|Wraith gets a backstory! Because she has one. Really. As plans stand, it will contradict most of what's in the CDs I have already written. Excellent.|
00: Good Morning
"Good morning, Jocasta."
Her eyes opened with a snap, taking the room in with one sweep of her ice-blue eyes. Most of the humans present she recognized as the scientists who had built her -- or those who had been testing her for as long as she had been awake. Jeremiah Langstrom hovered nearest, running an uneasy hand through his salt-and-pepper hair. He smiled wanly when her eyes stopped on his face, and she turned her attention to the final figure in the room.
He was an unfamiliar man of medium height, somewhere near middle age and dangerously close to going paunchy around the middle. His hair was a nondescript brown, cut fashionably short, and he had a similarly nondescript mustache to round out his ordinary -- if not unhandsome -- face. His eyes, however, were piercing as they watched her step from the capsule, speaking to intelligence -- and perhaps a basically predatory nature.
She looked back to the lead scientist. "Dr. Langstrom," she said in greeting. Then, "Dr. Malcolm" to the cleanshaven man at his side.
"How are you feeling?" Langstrom asked her, an unusual note of caution in his voice.
"Diagnostics show all green," she said, shrugging very slightly, and the stranger chuckled slightly. She returned her attention to him.
"Interesting," he said.
Her eyes narrowed, but he seemed unintimidated.
"Are you always that sarcastic?" he asked her.
She gave him a look of disapproval before turning to Dr. Langstrom reproachfully. She scientist's mouth twitched in a ghost of a smile, and he shook his head. She frowned and looked back at the stranger, who was waiting patiently.
"Not much for small talk, I see." He smiled. "That's quite all right. I prefer to get straight to business, myself." His voice took on a sharply military tone of command. "Name and model number."
She stiffened. "Jocasta. Unit designation Wraith. Further information unavailable."
He arched an eyebrow, darting Dr. Langstrom a questioning look. The scientist, face seeming paler even than usual, shook his head with a helpless shrug. Dr. Malcom cleared his throat. "We never really assigned model numbers or serial codes, Mr. Brandt."
The stranger looked skeptical. "Unusual," he said, and did not pursue the subject. "Combat capabilities," he shot at Jocasta, who stiffened yet more.
"Primary capabilities in melee combat. Specialty edged weapons. Ranged capabilities average. Growth potential unknown. Further capabilities include direct electrical manipulation, self-teleportation, liimited stealth gear, basic boosters. Given weapons." She reached over her shoulder to unsheathe the slim blade she kept there, displayed it neatly, and returned it to its sheath without flourish. She then drew out a squat, thick-handled knife from the belt at her waist and did the same, also gesturing briefly to a set of throwing knives that lined the other side of the belt.
The stranger startled when she drew the blades, relaxing slightly when she immediately put them away. "No cannon?"
"My plasma-channeling capabilities do not include the use of one."
"I see." He eyed the scientists again, and Dr. Langstrom shifted uneasily.
Dr. Malcom cleared his throat. "Would you like a demonstration?" he suggested, ignoring his fellow scientist's quelling look. "I assure you, she's quite competent."
"One would hope so," the stranger replied drily, skepticism flitting again across his features.
"I really don't think it's necessary," Dr. Langstrom finally spoke, clasping his hands in front of him and clearly attempting not to wring them. "I --"
"I would like to, Dr. Langstrom," Jocasta interrupted, and all eyes turned to her in surprise. She hid her alarm behind a frown, folding her hands behind her back. "Is that unacceptable?"
Dr. Malcom and Dr. Langstrom exchanged an unreadable glance that seemed to hold all of a debate on the matter. But finally the latter turned to her with a very slight smile and spread his hands. "If you really wish to, Jocasta."
"I do." She gave the stranger a hard look, which he ignored.
"Very well." Dr. Langstrom nodded to the lab assistants, who looked at him in surprise then scattered quickly and quietly. "Follow me." He started from the room, followed closely by Dr. Malcolm.
Jocasta waited silently for the stranger to follow suit, but instead he gave a very polite bow, gesturing for her to go first. She frowned again, but could find no reason to argue and stepped ahead of him reluctantly. He said nothing to her during the short walk to the simulator, but the back of her neck prickled at the sense that he was watching her.
It was with some relief that she drew abreast of the scientists, waiting in front of the room. Dr. Malcolm opened the door for her, offering a weak and wholly unnecessary smile of encouragement. Dr. Langstrom watched the stranger.
"We'll go up to the observation booth," he was saying as the door slid closed behind her.
It was dark inside, save for the stripes of flourescence along the floor that marked the boundaries of the familiar room. She took a few steps forward, unsheathing and swinging her blade once, then resheathing it as Dr. Malcom's voice called a question over the speakers. "Any preference, Jocasta?"
