a traditional, cosy feel to it. There were definitely more signs of use here though. Niska supposed shift work and severe injuries didn’t allow for much time to personalise a home.
As she turned to leave, Astrid struggled into the room. It was very obvious she was in a lot of pain, but had made her way upstairs on her own anyway.
“Don’t look at me like that.”
Shit. Niska hadn’t even realised she was frowning. “I am here to assist you, please let me help.”
“Agh. Fine. Help me out of these clothes before the painkillers knock me out”
“You took your pills before you even got upstairs?”
“Mmph. If i didn’t know better, i’d have said you sounded angry.”
Niska had to work very hard not to let out a frustrated sigh. This woman was not going to pass out and fall down the stairs in her care. It didn’t matter that she wasn’t actually a medical synth. It would be a point of pride to feel she had saved this woman from her own stubborn stupidity.
Helping Astrid undress was something they were both going to have to get used to. Knowing that didn’t make it any easier though. Especially when every touch sent a warm tingle through her. It was a constant reminder that there was something odd happening between them.
“Eurgh, that feels so weird. I mean, it’s kinda nice, but what is it?”
“I’m afraid i don’t know what you mean, Astrid.”
“Oh.” After a moment of trying to remember what she had said, she finally moved on to another topic. “I… uh, in the morning, i need help. Showering. Please?”
“Of course.” That’s not going to be weird or anything.
Niska couldn’t even convert the mumbled sounds she got as a reply into words. The sedative effect had completely knocked Astrid out already.
This time, Niska knew she would have a few hours to explore the library unhindered. There were numerous things she wanted to read. She also wanted to make sure there were no more embarrassing books to pick up.
Niska wasn’t fond of water. Synths rarely needed cleaned and, when they did, it tended not to be the result of anything good. But Astrid had made the awkward plea for assistance. So here they were.
Although her mobility wasn’t too bad, Niska had insisted on a shower seat. It would stop Astrid trying to rush if she did start to struggle. And it would make it easier to help wash her hair. She definitely did not have the range of movement to do that on her own at the moment.
Almost as soon as the hot water hit the woman’s skin, the tension in her body began to fade. Niska was amused by the low hum of pleasure Astrid gave as she seemed to forget everything going on around her.
Trying to keep her voice low, Niska calmly said, “I would like permission to touch you now.” ‘Would like’? Why the fuck did i have to say it like that?
Astrid’s relaxed state had very quickly switched to a tense one. There was a definite undercurrent of arousal though, Niska knew the signs. But she was also aware of the flash of guilt from her too, and regretted her wording even more.
Trying to focus again, Niska continued, “I’ll start on your hair. I just need you to… Wait, let me examine your injury. It looks…” Oh shit, it looks like something is wrong with it. “I think we may need to get that examined.”
Niska waited for Astrid to grasp the conversation's sudden change in direction. She wasn’t immediately able to add much to the discussion though, simply replying, “Oh. Eugh that doesn’t look right.”
Niska tried to be reassuring when she explained, “You may have some bleeding under the skin. It doesn’t seem to be a major rupture, but i would advise having it checked at a hospital. They can perform additional scans or perform any surgery which may be required.”
Astrid's face showed more than a hint of disapproval. “I agree with everything except the part about me having any more surgery. I’ll hold my insides in myself if i have to.”
“I would strongly recommend such an action be an absolute last resort. If you are uncomfortable with your previous surgeon then i can be of assistance. With the correct equipment and a sterile environment i could treat you myself.”
“You can think about it and let me know what you decide. For now, we need to get you to the hospital.”