The future, *Mute decided, was completely insane.
First off, there was the body. Investigator Lopez, her new, uh, wife, had explained to the two of them that of course, the exact specifications of the hardshell would be up to them, and had downloaded a hefty brochure for them to peruse. Of course *Hyun-ae was having the time of her life with this; she'd gone out of her way to be ridiculous, drawing herself sitting primly on a chair and paging through an old-fashioned book, making herself cute for the Investigator.
*Mute rolled her eyes and took a few seconds to assess the options, compare them against the form she had been displaying herself as for centuries -- the one that looked like a golden-haired Princess Ryu -- and pick out the three combinations of features that would most closely approximate it. Then she'd had a ridiculous conversation with the Investigator.
"So, since I'm your wife and I guess you're, like, pretending to be a man and all, I guess you should choose what I look like?" she said, presenting her three options to the Investigator. She smirked slightly as *Hyun-ae's pandering was interrupted. The Investigator's home setup had three big screens, though, so *Hyun-ae redrew herself on the next screen over.
"Aaah, those are so cute!" said *Hyun-ae.
"Hey, you're not the one in charge here, okay?" said *Mute, suppressing her autonomic approximation subsystem's suggestion that she ought to blush now. "So uh. Miss Investigator?" She waited, wishing she had some visual on the Investigator, so she could gauge her reaction. Unfortunately the Investigator didn't seem to have any cameras installed in her home system. Still, at least audio input was on.
*Mute heard the Investigator make a hesitant sort of noise. "Uh. Well, I mean, it's... it's your choice, isn't it?"
"Just... just pick one, okay? Unless you hate all of them. I know you feel like I'm --"
"I don't hate any of them," said the Investigator, gently. "*Mute, you absolutely don't have to get a hardshell body if you're not interested. I know it's probably kind of scary--"
"It's not scary," said *Mute. "I'm not scared!" Well, it wasn't any scarier than the prospect that she would somehow have to live in this barbaric society and figure out how to do her duties as a wife on some strange planet where they barely seemed to have the concept of wives. And wasn't it just like a woman to be utterly indecisive in the face of important decisions. "Fine, I'll pick one. I hope you like it. I don't even know what you like."
"I didn't get the impression you wanted to hear much about what I like," said the Investigator, drily. More seriously, she added, "I just -- I want you to be happy. It's your body."
So *Hyun-ae had come up with something chipper and complimentary about how ~any body with *Mute in it was bound to be adorable, and Mute had picked one at random, and *Hyun-ae had agonized over the shape of her own nose in an embarrassing display of feminine vanity.
While she'd been doing that, *Mute had taken the opportunity to go poking through the Investigator's system. The White Princess had only had a few photos of the Investigator, but they were mostly just ID photos from various governments and organizations, and from these *Mute knew she was a dark-skinned, dark-haired woman and that she apparently always looked serious and somewhat exhausted. Her home system, on the other hand, had lots of photos of the Investigator smiling, laughing, and making really undignified faces at the camera. She was much prettier when she wasn't sitting for ID portraits for work. Her smile was crooked and a little bit arrogant, but her eyes were kind. *Mute tried not to think about certain charming gentlemen who'd had those qualities, because it was not the same kind of thing at all.
*Mute noticed the same girl seemed to be standing next to her in half the photos -- whispering into her ear or sharing drinks or just laughing -- and when she stumbled across the, uh, very naked pictures socked away in a file labeled "4986 taxes," it confirmed *Mute's unhappy suspicions about their relationship.
Still, this was her home from now on, and she would have to learn to live with it.
She kept this in mind all through the journey to Wong Robotics' showroom, while *Hyun-ae flirted shamelessly with her and the Investigator over audio, and *Mute was somewhat grateful the autocar had no screens. At least she wouldn't have to literally keep putting on a brave face about this.
Then of course, she had to be disabled briefly so she could be copied and recompiled into the body, and that was what the Investigator wanted, and what *Hyun-ae obviously wanted, and so, steeling herself, *Mute consented to being shut down.
And in what seemed like a millisecond, everything became completely bizarre.
The first thing she became aware of, after awareness itself, was that she finally had visuals, finally, after all the frustration with the various computer systems *Mute had been forced to work around for the past few days.
The second thing she realized, which was extremely disconcerting, was that *Hyun-ae and the Investigator were hot.
The third thing, alas, was that unlike the system she had been used to, where she could pick and choose her facial expressions to some extent, this stupid new body just let her blush whenever it wanted to, which it of course chose to do once *Mute realized she'd been staring at *Hyun-ae's chest.
"Are you all right?" *Hyun-ae asked, with touching concern. And also... touching. She was just holding *Mute's hand, but *Mute was still trying to wrap her mind around the concept of hands as more than just a visual shorthand that made her projected self more expressive when she was talking to people.
"I'm -- fine," said *Mute. Of course, it was just her luck, she'd ended up with a totally defective body that made her some kind of pervert. Great. Fantastic. Wonderful. It wasn't that she'd never... felt things before, but the addition of physical sensation made everything so much more overwhelming.
"Ah, *Mute, was it?" asked one of the technicians. "We need to run through some tests, make sure everything's calibrated properly. First of all, are you feeling any discomfort?" He looked expectantly over his clipboard at her, and *Mute wondered how to answer. Yes, of course I'm feeling some discomfort, everything is all wrong! But this seemed utterly disrespectful to this man and his work, not to mention to the Investigator's wishes for *Mute. So instead she said "No, I -- it's kind of taking some adjustment, is all."