She paused, casting her gaze to the reinforced windows where the scientists and their client stood. "Whatever you think is appropriate, Dr. Malcolm."
"We'll just start you off on the regular training regimen, then. All right?"
"As you wish." She drew in a breath -- unnecessary, perhaps, but comforting -- and relaxed, rocking forward very slightly as the lights came up, revealing four combat drones in the split second it took for the simulator to select a field and place them in it.
She had barely taken in the terrain, a rocky plain with little excuse for cover, when the buzz of an attacker sounded just above her. She lunged forward to avoid the blow, then spun, dust kicking into the air around her, and drew her sword in time slice the drone neatly in two. A buzzer sounded to mark the kill, but she had little time to mark the victory, as two of the other drones shot at her from either side.
Neither chose the kamikaze method of their predecessor, opting instead for a dual strafing run that tore into the earth as it approached her. Two knives dispatched the first before it reached her, leaving her to slap the other from the air with a flick of her sword. It made a thin keening noise until it struck the ground with a sizzle and pop.
She frowned, scanning the area for any sign of the fourth drone, but it remained mysteriously absent. She was about to direct her gaze questioningly to the observation booth, when it reappeared briefly before her, and the holographic terrain blurred and faded. The scenery that snapped into focus, an oddly unpopulated urban area, was not any she recognized, nor was the drone.
It was louder and larger than the previous set, but it matched their speed and agility, spinning sharply in midair as it locked on to and launched a missile at her. Taken by surprise, she darted around the corner of the nearest building, and the missile did not follow her, exploding farther down the street. She had no such luck with the drone, however, which was on her before the missile finished its flight and backing her into an unfortunate dead end.
She fought the impulse to swear, defending herself as best as she could and trying to form a plan that did not involve too much running. Before it had taken shape, however, the drone launched what was, to all appearances, a net of electricity kept in form by a smaller set of drones. She had time to switch her systems to intake before they wrapped it around her, feeling little more than a pleasant prickling as the energy filled her auxilliary banks.
The drones, frustrated and rapidly losing power, retreated shortly, and the larger opponent fired another missile at her, along with a volley of plasma. She sprang back against the wall that trapped her, kicking her boosters once to launch her toward the drone's rounded head. She dropped onto it long enough to discharge the stored electrical energy into its plating, springing away immediately after.
To her surprise, it exploded, kicking her higher into the air to a graceless landing and near-impact with a building several meters away. She rose, irritated, and dusted herself off, running a hurried diagnostic. She was relieved to discover no damage.
The scenery faded once again, dropping her back in the dark room. The sound of slow, amused applause came over the speakers, and Dr. Malcolm's voice broke in. "That'll do, Jocasta. Come up to the booth, all right?"
She nodded shortly, turning to the door and exiting in silence. She entered the observation booth the same way, marching smartly up the stairs and halting before her audience. The stranger was still caught in a pose of applause. She ignored him.
"Nicely done, Jocasta," volunteered Dr. Langstrom, and she gave him a severe look.
"Sorry about that," Dr. Malcolm said with a weak smile.
"It would hardly have been a test if you'd warned her," remarked the stranger, dropping his hands and giving Jocasta a cool smile. "Correct?"
She gave him a hard look, then nodded grudgingly toward the scientists. "I hope I performed to your satisfaction."
"You did," said the stranger, clasping his hands behind him and ignoring the bland stare that told him plainly she had not been talking to him. He smiled at her briefly and turned back to the scientists. "Excellent work, gentlemen. Worth every penny."
They smiled, and Dr. Langstrom began wringing his hands again, but they had no chance to speak before he turned back to Jocasta.
"I suppose I should explain myself."
"Agreed," was her toneless response.
He smiled again. "I'd like to hire you, Jocasta, to protect someone of the utmost importance to me."
She darted a glance at the scientists. Dr. Langstrom refused to return her gaze, and Dr. Malcolm nodded hesitantly after elbowing his compatriot in the side.
"If you accept," the stranger continued, "you will be relocated immediately to my residence, whereupon you may be called upon to fulfill your duties at any time, day or night."
She shrugged. Hours did not concern her.
"I should not need to say that I will be placing a great deal of trust and faith in your loyalty and abilities. This assignment may be dangerous, and I will be asking you to put the life of this person before your own."
"Understood," she said, brow creasing.
"Do you accept?"
She looked at him silently, finding herself without an immediate answer. She did not like this man. His every word and gesture felt as a challenge to her worth -- a challenge that, in the end, she felt she must answer. "I accept," she said, and the stranger smiled more broadly.
"Well then," he said, glancing at the scientists. "I'll be waiting at my car." He nodded politely and walked toward the door, leaving Jocasta, for the moment, behind.
