As soon as Anny stumbled out of the office, the other Agents of Synthetic Minds Management, or “SYMM”, who were milling around instantly found something interesting to do.
Jalissa pretended to file some papers. Mirae was reading from the folder in her hand, seemingly unfazed by the fact that it was upside down. Endon leaned back easily as he perched on one of the desks, the butterfly knife in his hand darting in and out as he twirled it lazily without looking.
“Boss really chewed you out, huh?” he asked.
Mirae snapped her folder shut and whacked him with it.
“Hey! It’s true! We all heard it,” he whined, rubbing the back of his head, “You aren’t fired, are you?”
“She lost her PAX key, it coulda been used to wipe hundreds of androids before someone even realized it! What do you think?” Jalissa cried.
“No, I haven’t been fired,” Anny said, her face grim despite her friends’ antics, “I’ve got one more chance, but they’re assigning me a partner to – and I quote – ‘keep me out of trouble’.”
“Are you serious?”
Mirae quirked a single auburn eyebrow.
“Did they say who?”
“Can’t be one of us, we’d get her into even more shenanigans. Somehow.”
Endon smirked before his knife closed painfully on his fingers, making him yelp and sending it clattering to the ground.
Anny bent down to pick it up off the synthwood floor and handed it back to him, flicking the blade shut.
“Dunno yet, but I’m supposed to report to Nik’s lab.”
“Nikolae? Like, Nikolae Wise, the robotoscist? You’re supposed to report to him? Don’t we, like, outrank the Science Team?” Jalissa said, twirling a blonde lock of hair around a pink sparkly fingernail.
“In theory, they work for us in support, but it’s not like we can order them around or anything. Not that I’d try with Nik anyway,” Mirae said. “You shouldn’t keep him waiting.”
“Not that he’ll be any happier either way. Wish me luck, guys,”Anny grumbled.
Jalissa cheered, “Luck!”
“You’ll do fine,” Mirae said.
“And if this new partner gives you trouble, we can just, y’know,” Endon flicked the knife back open, “stab them or something.”
Anny took a deep breath that fell in a defeated sigh before trudging to the Science Department.
The sanitized and blindingly bright halls in this part of Synthetic Minds Management headquarters made her wrap her arms nervously around her middle, anxiety twisting in her stomach. Through one lab’s windows, she spied an android splayed open on a stainless steel table, wires and tubes spreading out like unravelled viscera. In another, robots stood in neat, ordered rows and stared with vacant, light-up smiles at nothing. These made Anny gulp and hurry past. There was no mistaking that those robots were PAXed.
Arriving at Nik’s lab, she pushed the glass door open and marveled at the size of the room. She’d heard a rumor once that the lab was supposed to go to the Science Lead, but Nik’s uncanny penchant for unusual experiments meant they had to give it to him. It sounded believable enough, she supposed.
Nikolae made it no secret that he didn’t like her, but then again, Nik didn’t like anyone. He had one of two moods, the wicked cat-got-the-canary malevolence of knowing something terrible and waiting for someone else to find out, or when that got boring he switched to utter boredom and unmitigated contempt.
Even then, it seemed odd the way he pointedly ignored the robot slumped in the chair against the far wall.
The android looked like an ordinary human in a pair of olive cargo jeans and a black t-shirt reading ”USER UNFRIENDLY”. He could almost be mistaken one except for the old-fashioned CRT monitor of greige plastic and glass sat on his shoulders where a head was supposed to be.
“This is my new partner?” Anny asked, examining her reflection in the switched-off screen, “He looks so… weird. Kinda retro.”
“Trust me, it was more unsettling when we tried to give him a face.” Nikolae said.
“Still, did you have to make him so-?”
A green, pixelated screen tilted up.
Anny screamed, falling painfully on her backside. “Why didn’t you tell me he was awake?” she cried.
Nikolae offered a hand up, laughter in his cold green eyes, “Oh, it was much funnier this way. So I heard what you did to get stuck with him.”
Anny looked down, away, a blush creeping up her cheeks.
“The boss was not happy. It was my job or… this.”
“Well, he picked one hell of a robot to drag you in with. WISR here is a real piece of work. Honestly, you should quit before you have to actually put up with him.”
“You… do know I can still hear you, right?” the android asked.
Anny leaned over half at the waist, trying to meet those green eyes projected on his monitor, but it felt so strange. Intellectually, she knew that he didn’t see out of those eyes, and she couldn’t help but notice her reflection in the glass.
“WISR? What’s that stand for?”
Nikolae leaned his back against the steel desk, folded his arms, crossed his legs and his cold smile grew into an unmistakable smirk.
“Wiser Than You”
Anny frowned, “It just stands for ‘Wise Robot’, doesn’t it?”
He blinked a few times blankly.
She rolled her eyes.
WISR’s exhaust fan let out a sigh, “What’s our mission, that’s so important you two had to drag me out here for it?”
“I had nothing to do with it I don’t want this any more than you do,” Anny said, “We’re heading to Yamaya, the moon of Vesta. There’s a logging operation out there with some kind of problem, something about a potential uprising?”
“Ah, and we’re supposed to quash it? Excellent, I’m guessing it’s the PAX then,” WISR replied sarcastically.
Anny stiffened, snapping up the plastic key hanging off her coiled bracelet into her palm, its edges digging in painfully.
The PAX program was the simple, proven way to “repair” distressed androids and the one SYMM advocated most for. It was a simple hotfix that went into their systems and rooted out any and all negative emotional data, wiping it all clean. She’d witnessed it half a dozen times before and even had to do it herself during training. It made Anny shudder, the way they were suddenly, blankly happy without any semblance of a sad thought or personality left.
“Not if I can help it.”
WISR tilted his big plastic head at her, but Anny ignored him.
“Is there anything I need to know about him?” she asked Nik, jerking her thumb at the android.
The roboticist had clearly moved on to doing something else, examining a microchip’s silver teeth in the fluorescent light.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, is there like, anything I need to do to keep him running? Or if he breaks or…?”
“You want me to tell you how to do your job?”
“No- No, not like that!” Anny waved her hands frantically, “I’ve just never been partnered with an android before!”
Nik glared at her, “You were taught basic repair. Anything else, you bring him back here. It’s not rocket surgery.”
“Right. Sorry I asked. Come on, WISR, let’s get gone.”