"Ah, yes. It's quite a change, I know," said the technician. "Can you raise your left arm for me?" Numbly (emotionally) she went through the motions (literally) of the technician's test. When he'd determined that the hardshell, such as it was, was functioning properly, *Hyun-ae gently helped *Mute stand.
"This is so exciting!" said *Hyun-ae. "You look, well, really really cute, *Mute!" She was flushed with excitement. At least she wasn't holding *Mute's hand anymore.
"Uh. Thanks?" said *Mute, trying not to cringe too much. She looked at the corridor they were walking through; it was plastered with advertisements boasting of the many realistic features of various hardshell models... and some that weren't realistic at all. Interchangeable voiceboxes? Glow-in-the-dark leopard spotted skin? Night vision? ...Actually, that wasn't a bad idea; *Mute wasn't really looking forward to navigating a world where she had no sensors outside of one small, fragile humanoid body, and being able to see in the dark might help at least a little bit.
"Sorry, am I making you uncomfortable? I don't want to make you uncomfortable. You should tell me if I'm making you uncomfortable," said *Hyun-ae.
"Everything is making me uncomfortable," *Mute said. "I don't know what you needed me around for, you seem to be adjusting just fine," she added. "And this is, like, basically the barbaric kind of culture your parents came from, right?"
*Hyun-ae looked a bit deflated. "I'm just really happy to have a body again. One with a working immune system."
"...um, we're kinda robots," said *Mute. "Immune system?"
"Yeah, but Miss Investigator~" -- ugh, *Mute could hear the tildes -- "said there's sort of a computer equivalent. I guess on Earth sometimes computers get viruses?"
"Yeah, there's something way back in my security protocols about how to deal with those," said *Mute. "People used to make them as weapons. I guess they still do." She scanned the hardshell's systems and saw that in addition to the protections her original programmer had put into place in her base code, there was something interfacing with those to keep malevolent programs out. *Mute grasped the purpose of the code, but she couldn't even imagine how it worked.
Of course, being a female construct, she shouldn't ever have really needed to understand computers outside of her own system, but this was a strange new world, and something unpleasant occurred to her: after the Mugunghwa had launched, Earth had had over two thousand years to develop further. Even if it was some godforsaken traditionless pit, the technology she'd already witnessed suggested it had used those years well. It occurred to *Mute that it was entirely possible her code was hopelessly outmoded, and that even if she could find her way in this world, even if she hadn't been hampered by knowing the difference between right and wrong, she might still be a failure.
And in the fraction of a second it had taken *Mute to examine her hardshell's code and come to this conclusion, *Hyun-ae had apparently deemed it a good idea to put an arm around her. "It's all right to be scared," she said, kind of condescendingly. "I'm actually really worried too."
*Mute considered objecting loudly to the contact, but it was... nice, actually. And *Hyun-ae had just said she was worried. If nothing else, *Mute had a sort of duty to keep her safe, as the last vestige of the Mugunghwa.
She tried not to think too hard about the arm around her, though. It didn't have to mean anything, *Mute told herself. It could just be, like, sisterly. Or something.
"Are... are you guys all right?" the Investigator asked. She stood by the door, looking at them with apparent concern.
"Everything is fine," said *Mute, shrugging off *Hyun-ae's arm. The Investigator gave them an uncertain smile.
"Everything is wonderful!" said *Hyun-ae, bouncing on the balls of her feet. She rushed forward to hug the Investigator, who -- oh wow, was blushing like crazy too now. Well, at least the woman wasn't entirely shameless, *Mute thought. She took *Hyun-ae's hand, though, and squeezed it, then hung back and waited for *Mute to catch up with them, offering her other hand.
*Mute could've resolutely stayed apart from this madness, could have held back... but, she told herself, the Investigator seemed so hopeful and so worried, so she forced herself to take the Investigator's hand no matter what debauchery she would assume that implied. *Mute had to be strong.
"All right, so, I guess what we should do is get you guys some nicer clothes," said the Investigator, uncertainly; *Mute had to admit she was not impressed with the shockingly revealing jumpsuits their hardshells were stuck with right now. "Oh, um, they offer hair styling here, I think, if you --"
"I want *Hyun-ae to do my hair," said *Mute, surprising herself, and *Hyun-ae beamed at her. Great. "Don't read anything into it! I don't want to do anything gross with you," she said quickly.
"All right, so we'll wait on the hair," said the Investigator. "Come on, let's get you something to wear." And they stepped out into chaos.
Well, okay, actually it looked kind of like the square on the Mugunghwa -- lots of colorful signs and people milling about. But the people were bizarre. *Mute now had to admit to herself that the Investigator, who dressed like a man and kept her hair short was actually quite conservatively dressed compared to some of these... people. She stared at a group of women who must be prostitutes of some sort. *Mute could actually see their shoulders. And their knees. And they were just walking around and talking to each other like that!
She looked to *Hyun-ae, a pithy comment on the nature of beauty forming in her mind, and saw that *Hyun-ae was staring up at the ceiling. It appeared to be made of glass; beyond it, the ceiling was light blue, with artistic swirls of white smoke. She couldn't imagine what made it so fascinating, though.
So *Mute felt pretty stupid when *Hyun-ae said "Is that the sky? My parents always told me about clouds! They said people used to look up at them and make up stories about their shapes."
Wow, she was not going to get along well in this world at all.
"Oh, yeah, that's the sky," said the Investigator, sounding kind of amused. "You'll be able to see it better when we're outside. ...so, clothes?"
"So, like, thanks for rescuing me and all, but I am not wearing pants," said *Mute, who wanted to be very clear on this point.