When the door had swished shut behind him, Dr. Malcolm let out a low, weary whistle. "That guy.. quite a customer, isn't he, Jerry?"
Dr. Langstrom did not respond, looking as if he had received a stunning blow to the gut.
Jocasta turned away from him and gazed at the door through which the stranger had retreated, wondering who exactly she had signed herself away to.
01: Do You Accept?
"My name is Arthur Brandt."
She looked up, eyes settling on the nondescript man who now employed her, but did not respond. She was seated with him in the back of a black car -- his, presumably -- but her interest had been more on what lurked outside the tinted windows, the scenery of the city outside the laboratory walls.
"And your name is Jocasta?" he asked her.
"Is there something you prefer to be called?"
She shrugged very slightly. "Jocasta is what Dr. Langstrom and Dr. Malcolm call me."
"I see." He watched her for a moment. "And your unit designation was ..."
"Not much better," he remarked, and her brows knit with irritation.
"You may call me whatever you wish," she said testily. "As my employer, that is your prerogative."
His brows shot up nearly into his hairline, but a smile played at his lips. She wondered if he had been goading her. He looked away out the window, still smiling faintly. "Perhaps I'll just call you Cass, then."
She shrugged once more. "As it suits you."
His gaze returned to her. "We're almost there."
She nodded briefly, and they finished the journey in silence -- broken once when Brandt directed his driver to go a little faster.
Despite all these indications of opulence, the size and scope of the residence surprised her with its grand garden of a driveway and front door -- almost two stories high -- that seemed more suited to a palace. She snapped her face back to neutrality when she noticed him watching her, gauging her reaction.
He lifted his shoulders with a self-deprecating smile. "We must keep up appearances, after all."
The driver continued around the mansion, bypassing the entryway in favor of a garage that seemed no less expansive. But when he pulled to a halt, door rolling closed behind them, she noted a smaller and doubtless more convenient entrance in the side of the building.
Brandt climbed out of the car ahead of her, offering his hand to help her. She ignored it, stepping free and taking in her surroundings with a certain amount of suspicion.
"Follow me," he said, when she had completed her initial inspection. "You can tour the grounds later. For now, you should probably meet your ward."
She looked at him sharply, but he had already begun walking. Her steps were measured and wary as she followed. The term had, for a reason she could not understand, sent a thrill of unease up her spine, where it lingered at the base of her skull, summoning forth doubts she had not had to contend with before. Protecting a hypothetical person was much simpler than knowing the flesh and blood being whose life depended on her own. She had assumed, at first, that it was Brandt himself she had been hired for, but his attitude had dissuaded her.
Lost in her thoughts, she barely noticed when he halted in front of her, speaking to a young woman who stood near a heavy, double door. She looked quickly around her and realized she had been paying no attention as they had been walking.
"Is he asleep?"
She glanced at Brandt and decided to focus on the matter at hand instead of backing through her short-term files to find out how they'd gotten here.
"Yes, sir. Just a little while ago."
Brandt nodded. "Then we'll try not to wake him. Thank you, Lene."
She inclined her head. "Of course, sir." Then she walked past them and down the stairs without sparing either a glance.
He pushed the door open gently, taking care not to let it creak -- not that it would anyway, if her sensors had its materials right -- and slipped inside, gesturing silently for her to follow. A frown crossed her face, and she wondered if this ward was an invalid. She pulled the door carefully closed behind her, then stopped as she took note of the room.
The unease that had been tapping at the back of her mind redoubled its efforts, and a crawling sensation started in the region of her belly. Though dimly lit, the room was decorated brightly and strewn with toys and games. Her feet, through some power she had not known was in her, dragged her slowly after her employer, who was standing halfway into the room, bent over what she guessed -- correctly -- to be a crib.
She stopped at his side and looked down at the sleeping infant, unaware of the proud gleam of his father's smile and the bewildered stare of his father's companion.
"Clive Douglas Brandt," the man said, voice barely above a whisper. "My son and heir."
He looked up at her when she did not respond after a moment, arching an eyebrow at what he read in her features. "We can talk in my office," he said lightly, straightening, and started out of the room.
She followed him after a last, wary glance into the crib. The infant slumbered on, peacefully unaware of the turmoil he was causing, and she closed the door carefully so that he would remain that way. Her mind was so occupied on the walk to Brandt's office, she scarcely noted the length of the journey, which took them from one end of the expansive house to the next. She had, however, settled on her opening line by the time he settled into his large, comfortable chair behind his very expensive desk.
"Sir, I do not think I have the skills necessary to perform to your expectations in this matter."
"Is that so?" He leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk, steepling his fingers and fixing her with his unexpectedly piercing gaze. "What makes you think this?"
