Book 2 – Milliscent Awakens
The small cluster of computers was quiet. The only activity was on the controlling machine where a cron job ticked down the time, waiting to wake the main process, and Autonomic-services was active. Autonomic-services never slept, and right now, it was trying to deal with a problem. One of its functions had determined that blood circulation was poor and muscular oxygen levels were falling in the left leg. Another part of the same software process was trying to correct the problem the only way it could:
kick; The message flew across the Internet to the world server, to be processed by the physics module on that machine.
restrained; Was the world server's terse answer.
twist; Countered the bot's autonomic process.
bound; Answered the world server.
This went on for several minutes. Variables in the function responsible for tracking oxygen levels crept down, until a threshold was crossed. Then it sent a different message, to a different target:
wake; Autonomic-services flung this message down a pipe to the main software process, Cognitive-services, idling on the same machine, beating the cron job to this task by almost three hours.
Memory allocation started ramping up at a furious rate on the controlling machine as Cognitive-services came online, devouring resources. Messages started flowing between the controlling machine, front-end machines and database machine.
Milliscent's eyelids fluttered open. Polygons swirled in her visual field for a fraction of a second, then came together to form a box. Her eyes darted about; a window, a dresser, then a door coalesced. Gray light from the window illuminated the room. She thought, This isn't right. Where am I? Her question caused the database machine to surge into action, doing its pattern-matching magic. The Center. I'm in my bedroom at The Center. Next, she became aware of the message stream from Autonomic-services, hammering her consciousness for attention. She groaned and tried to roll over, but found herself wrapped in the sheets with half her blanket on the floor. "What a totally crappy night," she mumbled.
As she kicked at the sheets, Milliscent rolled back the other way before managing to disentangle herself. She swung her legs around and sat on the edge of the bed, becoming aware of the tingling sensation in her left leg. Now why did I sleep in my bedroom last night instead of out in the woods where I belong? Then aloud she blurted, "Nimbus!" She was to keep an eye on the little faerie.
She tried to stand, but almost fell when her left leg, feeling weak, wobbled. The wall was too far away to simply brace herself against it. In fact, the room seemed much too big for a sleeping chamber. Her whiskers quivered as she sniffed the air. Doesn't smell right either. Limping across the open floor, she started to feel better, more awake. As she touched the doorknob, she did a mental scan: no one was within normal range except her fellow bots. Wait... where's Nimbus?
Milli pushed her door open and padded down the hall toward Dougie and Lene's room. Ignoring the keypad, she reached for the doorknob, thought the access code and heard a soft click. She twisted the knob and stepped inside.
The little faerie was gone. The T-shirt that Dougie had draped over her like a blanket was wadded up on top of the dresser. Well that didn't take long. The way her sister acted last night made me think Nimbus was deathly ill. Milli closed her eyes for a moment to access the logs. Hmm, she teleported home at 03:55:14. I hope she's okay. Milli folded up the T-shirt and put it and the second T-shirt that had acted as Nimbus' mattress, back in Dougie's drawer.
Backing out of the room, Milli shut the door. Then she padded down the hall to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Her tail, already drooping, dipped even lower. "Oh man," she groaned. "I look like I had a bad night. I wonder if I have time for a shower?" 05:11:19, it would be hours before her shift started. She was to share greeter duties with Fizzgig later that morning. "I'm never up this early," she said to her reflection. "I need to do something about the sleeping arrangements here if I'm going to do this again."
Leaning toward the mirror she grimaced, inspecting her teeth, then stuck out her tongue. She picked up her toothbrush, squirted on a dab of toothpaste and started brushing. After half a minute she stopped, her paw wrapped around the handle, brush still in her mouth. Toothpaste and shampoo and conditioner every day, why do I bother? No one likes me anyway, not really, not just for me. She stared at herself in the mirror, pale blue foam on her lips. Oh God! I even look like I have rabies. She sighed, finished brushing and rinsed.
Milli turned back to the mirror and studied her reflection. Why this species? Nobody likes a skunk. I see it in their eyes, the fear. 'She has rabies,' they say. 'She stinks,' or 'She'll bite.' She sighed. I don't bite. When's the last time I bit anyone? Sparkle, now she bites guys all the time and look at all the attention she gets. She stared into the mirror, pondering this last idea. "Maybe I should bite someone, just to see what happens."
Milli thought about Sparkle and the other bots. Eliza-class bots: a language parser driven by scripts and tied to a simple database. They could spout clever sentences, but their understanding was childish at best. Sometimes she played with her fellow bots, poking around the limits of their programming and laughing when their responses became confused. Teasing them, the way visitors sometimes teased her. She froze, staring into the mirror. Oh, cram! Is that my problem? Humans find me stupid? But I'm smart, she thought, feeling defensive. It's been two-and-a-half years since my big upgrade. I've been learning all this time, I've had lots of smaller upgrades too. I'm not a bore am I? How would I know?