The Investigator laughed. "No, no, of course not. I don't expect you to. You can wear whatever you like. Here, hold out your hands, both of you, I'll give you some money and maps. This building is fifteen floors of pure consumerism, you should be able to find something you like." She tapped a little blinking device into each of their hands in turn, and when she tapped *Mute's hand, *Mute became aware that she now had several thousand of something called "Union Credits" and information on all the stores in the building. "I won't make the two of you cooperate on this, I know it's futile. We can all meet back here in an hour."
"Oh, wow," said *Hyun-ae. "I know exactly where I'm going first. Thanks, Miss Investigator!" She hugged the Investigator again, who managed to stutter something about practical clothes before *Hyun-ae released her.
"How can you just let her run off like that in the middle of this crowd of weird people?" demanded *Mute.
"They're just teenagers and tourists, hardly all that weird," said the Investigator. "Besides, the map I gave you keeps track of all of us. I... hope that's all right?"
*Mute checked; she saw that the Investigator was right. *Hyun-ae was headed to -- *Mute rolled her eyes. "She's going to some kind of weird costume shop."
"Of course she is," said the Investigator, laughing. "Look, do you mind if I come with you?"
*Mute was very relieved the Investigator wasn't planning to abandon her the way *Hyun-ae had, but she certainly wasn't going to admit that. "As long as you don't, like, watch me change or anything."
"Scout's honor," said the Investigator, putting one hand over her heart. "Look, I just... we need to talk."
Uh-oh. "Why? What's there to talk about?"
"Come on, let's find a nice store with something, I guess... modest?" said the Investigator. *Mute got the impression she was being euphemistic and trying not to judge. That was fine. *Mute was perfectly happy to judge even if no one else would.
*Mute sorted through the options and found one store that at least had long skirts. "Yeah, okay," she said, starting off in that direction. The Investigator followed, and *Mute watched her out of the corner of her eye. "So what, are you ditching me?"
"*Mute, no," said the Investigator, sounding legit horrified. "I just. I do not want to make you do anything you don't want to do, all right? Not anything. And we aren't actually married, I mean, not really. And if --"
"Yeah, you're ditching me," said *Mute. She managed to cancel the cringe in disappointment subroutine the hardshell tried to impose on her before it got too far in, but evidently it hadn't been fast enough, because the Investigator was looking at her with something *Mute suspected was pity. "It was a lot easier to put up with your disappointment when I couldn't see you," she said, and when she looked back, the Investigator looked as shocked as if *Mute had punched her in the gut.
Finally, she said, "Yeah, well, it was a lot easier not to put my foot in my mouth when I only had three dialogue options. But please let me finish?" After a brief, skeptical pause from *Mute, she continued. "I don't want to ditch you. I think you're... I really like you. Aaargh, this isn't coming out right… The thing is, I know you don't think much of me, I know you don't think much of present-day Earth, and I know you were... distraught."
*Mute was shocked at how fragile this made her look, and felt a pang of guilt at making *Hyun-ae and the Investigator bother to worry about her. "It's fine, I'm fine now," she said quickly, although the Investigator didn't look convinced."
"Look, there are places where, uh. Where things are more like you're used to." She said this distastefully. "Where, uh, men are really really in charge and you'd get to be... you'd get to be um. More comfortable. I guess."
"I thought you said Earth was even more barbaric than the Mugunghwa's past," said *Mute. "If it's not all like this, then...."
"These places... they're mostly colonies. I think Pluto's the nearest, though. Earth and the innermost planets have kind of dealt with -- Earth isn't like that anymore," she finished, quickly. "Anyway, I really would not be angry if you wanted a new start somewhere like that. I don't know if any of them have ...I guess, Confucian values, specifically? And they don't tend to be super cool about AIs? But I could do some research for you. Or you could do the research, either way."
"Not super cool about AIs?" *Mute asked.
"Um, well. I don't think they'd believe you were a person," said the Investigator. "Not that Earth's a shining example of that either. Actually, after this we have to go fill out some paperwork so you guys are both independent entities, because technically right now you belong to me, which is so fucked up, don't get me started -- and I'm giving you a third of the money from the Mugunghwa job, because I could not have done it without you -- and I'm just saying, if you wanted to use that money to go somewhere else and have a -- a traditional feminine role... you could."
*Mute stared at her.
"I mean, you don't have to! This is an option!" said the Investigator, slightly panicked. "I just don't want to be a dick about it. I really like you, like I said, I'd really like it if we ...if you stuck around. Even just as a friend, I mean. And I think *Hyun-ae would be kind of upset, I mean, I think she'd understand, but, you know --"
"So that was a minute and forty-eight seconds of the stupidest thing I have ever heard," said *Mute. "You better not ditch me. I'm not ditching you. And I'm certainly not ditching *Hyun-ae."
She watched the Investigator's face, which was an interesting blend of relief and panic. "Okay," she said. "Okay. Great. I, uh. Okay. So... after you two get some basic stuff taken care of, I think it'd be nice to go to Pyongyang for a few days, since it's supposed to be really pretty? I've never been, so I don't know firsthand. When you're from a planet you never end up doing all the touristy stuff... you know?"
"No," said *Mute, feeling kind of bad that she was finding this so funny. Who knew the badass space detective who'd rescued her was so awkward? "Wow, you are really bad at talking to people. Like, no wonder you're not married yet. Aside from your weird insistence on pretending you're just like a man, I mean."
"Yeah. Thanks for noticing," grumbled the Investigator. Oh. She'd kind of taken that personally.
"Hey, it's okay. Most people say dumb stuff all the time," said *Mute.
The Investigator sighed. "Trust me, I've noticed."