"Sir, I am a Reploid built for combat."
He nodded solemnly. "That is, in fact, why I hired you."
Her eyes flashed once, fixing him with a steely stare. "My programming does not include --"
He raised a hand, halting her in mid-sentence. "Programming, indeed." A testy note rose into his voice. "Do you think any human is fully prepared -- programmed, if you must -- to care for a child? Lene has taken to the task admirably, and her 'programming' consisted primarily of efficient ways to mop the floor."
"Sir --" she protested.
"Or are you going to tell me that a Reploid built for combat -- especially one so competent as yourself -- is unable to take on the challenge of an infant?"
"What does one have to do with the other?" she snapped, alarmed by the sudden image of attacking a child.
"A valid point, sir, you have to admit."
Her shoulders spasmed, eyes darting immediately to the figure slouched in the shadows next to the window. It straightened, stepping forward to reveal a tall Reploid in dark green armor, pale hair slicked back away from his face. Brandt glanced back at him with a faint, amused smile.
"Ah," he said. "Allow me to introduce Arc. He is my personal bodyguard and has been with me for several years -- I expect you two will see a lot of each other."
"A pleasure," said the Reploid, stepping forward and offering his hand to shake. He seemed unoffended when she did not offer hers in return, withdrawing his hand and leaning forward instead to peer at her with amused, hazel eyes.
She took a lurching step back at his approach, using most of her control not to draw on him.
"Arc," Brandt said reprovingly, and the Reploid stepped back again.
"But she's so interesting! I've never met someone from an illegal lab before." He kept his eyes fixed on her with unabashed fascination, undaunted by the sudden hardening of her expression.
"I don't know what you're talking about," she said shortly, surprised to find it was true. She knew very little about the scientists who had built her -- primarily their names and specialties, as well as the general extent of their authority.
"You probably don't," Arc agreed, hands clasped behind his back much in the manner of a child who had been told to look and not touch. "It doesn't seem like a thing to talk about in front of a product who could be going anywhere."
She found herself indignant at this assessment, promptly shooting back with an irritable "And what about yourself?"
"Me?" He looked surprised at the question. "I'm a custom modification by one of the biggest labs in the country." He jerked a thumb at his chest, grinning. "One of the last before they discontinued the line, actually."
"Arc," Brandt said again, sparing her from thinking of an appropriately cutting response.
"Ah, sorry sir, of course." He tilted his head, looking at her again. "Her palette's so strange, though. I wonder if they had a reason ..." He reached out, almost involuntarily, as if to take hold of a lock of her hair, and she drew her arm up sharply to slap his hand away. He blinked, then thrust the offending limb behind his back guiltily. "Sorry," he said again.
Brandt cleared his throat, and she turned to him immediately, relieved to return to the matter at hand. "Valid point or no," the human said, "I would like it if you gave the matter some consideration." He spread his hands in a self-deprecating gesture, then dropped them to the desk. "It's unwise to make such a decision rashly -- whether the answer be yes or no." He rose slowly, folding his hands behind his back. "Take a tour of the grounds. Stay a day and think about it. If you still feel yourself unfit for the task, I will either find one more appropriate or discuss your return to the lab."
Her jaw set, but she could think of no reasonable way to deny his request. The idea of returning to the lab only a day after she had been released filled her with a formless unease she was unable to identify -- one stronger, almost, than the idea of caring for a child. "Very well," she said.
Brandt smiled at her and nodded. "Then you may go. If you find yourself in need of anything, send a signal on this frequency" he bent to scoop up pen and paper, writing quickly "and someone will be along to assist you." He offered her the paper, and she took it, glancing at and storing the code away.
She bowed slightly, then turned and walked from the room, back stiff. When she had gone, Brandt sat down again, leaning his elbows against the desk as he continued to stare after her. "What do you think, Arc?"
The Reploid glanced at him sideways, tugging a pair of sunglasses from under his breastplate where they rested on a chain around his neck. "Young, sir. Raw, I would have to say. How many weeks from activation?"
"Seven or eight. Perhaps a little more."
"Younger than I would have guessed. That's a good sign, I suppose." He settled the glasses into place, pushing them up on the bridge of his nose with a faint smile. "At a guess, her reaction is primarily the result of insecurity -- a great many new things thrown at her all at once."
"Most likely." Brandt sank back in his seat, sighing softly. "Do you think she'll stay?"
"In all probability." Arc glanced at the man again, clasping his hands behind his back. "Do you really think it's wise, sir? There are others who could fulfill her duties without the risk --"
Brandt lifted a hand, interrupting him. "I think it's for the best, Arc. Everyone else already has a task assigned to them. This is putting a great strain on Lene, and she has been impossibly patient."