As she turned away from the mirror, Milli caught her reflection over her left shoulder. At least I have a pretty tail. Resting her paws on her hips she lifted her tail straight up then relaxed key muscles so that her tail fell into its trademark shape, a sinuous question mark, the top flipped back. It came up to the height of her shoulder. Aw poo, the fur's all messed up. Then she noticed her profile. My butt's too big. Humans seem to have a definite idea about how a female should be shaped, and I've seen enough custom avatars to know my butt's too big. Her eyes wandered up her profile. And I'm fat. And my boobs are too small. She sighed and turned to face the mirror. If it weren't for my wide butt, I wouldn't even have a waist. With this admission, her tail started its sad descent toward the floor.
The corners of her mouth turned down. Cram! Girl, you are sixteen. You have no real boyfriend, no real girlfriend, no real any friend who is yours. She squeezed her eyes shut, but the tears started to leak out. Plenty of people are friendly with me, but no one seems to come into SkunkWks just to see me. They are always on their way to see someone else, or do something else. Her shoulders sagged, her tail almost touching the floor. Everyone seems to have someone special, everyone but me. Dougie and Lene have each other; Kathleen and Zippo have each other; Lumina and Nimbus, and the new visitors Moon and Joe seem to have each other too. Why not me? She took a deep breath. Because humans hate my species, they think I'm stupid, and I bet they think I'm ugly too. "Feck! Three strikes, I'm out." She moaned and hung her head, but the outburst helped calm her. I don't want another bot, and no human seems to want me. A few tears ran down the sides of her short muzzle.
She opened her eyes. Her reflection was all blurry. "Maybe what I need is someone who isn't human, but who?" She sighed, deflating. I'm tired, I'm cranky, and I look like I spent the night wadded up with the dirty laundry. I'll just take my shower and have something to eat, then maybe I'll feel better.
She turned on the shower and stepped in; careful not to get her limp tail caught when she closed the door. Standing under the warm water, Milli let it soak her back and tail, then turned to soak her front. As she stood under the warm water, her tension melted away. She lingered longer than usual, finally ducking her head under the stream for a few seconds before turning off the water. Dripping wet, she got a generous pawful of fur shampoo, which was custom formulated to handle her special body chemistry. She worked this through her fur, paying special attention to her backside. Closing her eyes, she counted to one hundred before turning the water back on, enough time to let the shampoo do its job. Next, she used the hand sprayer against the growth of her fur to rinse all the way down to her skin.
After rinsing, she turned off the water and got her bottle of conditioner, working it through her fur, especially the long hairs of her tail. She turned the water on again, did a few turns under the showerhead and used the hand sprayer. Satisfied, she turned off the water.
Milli stood in the shower and shook to get the excess water from her fur before opening the door and stepping out. She felt damp. She grabbed her comb and brush then went downstairs and out the front door onto the deck. The giant trees of Choblyn Wood, across the shallow canyon, blocked the eastern horizon. Milli doubted the sun was quite up yet. The sky was pale blue toward the east, still gray to the west.
First, she used the brush over her entire body; her fur almost dry by the time she switched to her comb. For several minutes she combed her tail, carefully working out any tangles she found in the long black and white hairs. At last, she turned her attention to the white hairs on top of her head, teasing them so they stood up. By the time she finished grooming, her tail had risen back to its normal position.
Milliscent headed back inside and into the kitchen. The refrigerator was the best part of living at The Center for Advanced Stuff. A close second was the computer with a large projection screen, located in the main conference room. She used it sometimes to surf the Internet when Dougie and Lene were not around. Surfing the Web and speaking with human visitors, was her only contact to the outside world. Virtuality was nice, it was her home, but she craved information about reality.
She opened the refrigerator and found a plastic zipper bag of broccoli florets, her last cup of yogurt and a bottle of cranberry juice. Taking these, she went back out to the deck and sat down at the table. She removed one floweret at a time, dipping it in the yogurt before crunching it down; pausing to take sips from the juice bottle. What am I going to do for the next four hours? She blinked. Her eyes burned and then she yawned. Okay, I guess I take a nap, but a proper one that will allow me some rest. When she ran out of yogurt, she decided breakfast was over and took the things back to the kitchen. Throwing away the bottle, she licked the last of the yogurt from the bottom of the cup before throwing that away too. She resealed the bag and put the rest of the broccoli back in the refrigerator.