* * *
They had, technically, been to the Investigator's home, but they hadn't actually seen it until the three of them returned, with physical bodies and (in *Hyun-ae's case) too many frivolous outfits for said bodies. *Mute was somewhat surprised to see that the apartment they were returning to was quite small, and was quite bare. As she'd noticed when she'd been on the Investigator's system, there were three large screens on one wall, but aside from a couch, there wasn't much else in the room. It wasn't empty, though; there was a pile of boxes stacked up next to a door which presumably led to a kitchen.
"It's kind of a mess? Sorry," said the Investigator, although what weirded *Mute out most was the lack of a mess, or rather, the lack of anything that could possibly have made a mess. It wasn't a well-kept house so much as it was really, really not lived-in. She could see now why the Investigator had no visuals on her system; it wasn't that she was trying to hide what she looked like -- and like, there was definitely no reason for her to do that, because she was really pretty, and for all that she was dressed like a guy, her body was really, uh. Well. Those pants were too tight and *Mute was trying not to look at her from behind, like, ever, because it was way too embarrassing. No, the Investigator had nothing to hide about herself, except maybe to preserve some kind of decency -- it was how she was living that was the problem.
"It's nice!" said *Hyun-ae. "You have all of this to yourself?"
"Well, yes," said the Investigator. "I mean, not anymore, I guess, but. It's kind of temporary, honestly."
*Mute recalled the datestamps on the photos of the Investigator with her prior paramour ended almost a year ago. In fact... she checked the Investigator's system again... all the photos were from almost a year ago or longer. None of them showed any part of this room, either. None of that would've been weird on the Mugunghwa, of course -- photos should be reserved only for really important occasions and people who mattered, and that definitely didn't include an unmarried woman's horrifying habits of going around drinking and socializing with strangers outside her home, and engaging in carnal relations with other women -- but the fact that there were so many photos on her system suggested this frivolous society thought it was normal and okay to indulge a woman's vanity and frivolity like that, and the fact that the Investigator had done so until about a year ago... made *Mute suspicious.
She looked to *Hyun-ae, but *Hyun-ae was busily talking at the Investigator. She seemed very at-ease around *Hyun-ae, and *Mute suppressed a momentary pang of jealousy, one she was sure she would never have felt if this lousy hardshell wasn't doing weird things to her emotions. They were talking about... cake? Yes. They were talking about cake. *Mute rolled her eyes as the two of them wandered into the next room (a kitchen, it looked like) and checked to make sure they weren't watching before she carefully eased open one of the boxes on top and looked inside. Sure was a lot of dusty gross stuff in here. *Mute couldn't tell what all of it was -- a lot of it must be Earth tech -- but she --
"Wha..." said *Mute with a start.
The hardshell had a "startled" subroutine? Really? She observed briefly that it had a little slider that went from "mildly surprised" to "comic amazement" before turning it off completely. She was glad of that option; she and Old *Mute had made enough mistakes in the past because of hesitation after being blindsided and she certainly didn't want some stupid physical body to make that problem worse.
*Mute? It was *Hyun-ae, she realized, sending text data directly to her.
*Mute grappled with the hardware for a nanosecond before answering Yeah?
Are you poking around in Miss Investigator's apartment without us?
No, lied *Mute. Hm. These looked like old-fashioned paper books. And here were some... weird little toys. A tiny glass cup printed with Souvenir of Europa on it. Little paper rectangles with handwriting so cramped it was beyond her text recognition capabilities. She moved on.
Yes you are, said *Hyun-ae. Something bad happened, didn't it? I think she broke up with her girlfriend about a year ago. I don't know if I should ask her about it. She seems kind of scared of doing something wrong.
Did you look at all the pictures? *Mute demanded. You shouldn't have looked at all the pictures!
I didn't really mean to, they were just kind of... not encrypted, said *Hyun-ae.
You shouldn't go snooping around like that! said *Mute. How is the Investigator going to feel when she finds out you've seen naked pictures of her and --
Wow, I didn't see those pictures, *Hyun-ae said. Where did you--
Never mind that! *Mute said.
Oh, here they are... oh wow.
Hey, there's video!
I forbid you from going any further into the Investigator's secret homemade porn stash --
I'm not! said *Hyun-ae. I was just kind of surprised. ...and I feel kind of guilty, you know. What if the Investigator had lived happily ever after with her girlfriend? Would we have been rescued by someone else? Do we owe our lives to her misfortune?
Um, she wouldn't have been happy with her anyway, said *Mute, because that kind of relationship is inherently all kinds of wrong. I mean, seriously, neither of them was a guy, I still have no idea how that's even supposed to work.
Maybe you would if you watched some of that video, said *Hyun-ae jokingly.
*Mute sighed. But as she was putting together a biting response, there was a weird sound like an alarm from the speakers in the Investigator's living room. *Mute turned to face the screens, and saw a man's face peering blankly at the living room.
"Hey, 'Mada? You there?"
The Investigator swore. "Sorry, coming, argh."
The guy on the screen smirked. "Oh man, don't tell me I interrupted your honeymoon with your new harem."
"Oh my god, shut up, Konstantin," said the Investigator, burying her face in her hands. "They are not my harem."
"Well, technically..." started *Mute.
And the guy on the screen started laughing. "Oh shit, are they right there? See, this is why you gotta get some visuals, Amada, it'd save you a lot of embarrassment. Sorry, robot harem girls!"
"Konstantin," said the Investigator.
"Oh em gee, this is hilarious," said Konstantin. "Hey, you two take good care of 'Mada, okay? She's fucking priceless."
"Hey, fuck you too," said the Investigator. "What do you want?"
"Remember that mess I told you about after you finished the Mugunghwa job? Guy whose wife got caught trying to wipe his memory banks? Well, she just blew up a server."
"Shit, no way," said the Investigator. "Really?"