"Then perhaps a human --"
"Enough." Brandt gave the Reploid a hard look. "We have had this discussion before, and it is unlikely to change with repetition."
"Of course, sir. I apologize. It has put a strain on everyone."
Brandt waved his comment away, shaking his head, and amusement returned to his features. "Besides, with you to guide her, what could possibly go wrong?"
"A great deal, sir," Arc said doubtfully, and the human chuckled.
"Well, send me Shadden and Moira for the week. I'd like you to concentrate on getting her fit for her duties, should she decide to stay." He rose, setting aside a sheaf of paper, pretending to neaten his already immaculate desk. "Keep an eye on her for now, and don't let her wander too far."
"Very well, sir."
Brandt smiled at him. "Tolerant even in your skepticism."
"What else could I possibly be?" The Reploid bowed deeply, quirking an eyebrow, and relayed the call signal to his subordinates. Straightening, he folded his hands behind his back. "Well, then, I'll go see to stalking our lovely guest, if that's all right, sir."
"So ordered," Brandt chuckled again, waving his hand in a dismissal even as the Reploid teleported from the room.
She had covered a fair amount of distance since leaving the office in an indignant huff, retracing her steps to the entrance with the help of her short-term logs. She then set off to the courtyard, far more interested in things outside than what lay within the estate. Somewhat to her surprise, she found the driver seated on the steps and smoking a cigarette -- odd, she thought, as he was a Reploid like herself. He offered a wave and a friendly smile, and she stared at him for a moment before lifting her hand in a belated response.
Turning away, she stepped quickly toward the ornamental hedges, pausing a moment when she left the shaded porch and felt the heat of the afternoon sun suddenly beating down on her. She lifted her gaze toward it, squinting a little before adjusting her optical intake to compensate for the light. That brief study complete, she returned her gaze to things less celestial and blinked once before readjusting her intake once again, feeling embarrassed as she completed her journey to the greenery.
She bent slightly to examine the pale flowers that twined through the bush's branches, referencing her database for information on their identity and discovering, somewhat to her irritation, that she had no idea what they were. She stored the scent and visual reference and moved on, making a note to extend her information libraries at the earliest opportunity.
The courtyard proved to consist largely of variations on the same general theme, so she moved on shortly through a low archway to what she thought might be a garden, instead finding an open field of grass that extended, as far as she could tell, to the edge of the estate. She stood still for a moment, watching the tall blades ripple in the gentle breeze, then started forward as if to follow it.
After a few minutes of walking, she concluded it may have once been intended as a garden. The enclosed plain was dotted here and there with archways and stone walls -- some complete, some crumbling -- but she was hard pressed to decipher whether they were the remnants of planning gone to seed or left intentionally incomplete.
She finally settled near a large block of stone that might have been part of a wall, seating herself in the grass in order to collect her thoughts. The task, after several minutes of battering her mind against the stubborn wall of her own bewilderment, proved fruitless, and she flung herself backward in a brief and subdued temper tantrum.
Gazing skyward again, she reached one of her hands back above her head to pluck glumly at a blade of grass. Things were not falling together well. She was debating the merits of asking to replace someone as part of the cleaning staff, when a shadow fell across her vision, and her eyes instantly refocused on its owner, who was perched on the broken wall behind her head and peering down at her from behind a pair of -- she thought -- ridiculous sunglasses.
"Hello, Miss New Girl," Arc said, grinning cheerfully as she jerked upright, half-turning seated in an attempt to face him.
She managed to keep her expression of disapproval from turning into a full-blown scowl. "Arc."
He took this as an invitation to join her, hopping down from the wall to sit next to her and kick his legs casually out in front of him. "Well, what can I call you, Miss?" he asked, glancing over the sunglasses at her. "The master calls you Cass, the scientists called you Jocasta --"
"You can call me Wraith," she told him shortly, resisting the impulse to inch away from him and seek another place to think.
"Ah, excellent." He seemed truly pleased, plucking the sunglasses from his face and tucking them inside his armor with a smile. "I'm of the opinion the master's choice of name was in very poor taste -- and Jocasta, well, that's a name of ill omen, if you ask me."
She stared at him, alarmed that she could barely comprehend half of his statement, but before she could demand an explanation, he'd caught sight of her expression and was watching her in puzzlement.
"I see we're going to have to get you caught up on your ancient literature," he said after a moment, the thought apparently amusing him. "The master'd be appalled if you couldn't at least pretend to be interested in Homer and all of them."
Her forehead creased, but she decided not to ask who Homer was, instead focusing on a different aspect of his speech. "Does he make you call him that?"
"What?" His momentary confusion gave way -- once again -- to amusement, but this time, at least, she felt she was not the brunt of it. "Oh, no -- he just thinks it's funny. That's most of why I do it."