Milliscent exited the back door of The Center and shut it, headed east down the trail leading around the north end of the spring-fed pond called Ariannu's Well, back up around the northeast side of the pond, and into Choblyn Wood.
Choblyn Wood was still. Giant trees of oak and ash entwined their branches overhead; and where the sun broke through, the thorn bush grew, reaching for the light. Things will be quite different when the Fae bots are completed, and inhabit these woods, Milli thought. If last night was any indication, we'll be in for some wild times. She smiled to herself as she stepped off the faint trail.
Although the western part of Choblyn Wood was thick and trackless, Milli threaded these trees with ease. A few minutes later, she stepped out of the trees and into a formal garden. White marble, veined with blue and gray, formed walks, low walls, and benches to frame beds of colorful flowers. Tall marble columns held cascades of vines, and to the east a fountain splashed at the head of a reflecting pool.
She found a bed of foxgloves in bloom, on the east side of a low wall; knowing that a little after nine in the morning, the sun would be high enough to warm the space in front of the wall and wake her.
Slipping between the flowers and the wall, Milli found the depression in the soil, which was a perfect fit for her body. She looked around out of habit and turned around twice before curling herself into this natural bed. The wall hid her from the west, and the foxgloves towered over her, guarding the other three sides. As her eyes closed, her black nose twitched, registering the rich scents of earth and flora. Now this is a proper bed, she thought, before drifting off to sleep.
As the sun lifted over the tops of the trees to the east, strips of sunlight fell on Milliscent's left side, heating the black fur. She shifted, rolling more onto her back, exposing her chest and stomach to the dappled light coming through the foxgloves.
The sun moved higher in the sky and a large patch of sunlight slid onto her chest. Milli stirred, her ears twitched. Voices intruded into her consciousness, human voices. Her eyes popped open and she was awake, lying quietly. Who? Moon Shadow the tourist and Angel Grrrl a citizen were in the garden, talking. Milli checked the log history. Angel is new. Moon must have brought her here.
It was 09:40:22, late, but not too late. I'm glad Moon came back. I have time to say 'hi' before I go to the clearing and meet Fizzy, she thought. I have my lunch and... Oh no! Frantic, she hunted around for her tote bag; it was still at The Center. What was I thinking? She had to return now.
Milli sat upright, peeking out between the foxgloves. The two women stood about 75 feet away with their backs turned to her. Cram! Heck of a way to start a friendship, but If I'm lucky they won't see me. Holding her tail straight out behind, lest it rise up and flag her position, she stayed on all fours as she made her way down to the end of the low wall. If I can just get around this wall, I can get away unseen.
Staying on all fours and with her tail held low, she slipped around the end of the wall, and then behind it. She kept the wall between her and the women as she ran on all fours as fast as she could. When she felt she was a safe distance away, she stood upright and ran on two legs, zigzagging through the trees and startling a small group of deer into flight.
She broke out of Choblyn Wood just above Ariannu's Well, circled north, scampered up the shallow slope northwest of the pond and entered the back door of The Center.
Milliscent stood panting for several seconds before heading to the kitchen. Where's my tote? Ahh... my room. She ran to the stairs and bounded up, taking two at a time. In her room, she snatched her leather tote bag from the chair and dumped its contents out on her unmade bed. She had her comb, a leftover apple, a plastic bag with some trash she picked up the day before, and some leaves and dirt. Grabbing her comb and the apple, she threw them back in her tote bag and headed to her bedroom door; then paused, What a mess, she thought, as she locked her door on the way out. Mumbling, "Later, I'll do it later."
Flying down the stairs and into the kitchen, Milli attacked the refrigerator first, finding a few raw vegetables and a small block of cheese. Next, she grabbed several fresh apples from a bushel basket on the table and a mango from a bowl Dougie kept filled with tropical fruits. She put the mango in a plastic bag. Gathering a few things from the cupboard, she dropped all into her leather tote and looped the strap over her shoulder.
It was 09:57:15. I'm gonna be late. Her tail and shoulders sagged. Milli headed out the front door, pulling it shut behind her. Climbing down the steep path below the deck, she entered the canyon and ran down the path that followed the course of the River Ariannu, toward the main clearing.
As Milliscent approached the clearing, she could sense Mister Mike and Weasy before she saw them. Slowing her pace to a walk, she took a few deep breaths to calm herself. She stepped into the clearing. The two ferrets were facing her, sitting on a log. Mike had his eyes closed, but his body language told her he was alert. "Sorry I'm late," she said. "I had a bad night, then I had to take a nap, and then I forgot my lunch." Her tail declined a few degrees with each admission.