"Yeah. They want you to see if you can put together what was on it. He didn't do his backups, which is very frustrating... just why? But that's what we have to work with. Oh, uh, also? No harem girls, no politics, okay? This guy's a free construct but the way the university president's talking it's their server, their data. And, uh, I'm sorry to say, this is probably gonna involve a lot of talking to crazy people. On the other hand, you get to rubberneck at the crazy people too!"
"Oh joy," said the Investigator drily.
"Hey, no complaints," said Konstantin. "I'll shoot you the address and the contact info for the couple. I can get you atmo hopper tickets, you're going to some podunk little college town in North America with barely any climate control, so bring a jacket, it's gonna be winter for real there."
"And there's... no chance this can wait?" the Investigator asked, shooting *Mute an apologetic glance.
"I don't know if you heard me wrong the first time," said Konstantin, "but some lady blew up part of her husband's brain."
"Okay, okay, I get it," said the Investigator, holding up her hands in defeat. "Sorry, you two. I gotta go. I'll see if I can't get this wrapped up in a day, otherwise I guess I'll send for you. Will you be okay for now?"
"I can do *Mute's hair!" said *Hyun-ae. "Oh, *Mute, I didn't show you, I got some ribbons and things, you can see what you like best! It'll be fun!"
"...It sounds like we might just be in the way," said *Mute.
"Your robot harem is weird, 'Mada," said Konstantin. "Seriously, you gotta get visuals set up in your new place. If nothing else I want to meet the cast of characters in the crazy soap opera that is your life."
"Okay, okay, later," said the Investigator. "Get out of my hair!"
"Bye, 'Mada! Bye, harem girls!" said Konstantin. "Dispatch control out!" Then he blinked out.
"I can't believe he puts up with that kind of disrespect from you," said *Mute, once he was gone.
The Investigator actually laughed. "I've known Konstantin basically forever. I think he'd be worried if I didn't tell him to go fuck himself every now and then."
"Aw. He seems nice, in a weird way," said *Hyun-ae.
"Everything he is, it's in a weird way," said the Investigator, rolling her eyes. She went to one of the never-unpacked boxes and began rummaging through it, finally pulling out a jacket. "Anyway, I am so sorry, apparently I'm ...not allowed to take you guys with because the university president is an asshole. But I'll call when I'm on my way back, and I'll try to get this wrapped up as quickly as possible. Okay?"
"It's too bad we can't be your sidekicks, but I understand, and I'm sure *Mute does too," said *Hyun-ae. "But... I mean, I know this is silly... I..."
She was blushing, and *Mute couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Oh, just spit it out."
"Could I have a goodbye kiss?" *Hyun-ae asked, shyly.
"Oh. Yes. I. Yeah," stammered the Investigator, and it would actually be kind of endearing, *Mute thought, except for the part where it was completely wrong. But when the Investigator leaned forward and pressed her lips against *Hyun-ae's, and *Hyun-ae slid one hand up to play with the hair at the nape of the Investigator's neck, *Mute found that she was thoroughly, unambiguously envious of the both of them. Because she was the odd one out here -- no one would take her face in their hands and kiss her gently like that, no one would embrace her like she was the only thing that mattered -- even if maybe she kind of wanted *Hyun-ae or the Investigator to do that, which, okay, yes, she did (but it was totally the hardshell, she reminded herself) and even if it was kind of, uh, interesting to picture the Investigator tilting her face up gently, or to envision *Hyun-ae pulling her into a joyfully spontaneous kiss... well, she'd just spent days telling the Investigator and *Hyun-ae how gross and wrong all that was. And she'd been right! But ...*Mute couldn't help but think that if she'd succeeded in wiping all her memories and starting fresh, that that new *Mute would've been more welcome than she was now.
But when *Hyun-ae and the Investigator finally parted, *Mute still blurted out "Um, I don't want a goodbye kiss."
"I -- I somehow didn't think you would," said the Investigator. She looked a bit dazed from that kiss still, and *Hyun-ae was giving her a fond look, and *Mute was feeling sorry for herself until the Investigator unexpectedly hugged her. It was more clinging than anything, and it was the most intense physical sensation *Mute had ever experienced; somehow, with the Investigator's arms wrapped around her, *Mute felt... safe, and all those weird feelings of envy left her, especially when the Investigator said, "I'm going to miss you too."
Although the lust was definitely still there. Ugh. *Mute tried to dwell too much on how nice this felt, but it was definitely over too quickly.
"All right, well. I should probably get going. I'll let you know how I'm doing," said the Investigator. And, slinging her jacket over one shoulder, she left them to their own devices.
"You really enjoyed that, didn't you?" *Hyun-ae asked, looking amused.
"Don't be ridiculous!" said *Mute. She knew she was blushing like crazy. "It was embarrassing, that's all."
"Right," said *Hyun-ae. "So, I was looking into hairstyles you might like..."
* * *
Having someone else brush your hair was weirdly soothing, as it turned out. *Mute was not aware of any reason it should feel that way, but she chalked it up to the hardshell manufacturers' mindless mimicry of human physiological responses. Still, unlike a lot of the things she'd been feeling lately, it was pretty harmless, and she let herself relax just a fraction, and she was almost disappointed when *Hyun-ae finished fixing her braids and said "There! How do you like it?"
"Uh. Is there a mirror somewhere? This is so weird, I used to just know how I looked," said *Mute.
*Hyun-ae got up and walked to the screens on the opposite wall, and pressed down on a button *Mute hadn't noticed, and in a few moments, *Mute saw herself. She hadn't been expecting much, of course, because it was *Mute's understanding that most real women had to wear wigs to accomplish what *Mute could do by moving a few pixels around, but *Hyun-ae had done quite a respectable job putting *Mute's hair up in a jjokjin -- a braided bun, held up with a beautiful red-and-gold binyeo in the shape of a phoenix.