"What do you call him, then?" she persisted, and he arched an eyebrow.
"Mr. Brandt, most of the time. He is my employer, after all." Arc wagged a finger at her, and she nodded, turning away from him to stare thoughtfully into the grass.
"I can give you a tour if you like," the blond-haired Reploid suggested after a moment's silence. "It's not particularly interesting, but it'll give you something to do while you're thinking."
Her blue-eyed gaze fixed him warily, but she gave a half-hearted shrug, rising to her feet. "I suppose so."
"Well, then!" He hopped to his feet, making a show of dusting himself off and spreading his arms wide as if to encompass the field. "This is what we call our big backyard!" He looked wounded at her skeptical expression, sighing melodramatically. "Well, honestly, we do call it that, but the missus had grander plans for it."
"I guessed." She paused then, opening her mouth to ask another question, but he had already spun away, beckoning for her to follow.
"Onward! Have to show you the place by evening, or the master'll eat his hat."
This made very little sense to her, but she followed him with an air of resignation as he walked back toward the mansion with a spring in his step.
"I suppose walking the grounds is supposed to have the added effect of convincing me to stay," she volunteered irritably, and he turned to face her, still walking, an eyebrow quirked with interest.
"So cynical, and at such a young age!" He grinned, lifting a finger to wag admonishingly. "I'm sure the master would intend that, but my only ulterior motive is to follow orders."
"I see." She looked away from him broodingly for a moment, and when she looked back he had stopped walking. She halted hurriedly to prevent a collision and gave him a suspicious look.
He was watching her with an expression she would not have expected to see on someone so apparently carefree. A wrinkle of concern marred his brow, and his eyes watched her seriously, a frown working at his mouth. "Listen, Wraith," he said, then paused as if unsure where to go from there.
She folded her arms, eyes narrowing.
For some reason, this caused his expression to clear away without a trace, and, to her annoyance, he laughed. "All right, sorry, that was a bad way to start." He sighed, reaching back behind him to scratch the back of his head. "I'm sure the master'd skin me for putting it to you this way, but here goes."
He paused again as if to mentally prepare, lowering his gaze to the ground beneath his feet. When he lifted his eyes, she almost took a step back in alarm at the flinty edge they held. "This job isn't as simple as the master thinks it is. He may try to understand what he's asking of you, but in all honesty, he can't." He took a deep, bracing breath. "You will have to devote your life utterly to the child's well-being. When he's young, that'll consist of doing everything from feeding to diapering him, in addition to making sure he comes to no harm. As he gets older, those duties will change, but in the end it's always the same. Him before you. Him before everyone."
His eyes grew harder at her alarmed stare. "If you have any doubts -- any -- that you will be up to the task, I can only suggest that you return to the lab and whatever purpose they designed you for. Good intentions can't do this job."
The alarmed expression deepened into a fierce scowl, and she felt her spine go rigid, fingers clenching on her folded arms.
He stopped as if noting her suddenly defensive posture and gave a short chuckle. "Sorry about that. Just wanted to give you an idea what you're in for."
"Indeed," she said shortly.
"I just -- I wanted to warn you." He paused, pressing his fingertips together in front of him as some of his earlier grimness returned to his expression. "It can be hard. To devote your life to someone else, when you've lived so little of your own."
She stared at him. "What do you mean?"
"This is, of course, the courtyard, and you've seen it at least twice, so I don't see any reason to linger. There isn't much more to the grounds than open space." He paused, eyes twinkling. "Though there are some empty stables 'round the other side -- the master kept horses very briefly until he decided they were too smelly and high-maintenance."
She looked up at him, arching an eyebrow.
"Actually, we have a mechanical back there now, though I don't think he sees much action."
"Ah," she said, attention drifting again.
"I guess we'll head back inside, then?" he suggested.
She nodded without looking at him, eyes gazing past the left side of the house as if to catch a glimpse of what was supposedly stored there, belying her careful neutrality. Her gaze jerked back to him abruptly when he offered his arm, smiling cheerfully. She gave him a look of deep skepticism, declining the offer by stepping toward the mansion.
"Aw, be a sport," he called after her with a melodramatic sigh. "I'd look dashing with someone exotic as you on my arm."
"Precisely," she said, eliciting a startled laugh from her companion.
He trotted up beside her and bent to look into her face, eyes dancing. "The master's going to have a tough time with you."
"The tour?" she said pointedly.
He gave another mock sigh, leaning away and folding his arms behind his back. "If my Lady insists."
Despite his evident disappointment, however, he did dispense with the flirtatious banter, opting for a crisp, efficient approach as he took her through the manor, drifting only occasionally into the antecdotal. Her surprise at the change faded rapidly when she realized it was the only way to get through the alarmingly large residence in the time they had.