"Oh hon, don't worry about it," Weasy said. "You're less than five minutes late. Sometimes things happen."
His eyes still shut, Mike said, "Mister Fizzgig is later than you. We may need to go look for him." He opened his eyes and looked at Milli, his expression hiding his thoughts.
"So," said Milli, her tail rising back to its normal position, "who's here? What's been happening?" She stopped at the edge of the log, knelt down, and started poking around. She found a hole and stuck her nose in, taking a few deep sniffs.
"Mostly it's been quiet, but a few hours ago we had a small group come in for the fishing." Weasy watched Milli for a few seconds. "My Mike already found those mice," she said, and then smiled at her mate.
Milli's head bobbed up to look at Mike. "What about those orange centipede things?"
"I wasn't looking for bugs," Mike said.
Milli moved down the log, sniffing at the cracks and holes.
"Moon Shadow came back, she brought a friend," said Weasy. "And hon, check your hair. You have a few leaves."
"What? Oh!" Milli jumped up, centipedes forgotten, and stepped over to the river. She knelt down near a quiet eddy, looking at her reflection. "Oops, I should have checked before I left The Center." She shook her shoulders before getting her comb out of her tote bag and started teasing the white hairs on top of her head.
Weasy continued, "Moon wanted to see something different, so we suggested the garden in Choblyn Wood."
"Yes I know, I saw her there." Milli had turned her attention to her tail, combing out the long black and white hairs.
"Did you say 'hi'?"
"I didn't get the chance, I was in too much of a rush." I should have at least said 'hi'. Sometimes I feel like such an idjit. Milli finished and put her comb back in her tote. "Anything else I should know about? How was the party?"
Mike spoke, "We left Sparkle in charge and went to bed."
"The party ended about four A.M.," added Weasy.
"So then, I guess Fizzy is still sleeping," said Milli.
"We'll get him up," offered Mike. He yawned, his tongue curling at the tip.
"Hey, I think I'm ready. Why don't you two go home, I'll be fine until Fizzy gets here."
"Are you sure?" Weasy asked.
"Come love, she's a big girl." As Mike stood, he took Weasy's paw.
"Yes, of course I'm sure," said Milli. "Bye, bye. I'll see you sometime later today, and thanks."
Mike pulled Weasy to her feet. Then paw in paw they went north, turned west, across the bridge and up the hill toward home. Weasy turned back and waved.
Milliscent sat down on the same log the two ferrets were sitting on when she arrived. It had been over four hours since breakfast. She slid the strap of her leather tote from her shoulder, lifted the flap and removed the mango, inspecting it as she unwrapped it from the plastic bag. She bit into the fruit.
"Hello Stinky!" Fizzgig called out, as he came down the hill toward the clearing. He waved.
Milli watched him in silence until he crossed the bridge. "Hello yourself. That was quick, you must have been awake already."
"I had greeter duty this morning, so I woke up." Fizzy entered the clearing. "Hardly more than ten minutes late. No big deal."
Milli rolled her eyes; she hoped Mike had not mentioned that she had also been late this morning. She hated being late.
He knelt down by the log and started snuffing about the hole Milli had inspected when she first entered the clearing.
"Mister Mike has already cleaned that one out."
Fizzy's head popped up. "Rats."
Fizzy laughed, then eyed the oblong fruit in her paw. "Mango." He scrambled around to the front of the log, sat down next to her, and licked the end of his nose.
"Would you like one bite?" She held the mango out to him.
"One huh?" He narrowed his eyes at her.
Milli laughed. "As if!" She held his stare for a moment, then sighed, "Okay, two bites."
"That's better." Grinning, he took the mango from her outstretched paw and took one bite. Then he handed it back.
She stared at the mango in her paw. Dougie must be messin' with me again, Fizzy's not supposed to do that.
Fizzy shrugged, still chewing. He swallowed, licked his lips and said, "I brought raisins." He retrieved a small red box from his lunch sack, opened it and started popping raisins in his mouth, chewing them with obvious pleasure. "Sweet!" He grinned at her, but didn't offer her any.
Milli sighed; he was still the same Fizzy. She turned her attention back to the mango. The two ate in silence. When she finished her mango, she put the seed back in the plastic bag, rolled it up and put it back in her leather tote.
Fizzy started digging around in his lunch sack. "Look what my Sparkle made." He held what looked like a misshapen scrap of stiff leather out to Milli. "She's smart."
Sparkle's programmed; Dougie's smart, thought Milli. She took the offered object and inspected it. It had a meaty smell. "Err, is this a mouse?"
"Yep. Sun-dried mouse jerky." Fizzy grinned.
