Masks 34.1 - The R Word [Cutscene]

Right now, tens of thousands of metal bodies are rising into the air. Right now, they’re causing chaos and confusion. Right now, formerly happy Rook customers are wondering what just happened to their security. Right now, a passing thief is thinking about hitting that jewelry shop whose guard 'bot joined the growing army in the sky.

Right now, Halcyon International Airport is shutting down, because its secret security apparatus just became very public and very uncontrolled. Right now, planes are being grounded, business travelers are venting frustration, families are being kept from their loved ones, time-sensitive materials are being delayed.

Right now, the heroes of Halcyon are deciding what to do. Individual members of the HHL, the teen recruits to the JHHL, and the assorted Irregulators, all face a choice. Stay inside, help civilians, try to contain any damage the robots cause in passing, fly up and fight the horde.

Right now is not a good time to be a robot.

Summer looks out the windows with mounting concern. There seems to be no end of the things. She wants to go out there, wants to armor up, wants to help - but without clear guidance, she’s as likely to be shot at as any other obviously artificial being on the streets right now. She stews, and grumps, and forces a smile when a customer approaches the counter, and gets more names wrong on the cups than she’s supposed to.

Aria comes through the door. Summer sees her immediately. The two girls lock eyes, recognize their own expression of concern on each others’ faces, nod in unspoken understanding. Outside, every robot created with Rossum’s technology has been usurped. They share a fear. Maybe my sister was one of them. Maybe I’ll be one of them.

“Give me a, uh, a mocha,” Aria says. Summer realizes she’s at the counter, placing an order for coffee. “And uh, two of the blintzes. Sour cream. And some ice cream.”

Summer’s face registers brief confusion, followed by understanding. You can’t digest any of this. Caffeine does nothing for you. Oh - oh. This is stress eating. You need something to chew on. Aria is staring at her phone. She’s furiously texting, then waiting for replies, in cycles.

The coffee comes up, the blintzes come off the rack. The shop doesn’t technically have ice cream, but Summer keeps a tub of Rocky Road in the employee fridge. She asks for a break - “my sister’s here” - and gets some time. She sets the tub in front of Aria, along with two spoons. The blintzes and coffee go untouched for a solid minute.

“Thank you,” the other girl finally manages, with a sigh.

Summer smiles, a little worriedly. “What’s going on?”

Aria holds up her phone for demonstration. There’s a steady series of tweets going on in the foreground, and plenty of SMS and other notifications at the top. “Ever since Christmas, we, the JHHL, and a few other key accounts somehow graduated to ‘the place where authentic hero news comes from’. I’m on the Menagerie comms, of course. There’s a lot going on, I’m digesting it and reposting what seems to be public, so people know what to do.”

Summer nods. Of course. That’s a safe way to contribute right now, and it’s still useful. “Well that’s wonderful. Here, you have to try these.” She pushes the blintzes across the table, then appropriates the Rocky Road for herself.

Aria’s phone - set to vibrate - engages in a slow and fitful journey across the tabletop, buzzing softly to itself. Around the two girls, there’s a similar excitable and insistent hum from the coffee drinking patrons. “God damn robots.” “Danger to the public.” “More supervillain nonsense.” “They’re cool to look at.” “Taking human jobs.” “Can’t trust machines like that.”

The Newman girls, heads down, eat in silence.

More to come soon.

author: Bill G.

“Stupid coffee machine.” The voice comes from the counter. Aria looks up, and sees her sister’s face wince in pain for a moment. Oh. Machine. Coffee machine. Coffee robot. God, I’m one too and even I’m insensitive.

Aria’s phone vibrates, and she looks down. This one’s important. As she finishes fending off the panic-stricken DM, she resumes paying attention. Summer is on her feet. “Sorry, break’s over. Stay as long as you like, though, wifi is free. I’ll be at the counter if you need anything. If I’m not, I’m on inventory.”

Aria looks down, catching a blur hiding behind her phone. She moves the device aside and sees a small furry cat staring hungrily at one of the remaining blintzes.

“That’s the Animal, one of the Irregulators,” Summer explains. “There’s a cat in the neighborhood that looks just like it, I think they’re copying it. Or that might just be that cat. I’m not sure. Anyway!” And she’s off.

Aria stares at the cat. The cat stares at the blintz. Then at Aria. Then back at the blintz. Cold calculation is written in every tensed muscle.

“You raise all kinds of questions,” the girl murmurs. She reaches out to pet the creature, but it shrinks back. For a moment, Aria feels an echo of her sister’s apprehension. Of course a living creature would be afraid of a robot.

How do we overcome fear?