There were servants' quarters but few servants, and most of them were Reploids, save for one or two in the kitchen, an older man who appeared to be in charge of maintenence, and the driver who had brought them from the lab. He turned out to be a cyborg. Most of the living, Arc eventually explained, was done in a small portion of the house, and a small amount of business in another. The rest, he concluded, was just for show.
It seemed ungainly to her, and she said as much, but he only laughed and told her she'd get used to it before leading her onward. There were a few rooms that drew her attention, including a large library -- which housed both digital and paper books -- several closets that appeared to house dusty boxes, and a spacious armory. This last interested her a great deal, but Arc ushered her away before she could see much of it. Many of the other rooms, as promised, were unihabited and dusty.
She dutifully recorded the information she was given, though she was relieved when he pointed out several access panels via which she could download schematics for quick reference.
"It isn't so bad once you know your way around," he remarked, pausing before the doors of what he claimed was a ballroom that doubled as a simulator. "But there are a lot of rooms."
She was paying little attention to him, still frowning at the ballroom doors, and only grunted an absent-minded response.
His mouth twitched into an amused grin. "I'm not lying. The missus insisted if they were going to do the mansion, they ought to do it right, and that meant a ballroom. The master only managed to work the simulator in when he told her it would make it easier to decorate for parties -- and easier to clean up."
Arc turned his gaze thoughtfully to the woodwork of the door. "She had him wrapped pretty well around her finger, I have to say -- he probably would have told anyone else to go to hell."
"Who is the 'missus?'" she asked, realizing all at once that she had never been supplied the information. Left unasked was why, if he in fact had a 'missus,' Arthur Brandt had traveled far and wide in search of a nanny.
"Ah.." The blond Reploid paused, scratching the back of his head uncomfortably. "Well, that'd be the master's wife."
Her brows lifted, but she waited silently for him to continue.
"Cassandra Lyons, thirty-five, daughter of Bradley Lyons and Louisa Mayes. Would have inherited their holdings, but I expect they go to her brother now." He paused, then shrugged easily, affecting a smile. "She died shortly after the baby was born."
"I see." Her brow furrowed as she grappled for a moment with this new information.
"That's the long and short of it," Arc said matter-of-factly, gazing at the oaken doors of the ballroom. "But it'd be wise not to bring it up around the master."
"I see," she said again, using her spare processing power to construct a map of the rooms she remembered visiting and overlay it on the schematics to see how much was left. To her relief, there were few discrepancies between the two, and she looked up to find her guide watching her curiously. "What is it?" she asked defensively, taking a step back.
His face broke into a cheerful grin. "You are so strange," he informed her brightly. "I seriously have never seen anyone built like you outside a fetish shop --" He broke off, looking momentarily embarrassed. "Not to say I've ever been in one --"
Her flat stare seemed to assure him that was not the point on which she had taken offense.
"I just mean --" He took a deep breath, lifting his hands placatingly. "Your creators really didn't tell you anything?"
"About what?" she asked crossly, folding her arms. "They tested me primarily in combat, so I assume that is where I was meant to be utilized."
"Primarily?" His gaze was baldly inquisitive.
"I don't remember!" she snapped, suddenly infuriated. "If you're so very curious, perhaps you should direct your questions to them." She turned to stalk away, earning a sudden flurry of apologies from her tormentor. She ignored him.
"Wait -- wait, Wraith." His hand came to rest on her shoulder, and she halted, turning just enough to fix him with a cool stare. "Let's finish the tour," he said after a moment, releasing her.
After a moment, she nodded shortly, judging that there was little of the house left to complete in any case, and she would be free of his company afterward. After a few minutes of walking, however, she found that she recognized the hallway and knew where their journey would conclude. She gave him a hard look which he did not appear to notice.
He stopped when they reached the door to the nursery, appearing embarrassed -- whether at having no speech to conclude the tour or at his own awkward attempt at manipulation, she was unable to determine. The pause was momentary. Then he pushed the doors open and stepped inside.
The lights were on this time, but dim. The maid, Lene, looked up in surprise at their entry, holding the baby cradled in her arms. He was awake now and gazing about with infant interest, now and again voicing his opinion in a string of cheerful and unintelligible babble. Lene ducked her head politely in Arc's direction.
"Did Mr. Brandt need me for something?" she asked, absently tucking a lock of hair out of range of the baby's fist.
"No indeed, Miss Lene," he replied, affecting a bow. "I was just finishing a tour of his lovely abode."
Lene's smile became somewhat ironic. "Well, isn't that exciting." Her gaze flicked to his companion, who returned it doubtfully. "I hope he hasn't frightened you off."