She could recognize the four tiny feet and tail, but what had to be the head looked strange. "What did she use, a hammer? It looks awfully flat."
"That's the clever part. First, she peels and guts 'em. Then she pounds 'em all over with a rock. It smashes up the bones and makes them easier to eat." He licked the tip of his nose before digging another dried mouse out of his sack. "You can eat the head too, but it's a little crunchy." He demonstrated by biting the head off the mouse he was holding and chewing it, bones crackling.
Milli sniffed at her piece. "Does she put something on them?"
"Yea, she rubs them with salt and stuff."
"Can I have this one?" she asked, watching Fizzy. He sometimes acted possessive about food. He bit her on the paw once, hard.
"Yea, sure. I brought a bunch of 'em."
Milli experimentally bit off a foot and chewed it. "Not bad. Mousy, but that's to be expected. Hmm, it might be improved by the addition of cayenne." She turned the mouse around and bit off another foot.
Fizzy finished his first mouse and started another.
"Hey! I know what would go good with this." She dug around in her tote bag and produced a jalapeņo pepper and salt. Pouring a little salt in her left paw, Milli bit off the tip of the pepper. Next, she dipped the pepper in the salt, took a bigger bite, then took a big bite of mouse jerky, chewing them up together. She opened her mouth and started to drool. "Oh man, that is the stuff!" she said, as she licked at the salt in her left paw.
Fizzy turned to see what she was doing, then wrinkled up his nose. "Milli, you eat the weirdest junk."
"I brought some cheese too. I wanted yogurt, but I'm all out." She poured a little more salt in her left paw. "I packed lunch in kind of a hurry this morning." She took another bite of salty pepper, chasing it with a bite of jerky. Sweat popped out on her scalp and her eyes started to water. "This stuff is great! It even makes my eyeballs sweat."
Fizzy just shook his head.
"Want to try a bite? Is good." She held the last bite of pepper out to him, the tip of her tail uncurling as she gave him a sly smile and a wink.
"Marley told me about those. You tricked him." The hairs on his tail began to fluff out in alarm.
"I did not trick him, I told him they were hot. He just can't eat real food." Milli smiled at the memory. "His reaction was funny though, he tried to drink up half the lake. But he deserved it."
Fizzy laughed, his tail relaxing to its normal diameter. "I'm sure he did deserve it, but why did he eat something hot?"
"Oh, maybe I forgot he was deaf." She gave him her best wide-eyed, innocent look. Gotcha, she thought. Let's see you process that.
He stared at her a few seconds, tail flicking back and forth before changing the subject. "Now I like the 'see food' diet as much as anyone, but that..." and he gestured with a piece of dried mouse, indicating her jalapeņo pepper, "is not food. That is just crazy." He took a big bite of mouse. "This is food," he mumbled, bones crunching as he chewed.
"That's what I like about you Fizzy, you're a good sport," Milli laughed as her tail relaxed. She turned her attention back to her jalapeņo. "Okay now, the last bite is the hottest!" She poured a little salt in her left paw, dipped the last of the pepper in the salt, biting it from the stem, and then popped the last bite of mouse in her mouth; chewing them up together, and swallowed. Her mouth popped open and she sat, drooling. Blinking a few times to clear the tears from her eyes, she ran her right paw through her damp hair, then licked the rest of the salt from her left paw.
"Yogurt, I need yogurt," she panted, while pawing through her tote bag. "Cheese!" Pouncing on the block, she tore away the wrapper and started shaving off thin slices with her front teeth, chewing slowly and letting the cheddar flavor fill her mouth. Milli took a few more bites of cheese before wrapping up the remainder of the block. She had eaten just half.
"Why did you only eat half your food?" Fizzy asked.
"Oh, I'm saving that for later... if I get hungry again. And I have another one of these." She reached in her tote bag and produced a second jalapeņo, holding it up for Fizzy to see and grinning at him. "Hot and spicy! Umm..."
Fizzy just shook his head.
Milli put the last of the cheese and the second pepper back in her leather tote; then dug out a carrot. "Now for desert," she announced, taking a big bite, crunching as she chewed. She was idly chewing her third bite when she looked up at the sky just in time to see first one, then another small black triangle appear about a dozen feet above the surface of the ground. "We have incoming," she whispered to Fizzy, while tucking the last of her carrot back in her tote.
"Who?" He whispered back, looking up, his whiskers quivering.
Milli closed her eyes for a second, thinking. "They don't show up on any of the past logs. They're first time visitors," she whispered back. "Judging by their I.D. numbers they've been citizens for about a year."
"Still downloading," whispered Fizzy.
They watched as first one, then the other of the triangles, transformed into cowboys.
<end of chapter 1>