"I'm sorry if I didn't get it right," said *Hyun-ae, hurriedly.
"No, I..." Okay, it was a little crooked, but *Mute was pretty sure that was not why her face and eyes felt all weird, and...
"Oh no, are you all right? Did I do it too tight or something?" *Hyun-ae asked, rushing back over to her.
"I'm fine," *Mute insisted.
"You're crying," *Hyun-ae said, sitting back down next to her.
*Mute looked in the "mirror" and saw that it was true, but seeing herself in reflection -- her clothing a graceless attempt to maintain some dignity in this barbarous society, and her hair done up as though she was a queen, and tears running down her cheeks as if she was... well, as silly and overemotional as she currently was. "I --" Again, as she had done so many times that day, she reached out to shut off all the nasty little bits of the hardshell's programming that permitted her to do something so undignified and useless... but to her surprise, it was painful. Not physically painful, but... something in her own programming was making her feel... constrained. So she let herself cry, and let *Hyun-ae hug her and soothe her, and... it was nice to have someone there for her, nice to have someone hold her and tell her it was all right even though it surely wasn't and never could be.
When *Mute had calmed down some, she sat back on the couch. *Hyun-ae squeezed her hand. "Hey... do you want some tea? I think I can figure out the Investigator's kitchen. Probably."
"Uh. Yeah, I guess. ...Is tea good? I, uh. I only ever drank it for dramatic effect, you know?"
For some reason, this made *Hyun-ae smile. "Well, I like it. Or at least I used to. I don't... really remember what it tasted like? It was hot. And kind of... uh. ...well. It." She was looking kind of dismayed herself now.
"Well, never mind what it tastes like," said *Mute, "let's find out if we like it."
"Let's find out if the Investigator even has any tea," said *Hyun-ae.
"...You know, I just realized something else the Investigator does have?" *Mute asked, following *Hyun-ae into the kitchen. "Cameras for her home setup. Because otherwise those screens wouldn't work as mirrors."
"Yeah," said *Hyun-ae. "I think you can only turn them on by physically pressing that button."
"Right," said *Mute. "So she leaves them off normally and only she can turn them on. I guess she doesn't want anyone to see her? Which makes sense, I mean, she's already pretty vulnerable, a woman living alone without a family or anyone to protect her, you know? But I don't get the impression that taking that kind of sensible precaution is actually normal for Earth."
"Yeah," said *Hyun-ae. "And I really don't think she wants to think of herself as vulnerable, so even if it was something people normally did, I don't think she would. I kind of think she's lonely, don't you?"
"Well, duh," said *Mute. "Any woman would get lonely stuck alone in space with no one to talk to for so long." She looked around the kitchen. There was not much to it -- what she had seen of the tiny kitchen in the White Princess had seemed better-stocked and more complete.
"Aw, I think she talks to that dispatch guy sometimes," said *Hyun-ae, fiddling with an appliance *Mute didn't recognize.
"Please, that's not the kind of talk I was thinking of," said *Mute. "He's a guy." She pinged *Hyun-ae's appliance with an identification query, and it said it was an EZEat 6000 edible matter re-arranger, with a library of 12 recipes! 12 recipes did not seem like a lot to *Mute, but then, she'd never eaten before.
"Oh really? What kind of talk were you thinking of?" asked *Hyun-ae, with a mischevious grin. "But you're right, she doesn't seem to be into the guys so much."
"*Hyun-ae! That is not what I meant," said *Mute. "I just meant he'd probably find her conversation kind of trivial, you know? He's got important things to do. He's Dispatch Control! That sounds pretty important."
"If you say so," said *Hyun-ae, rolling her eyes and concentrating on the EZEat.
"Um." *Mute felt awkward now, but she did kind of have to thank *Hyun-ae for putting up with her weird emotional outburst. "So, uh. Thanks for ...before?"
"Sure," said *Hyun-ae, as if it was nothing at all. "...Seriously, she doesn't have tea?" She frowned at the EZEat.
"And thanks for the binyeo," said *Mute. "I. It reminded me of Queen Jae-hwa, and... and then it reminded me of Queen Eun-a..."
*Hyun-ae looked guiltily at her then, rather than continuing to fiddle with the EZEat. "I'm sorry, I picked it because it made me think of Jae-hwa too... probably that wasn't the best choice --"
"No, no, it was really sweet of you," said *Mute. "And I am not hitting on you when I say this, okay? Like, I really mean this, this is real stuff I'm feeling."
*Hyun-ae grinned. "Oh, *Mute."
"What? Shut up."
"I didn't say anything," she said. She glowered at the EZEat. "Okay, I think we're going to have to... um. Get a tea recipe from somewhere else. She mostly has different kinds of something called pizza, which I think I had once when I was little. I don't think you can drink it."
"You said 'Oh, *Mute.' And you smirked!" *Mute insisted.
"That's not anything," said *Hyun-ae. "That's two words and a facial expression." Unfazed, she kept fiddling with the useless kitchen appliance of the future. "Hm. It's stupid that you should have to buy a recipe for tea. It's tea, it practically makes itself, doesn't it?"
"Yeah but you definitely meant something annoying by it," said *Mute. "This thing where you pretend like you don't like me, it's really getting ridiculous, okay? Like, I'm a little weirded out, who wouldn't be? But I'm just going to have to accept it, and your tsundere act isn't really helping."
Finally, *Hyun-ae looked up from the stupid EZEat, but she appeared to be having a hard time keeping a straight face now. "Oh, *Mute."