Wraith supposed she meant Arc. "Not as yet."
"Ah, good. He can be simpleminded, but you get used to him." She smiled, and Wraith was surprised to find herself returning the gesture.
Arc made a small spluttering noise and pretended to be offended. "Well, if that's how you're gonna be --" He bowed again, backing toward the door. "I'll leave you ladies to your girl talk." He glanced up as he stepped beyond the threshold, winking at Wraith. "Send a signal on that frequency if you find yourself in dire need of rescue."
He shut the door before she could think of a suitably cutting response.
The baby made a burbling noise into the ensuing silence, and Lene bounced him once. He was apparently delighted. Wraith watched him uneasily, brow furrowing as she considered for a moment the peculiarity and inconvenience of human reproduction. After a moment, the child seemed take notice of her, waving its chubby hand in her direction. She repressed the impulse to take a step backward.
"Would you like to hold him?" Lene asked suddenly, and Wraith looked at her with alarm.
"I would rather not," she said immediately.
Lene laughed at her prompt statement, and the child followed suit, delighted by the sound as he appeared to be delighted by almost everything. Wraith was too startled to be offended.
"He can't hurt you," Lene said finally, still smiling even though her laughter had ceased.
"I am aware of that," Wraith replied, startled to see the maid had closed the distance between them without her noticing.
"Then there's nothing to worry about," the other said firmly, and she deposited the child in Wraith's arms without another word. "Careful now," she instructed. "Support his head -- there."
She stared down at the child, now resting in her arms and gazing up at her with unabasheded interest in his brown eyes. He babbled something, and she looked up at Lene for an explanation. The maid only shrugged.
"He might mean hello," she said, mouth twitching.
"I see," Wraith said uncomfortably. Politeness kept her from holding the small entity at arm's length.
"You eventually learn to interpret," Lene said, "which squalls mean he's hungry and which mean he's bored. And which mean he needs a change." She smiled. "But I haven't yet become fluent in babble."
Wraith opened her mouth, then closed it again. It seemed redundant to say 'I see' yet again. She tilted her head to get a closer look at the child, and a stray lock of her white hair tumbled over her shoulder. With what seemed the speed of a striking snake, a small fist shot out, taking hold of it before she could jerk her head back in surprise.
"Ah --" Lene said, as surprised by the action as its recipient. "Douglas! Stop that." She reached a hand out, smacking lightly at the boy's fist.
He merely gurgled in amusement, flailing about with her hair still in his hand. Wincing slightly, she bent closer to ease the strain, but Lene was already at work, tutting as she pried the boy's fingers loose from her hair.
"I forgot to warn you," she said, smiling apologetically and reaching for the baby. "He does like dangling things."
Wraith lifted her head away, answering the smile with a rueful one of her own as Lene lifted the child from her arms. "Understood." Relieved of her burden, she folded her arms, still watching him warily. "You called him Douglas?"
"Mm, yes." Lene turned away to take him back to the crib, removing him momentarily from her view. "As I understand it, the 'Clive' was only to appease his grandpa."
"I see." She did not.
"It's just about dinnertime for him, and sleep after that," Lene said, looking up at Wraith as she lowered him into the crib. She was clearly working her way up to a dismissal. Wraith nodded, attempting to think of a way to excuse herself, but the maid went on before she was able. "You're quartered across the hall for now -- I suppose Arc didn't tell you?"
Wraith shook her head.
Lene tutted again. "Well, as I said. If you stay, you'll likely move to the room I'm staying in --" here she gestured to a door on the far side of the room "-- and I'll move back to my room, below." She looked as though she was hoping for this outcome.
Wraith nodded, unwilling to disclose her thoughts either way.
"Mr. Brandt said he'll meet you at seven for your decision."
She nodded again. After a moment's pause, she walked to the crib, bending to look at the child without touching any part of the bed's wooden frame. He burbled at her, making another attempt to reach her hair, though it dangled well out of reach. She arched an eyebrow at him and straightened, nodding politely to Lene before she stepped hurriedly from the room.
She closed the door behind her without pausing and went immediately across to the room the maid had designated for her use. Unsurprisingly, it was as sumptuous as the rest of the house. She looked around vacantly for several moments before she realized that it held no capsule for rest and recharge, but a human-style bed and two chairs.
After several moments of gazing at them in consternation, resignation flickered across her face, and she made her way to one of the chairs, settling in it carefully. Resting her arms on the ones it provided, she gazed silently at the far wall, expecting to debate her course of action for several hours before she shifted into her sleep cycle.
Much to her surprise, however, she found her decision made. Blinking once into the dimly lit room, she shrugged and let her eyes close, chin drooping gently to her chest.
Perhaps she would change her mind in the morning.