She breaks off part of the blintz and holds it out, tentatively, pinched between fingertips. The cat creeps forward, warily, and starts licking the offering. The offering is found acceptable, and gobbled down in short order. Instinct rather than actual danger makes Aria pull her fingers back quickly, before sharp feline fangs sink into her skin. Recognition of her own reaction makes her smile. Any cat that could bite through her synthetic flesh could probably take on an army of robots just fine.

Aria extracts another bit of blintz. Of course, if she lets the cat onto the dish, the game is over - right now, throttling the supply is the only way to keep its attention, and the graceful creature is honestly more interesting than the freaked-out humans on her phone. Intellectually, Aria knows that she should attend to the PR situation. But much more and she’s going to scream.

The cat approaches, sniffing. Aria studies it. “Cats are lactose intolerant. Most humans aren’t. I wonder… if you are the Animal, can you drink milk?” She glances at the sour cream. As the second bit of blintz is swiftly snapped up, she pulls off a third bit, dips it in the cream, and offers it. The animal’s nose twitches, and it makes what Aria can only describe as an icky face before taking a couple steps back.

Rather than continue the experiment, Aria carefully reaches a hand around the cat’s belly and drags it onto her lap. There’s no resistance to this action beyond a little paw-dragging, which feline dignity requires. Absently, the girl starts to stroke the soft fur and scritch the cat’s head and chin. Her free hand goes back to her phone. She feels a vibration, and instinctively looks down at the device. No - other hand. The cat has started in on a throaty purr, and she can feel it as well as hear it.

Things stay this way for several minutes. The twitter-verse has started to calm down. Aria tries to stay calm as well. Leo is out there, with Otto. She wants to be with them, be at the side of the man she loves, be his helpmate and support and restraint like she always is. But Leo hasn’t said anything about her joining him.

I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing as Summer and I. That having a couple more humanoid robots on the scene would muddy the waters. Confuse the issue.

Doubt grips her heart.

I wonder if that’s why he hasn’t called.

The cat turns around in her lap, and stretches upward, putting its paws on her collarbone. Its head pushes forward, butting gently against her chin. Aria smiles gratefully and rewards the action with plenty of petting. “Whether you’re the Animal or not, you’re very affectionate,” she murmurs. The thought comes to her, and stays with her for a moment. “If you are the Animal… are you here for the same reason I am? You can’t do any good out there? Did you know I’d be here, and wait to help me feel better?”

The cat just keeps nuzzling, but eventually drops back into her lap to curl up again.

“You’re either a cat or a pretty good actor,” Aria murmurs wryly. Another thought occurs, one that puts a smile on her face. “I hope you aren’t a boy. I’m dating Link of the Menagerie, and he would be very unhappy to find a strange boy on my lap.” The cat seems unmoved by this line of reasoning, and Aria acknowledges this fine display of thespian talent with some ear scratching. She could just lift the tail and check. A cat might be disturbed. A human might be highly insulted. Either way, it feels like an invasion, and Aria lets well enough alone.

Robots… humans… people look and see only the outside. There’s no good way to peer inside the soul without permission. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe we should just treat people the way they ask to be treated.

A quote comes to Aria, something she uncovered in her personal research. It’s Charlotte Brontë, writing the opening of “Evening Solace”. “The human heart has hidden treasures, In secret kept, in silence sealed; The thoughts, the hopes, the dreams, the pleasures, Whose charms were broken if revealed.”

Yes, I’m a robot. I’m also a girl. I’m a scientist. I’m a student. I’m a lover. I’m a fighter. I want people to see me for who I am. But it would bother me if anyone could just learn all my secrets. She glances at her phone. I’ll do whatever I can, even if I’m afraid. And if people are afraid of me, I’ll understand that their fear is real. But I refuse to let them define me.

I’ll trust Leo to call me when he’s ready, and not second-guess him.

She smiles down at her feline companion, purring itself to sleep. Whether hero or hairball, be what you want to be.

author: Bill G.

I’ve wanted to write something like this for awhile, this seemed like a good opportunity for it. As usual, no serious plotting going on, just “Aria is being as useful as she can right now, doing public communication, and here’s why she thought that was best”. It lets us avoid rolling that ever-popular when you reassure the public move - though Leo may find one of the moves from the HCHC useful later on.

author: Bill G.

[Very cool. And, actually, a majority (about 2/3) of humans have some level of lactose intolerance.]

author: *** Dave H.

Teenagers only THINK they know everything, including biology.

author: Bill G.

[And there’s still that temptation to incorrectly think that the Newmans have a permanent link to the Internet …]

author: *** Dave H.

*** Dave H. said:

[And there’s still that temptation to incorrectly think that the Newmans have a permanent link to the Internet …]

You’re not wrong, but

author: Bill G.