"Stop saying that!"
"Or what?" *Hyun-ae asked. Oh god, she was flirting. With *Mute. And not even denying it anymore. Arguably, that last part was exactly what *Mute had just asked her to do.
But what happened next, *Mute could only attribute to some kind of bizarre internal error, and it was totally not *Mute's fault even though, later on, she definitely remembered consciously choosing to grab *Hyun-ae by the shirt and grumble "Would you shut up?" before kissing her frantically. And then, she had to admit, she had put her other hand on *Hyun-ae's shoulder, to steady herself. And steadying herself was definitely also the reason she was pressed up against *Hyun-ae like this; it definitely had nothing to do with --
"Well, uh, I guess it's a good thing you two are getting along so well," came the Investigator's voice from the living room, and *Mute realized that they had left the cameras on and given how close they were to the doorway she could totally see into the kitchen and now she was going to think that *Mute was somehow attracted to *Hyun-ae even though everything they had done was probably *Hyun-ae's fault anyway.
But, for reasons of damage control, *Mute sprang away from *Hyun-ae and hurried into the living room, trying desperately to put a brave face on despite all of this nonsense. "Hi, yes, I, um, what can we help you with?" she asked. Already she was shaping up to be a lousy wife, even given the non-ideal circumstances.
The Investigator looked from *Mute to *Hyun-ae. "Well, I just wanted to let you know this case might take me a lot longer than I thought it would? Ugh. I'm so sorry. It'd just be a lot easier if I didn't have to interview a bunch of people, it's a lot easier when they just have a pile of fragmentary data for me to figure out, and part of it is these people are all really suspicious, and kind of assholes, which is par for the course, but there's a lot of interpersonal baggage here and and of course they all know what I'm here for so they're being really guarded, and -- I. Sorry, I'm rambling. Point is, I'll probably be here for at least a week."
"Do you want our help?" *Hyun-ae asked, brightly.
"Um. Well," said the Investigator, looking awkward. "I mean, you've only just arrived on Earth, I feel like it'd be asking way too much. I was mostly just worried about the two of you. If you need me to --"
*Mute cut her off. "I think we're going to be fine. Only. We were kind of looking for tea? *Hyun-ae wants to remember what it tastes like," she said as though that'd been all they were doing.
"Oh! Oh, of course you do," said the Investigator, looking sympathetic. "Don't bother with the food moleculator, the hot water it makes is always gross. There's an electric kettle under the sink, and I think there's tea in one of the cupboards, but it's really old and probably not what you're used to. I mostly drink coffee," she said, apologetically. "...Actually, while I'm here, why don't you check to make sure it's still working?" she asked *Hyun-ae. "It's summer in this hemisphere, I haven't used the kettle in a while."
"Oh, sure," she said, and hurried off to do so. As soon as she was gone, the Investigator looked at *Mute.
"Are you all right?" she asked. *Mute was kind of insulted at how worried she sounded.
"Of course I'm all right!" *Mute said.
"I just mean... if you don't want to do something..."
"That is really, uh, not the problem," admitted *Mute, blushing. She assumed the Investigator would be amused, as *Hyun-ae had been, but instead she looked sympathetic. "Um. When you get back can we, like, have them check to make sure the hardshell is working right? And not giving me any weird ideas?"
"Of course," said the Investigator. "Weird ideas like bad ideas, or weird ideas like..." *Mute put her face in her hands, embarrassed at the idea of actually voicing them. "Okay, yeah, I get what you mean," the Investigator said, to *Mute's relief.
Finally, *Mute admitted, "I'm just kind of worried they're my weird ideas. And like, I know you think I'm horrible and want me to just be like you and --"
"*Mute. We disagree on a lot of things, but I do not think you're horrible. And I certainly don't want you to be just like me. I'm not going to tell you how to think, okay? ...Look, I'm going to forward a message I received on the trip back to Earth about a therapist who specializes in AIs. She said she'd be willing to speak to you earlier, and if you need to talk to her about anything... she's a hell of a lot better at talking to people than I am."
"A therapist?" *Mute asked.
"It's... sort of like having a doctor for your mind. Someone to talk to. Someone who won't judge you and has worked with people who have... similar problems, I bet," said the Investigator.
"Wow, I'm really glad he's worked with so many AIs who are total failures at protecting whole ships full of people," said *Mute, because the idea that this doctor knew people with similar problems was kind of absurd.
"You would be very surprised," said the Investigator. "And the doctor's female."
"Of course she is," grumbled *Mute. "On the other hand, I guess that kind of makes sense for someone who's supposed to listen to you talk. Men probably have better things to do with their time."
The Investigator sighed. "Please take care of yourself, *Mute? I --"
"*Mute!" shouted *Hyun-ae from the kitchen, "I think the tea is ready!"
"Well, I'd better go," said the Investigator. "I hope you like tea."
"Okay. Yeah," said *Mute. "Um. And thanks."
The Investigator smiled before her face vanished from the screen.
* * *
Tea was strange, *Mute decided. For comparison's sake, she and *Hyun-ae had tasted water, which was a bit like experiencing the first few milliseconds after a maintenance cycle on a quiet day -- everything was clean and quiet. Tea, though... tea was more like watching the familiar movement of people in the square and being able to catch the one pickpocket who was ruining it for everyone with just one security guard. Add a little sugar, and it was like having a nice conversation with the guard afterwards about how well his sons were doing in studying for their exams.
"Okay, tea is pretty good," she conceded to *Hyun-ae.
"I'm so glad!" said *Hyun-ae. "What should we try next? Cake, maybe?"
"I feel like tea is plenty for now," said *Mute. "Isn't cake really sweet? I don't know, I feel like I don't want to go too fast, taste is a really weird sense anyway."
"Yeah, I guess we should savor it," said *Hyun-ae. "I'm being greedy."
"No, no, if you want cake it's fine, I just... think one thing is enough to process," said *Mute.
"Okay," said *Hyun-ae. "Um. Are we going to talk about how you kissed me?"
*Mute examined the leaves at the bottom of her teacup very closely. It was a much more comfortable alternative than meeting *Hyun-ae's eyes.
"I guess not," said *Hyun-ae. "...Because I really liked it, but I guess you didn't, so um that's completely fine with me! I just kind of wanted to see how you felt."
There was a long silence before *Mute mumbled "I really liked it too."
"Oh! Oh, well, that's... that's great!" said *Hyun-ae. "...You don't seem happy about it, though."
"Ngh," said *Mute, pushing her teacup away so she could fold her arms on the table and hide her face in them.
She felt *Hyun-ae touch her hand. "Hey. Maybe it's like cake? Maybe you'd rather start with tea."
*Mute looked up at her, skeptically. "...And in this context, tea would be...?"
"Well, you liked it when I did your hair," said *Hyun-ae. "Or, um. Hugs?"
"Hugs are okay too," said *Mute. Or rather, she thought hugs would probably be okay. She'd survived that first one, after all.
"Great! Ooh, I know what we should do," said *Hyun-ae. "We can sit on the couch and watch dramas and... and cuddle?"
"...Dramas?" *Mute asked, worriedly.
"Yeah!" said *Hyun-ae.
"Are you trying to turn me into you?" *Mute asked. "Dramas? Really?"
"Oh come on, it'll be fun," said *Hyun-ae. "If you don't like dramas you get to pick what we do next."
"Fine," said *Mute, rolling her eyes. She was pretty sure she'd hate dramas.
* * *
The next day found them watching, rapt, as the main couple secretly met up one starry night after a whole season of trials and tribulations. *Hyun-ae had her arm around *Mute, and she was resting her head on *Hyun-ae's shoulder. It was probably not totally platonic, but it was really nice without being terrifying, and she had mostly stopped feeling so guilty about enjoying it, because there were way more important things going on.
"Do you think she'll finally tell him she's been secretly working for the aliens the whole time?" asked *Mute. "Because, like, it's not like she doesn't have a good reason. They have her dad!"
"I don't know," said *Hyun-ae. "Because if he tells her he's a ghost first, she might not trust him with that, since she's had so many bad experiences with ghosts. Also, there's another season, so --"
"...yeah, they can't get together yet, you're right," said *Mute. "Still, ugh. If only Jo hadn't been such a jerk, they could totally have been together like, three episodes ago."
"Ja-hye, I have something to tell you," said the hero. "I... I..."
The screen went black.
"What?" said *Mute.
Then the Investigator's face reappeared. "Hey, guys! Um, hope I'm not interrupting anything, I see the cameras are off again, you guys doing okay?"
"We're fine!" *Mute said, irritably.
"You don't sound fine," said the Investigator.
"We were watching dramas," said *Hyun-ae. "How's your investigation?"
"Uh. So that's the problem? It's not really going anywhere," she said. "Mainly I have a lot of stuff to just read through, and part of it is that these people are seriously uncooperative. So I don't know how long I'll be, but I think a week was being kind of optimistic. I'm not sure if we're dealing with a regular love triangle, a quasi-incestuous love triangle, or this lady just likes blowing things up, but either way it's a complete mess."
"Um," said *Hyun-ae. "Can we help?"
"Would you be okay with that?" She looked uncertain. "I mean, I work well alone usually, this job just has... a lot of people doing crazy things for no apparent reason, and I am not good with people, but you two... one of them's a former anthropologist, I'm willing to bet he'd be more willing to talk to you, *Mute, than he is to me, because you're not from this world and that's kind of his thing. And the other one's a computer science professor. I frankly don't think she'll be willing to talk to anyone, ever, but I thought we could sneak you into a prospective student group and find out a little bit about her from some of her students. There's bound to be campus gossip I'm missing out on by being a nosy old lady, and it's probably mostly wildly inaccurate, but it couldn't hurt to find out."
"Um, you know, I kind of didn't mean that when I called you an old lady," said *Mute. "Or, well, I did, but --"
"You called her an old lady?" *Hyun-ae asked.
"Never mind that," said *Mute. "Um. Like, I'm not saying I would normally do this just for fun, but I'm pretty good at finding out the juicy stuff, you know? So yeah, I'm game for this."
"Yeah, I bet *Mute would be great at that kind of thing, it sounds like she always knew what everyone was getting up to on the ship. And she could teach me all her tricks! And we could be like spies!"
"I don't really have any tricks," said *Mute. "I mean, you make it sound like I'm some kind of horrible catty gossip."
"Well, but you said --"
"Ugh, never mind, *Hyun-ae," said *Mute. "Way to totally misinterpret me!"
"But -- oh, whatever," said *Hyun-ae. "Anyway, it would just be kind of fun working together to solve a ~mystery again!"
*Mute rolled her eyes at this, but she smiled a little too. It was just so *Hyun-ae. "Yeah, I guess we're both in."
"Great," said the Investigator, looking really relieved. "I'm sending the travel info now. I'll see you in a little bit!" The screen went blank.
Before they packed everything up, she and *Hyun-ae watched the last few minutes of the first half of Space Spy. He confessed to being a ghost, she ran off crying, and the credits started.
And as *Hyun-ae left to make another pot of tea, *Mute had to admit to herself that the future was probably going to be okay.