RO watched Contender stride in front of her, the refined figure of the other Tactical Doll a fine balance between stately and gentle, at ease and on guard. RO usually didn’t care much for being in such close proximity to Dolls so much taller than her (which was most of them), but for some reason it was different with Contender. The commanding presence that suffused the air around Contender put RO at ease instead of self-conscious like she normally would have. The feeling reminded her a little of those easy times in between missions during her training days, when they hadn’t yet been assigned their next mission h and there was nothing to do but listen to Makarov’s aimless grumbling. Secure, that was the word.
Perhaps on instinct, RO found herself concentrating on the way Contender’s hand rested gently on her Imprinted weapon, the precise decorative stitching on the edge of her sleeve brushing back and forth, back and forth over the wooden stock. Contender was the only of the three of them allowed to bring her firearm to the event. RO had protested a little about that to the Commander (although not nearly as loudly or as childishly as SOP-II), but the order was firm. The mission was exclusively diplomatic, and as such, only Contender had clearance to carry her namesake weapon. These were the advantages, RO supposed, of being the Commander’s adjutant.
To RO’s right, SOP-II was eagerly scanning the small bunches of other Tactical Dolls making their way in the same direction as the Griffin trio, as if she expected to see Sangvis Ferri units infiltrating the event. But they were hundreds of miles from the frontline where the war against SF had petered out to an uneasy stalemate. There would be no enemies to be on guard against here. And, somehow, that made RO uneasy all over again.
“I know this isn’t the mission either of you would have preferred,” came Contender’s voice. “But we will arrive shortly, so please make sure you’re focused on the task at hand.”
SOP-II was too preoccupied to listen, but RO’s head swiveled immediately to where Contender had halted her even pace. But as soon as she saw that she had RO’s attention, the other T-Doll immediately turned to keep walking.
“I myself can’t say I’m entirely at ease, so I can sympathize with you a little. And I do remember my first diplomatic mission away from the battlefield. Rest assured, though. You’re here because the Commander trusts you. So I, too, trust you’ll be able to fulfill our objectives well.”
RO couldn’t help but smile at the easy composure in Contender’s words. She was truly an elite T-Doll in every sense of the word. Despite having a standard-issue IOP neural cloud, nothing like the 16Lab monstrosity through which RO’s thoughts whirled, others sometimes called Contender a T-Doll who had transcended the limits of her programming. Some even said that she’d never actually been killed in a fight—and that, despite the fact that she of course could back up her neural cloud, she never had needed to use one of those back-ups. They were only rumors, but RO thought they might be true. After all, there was a reason the Commander trusted Contender so completely.
“Thank you, Miss Contender. SOP-II and I will do our best, but we’ll be counting on your guidance.”
The reassuring smile Contender gave briefly over her shoulder filled RO with something that might have been peace for a moment. RO thought she might be about to say to dispense with the formalities, but instead the silver-haired T-Doll turned her head straight ahead as they, at last, arrived at the grand stone archway that lead into to the ballroom, the goldenrod light of the dozens of lamps inside bathing the underside of the curved blocks and spilling out on to the street and trickling into the dark blue shadows of the late evening. The evergreen bushes that ran up and down the walk in either direction reminded RO of a mission she’d once run.
It hadn’t been one she’d particularly enjoyed. She remembered ST AR-15 standing beside a bush just like those, a blank expression that meant disapproval on her face. Even she, RO thought, would be better at this mission than me. But, of course, there was no AR-15 around anymore to grumble about dealing with things that RO didn’t want to. RO wondered if Contender had to deal with such inconvenient errant thoughts like that inside her orderly, disciplined neural cloud.
“There are so many T-Dolls here!” SOP-II chirped, her first words in five minutes and forty-three second startling RO out of her ever-grimmer reflections. “And they’re all from different PMCs like Griffin! I had no idea there were so many. And yet somehow we’re the only ones lucky enough to get to be fighting Sangvis Ferri!”
It was a relief to smile at SOP-II’s one-track mind. As calming a presence as Contender was for RO, few things were better than SOP-II’s sunny enthusiasm.
“Well, some of them are from security contractors, which is a bit different,” Contender said. “If you ask them about it, though, I think most of them would say they’re the lucky ones for having peaceful assignments guarding human settlements far away from our dirty work.”
“Sounds boring,” said SOP-II. “RO, don’t you think so?”
“Well… I guess if I’m a Tactical Doll, I’d rather be serving my purpose in action, rather than just standing around guarding humans,” RO said. She thought she meant that, but she wasn’t sure.
“I’m with you, Miss RO,” Contender said. RO hadn’t been expecting that. “We’re just civilian Dolls with Imprints, but I feel better knowing we’re making ourselves useful on the battlefield. It wouldn’t feel right to have a weapon but never use it.”
Or to be a weapon, RO thought.
The question came from a Doll with tired eyes, a red sash hanging from the elbow of an arm that was holding up a digital tablet. It looked like it belonged on her shoulder, but RO didn’t think it was appropriate to point that out.
“Griffin and Kryuger PMC,” said Contender. “Here’s our authorization chip.”
The Doll took the chip from Contender’s palm, slotting it into the tablet. Her motions were slow and inefficient, clearly not those of a Tactical Doll. She asked Contender some polite questions as the authorization processed—“Slow connection out here in the aristocratic district,” the Doll explained, so RO turned to SOP-II, who was staring tactlessly through the gap between Contender and the reception Doll into the building.
“You don’t seem nervous,” RO said. “Or are you so distracted by all the new sights that you don’t have time to be nervous?”
“What’s there to be nervous about?” SOP-II replied, craning her head to the right and stretching to her toes. “All we have to do is eat food, talk with the other T-Dolls, and then go back home to report to the Commander. It’s not as nice as hearing SF scum scream while tearing them apart, but I think it might be fun!”
RO noticed the reception Doll’s eyes dart away from her tablet screen.
“You’re cleared,” the Doll said to Contender. Then, in an awkwardly formal tone, she said, “It’s an honor to have such distinguished guests joining us. Please enjoy the evening.”
“Thank you,” Contender said. “Miss RO, Miss Sopmod, we’ll find a table first to report to Miss Kalina. Then we’ll proceed with our activities as planned.”
“Roger, Miss Contender. SOP-II, we’re going inside.” RO grabbed the hem of SOP-II’s dress just as her companion was about to head off in the other direction, her attention captured by who knew what.
“Finally!” SOP-II said, instantly whirling around. “That took forever!” RO let go of SOP-II’s dress as quickly as she’d grabbed it, following more slowly as SOP-II bounded down the stairs two at a time after Contender. RO smiled to herself, thinking how odd it was to see SOP-II in such fancy clothes. Before they’d boarded to airlift that delivered them from the base to the airport for their long-distance flight, Carcano M1891 had been fighting with with SOP-II, trying to get her to agree to wear an ankle-length ballroom gown. But SOP-II hated how constricting such a long dress was, so Cano had eventually relented and given her a dress that dropped to just below her knees to wear instead. As far as RO was concerned, the shorter dress suited SOP-II better anyways.
But if it was practicality you wanted, Contender’s outfit was even better. Despite the transparent purple shawl she carried over one arm, the tailored pants and fitted jacket that made up the base of her outfit allowed a range of motion that RO envied. Although they weren’t expecting to engage in any sort of combat, if a battle did break out, RO thought Contender would be able to respond just as well as she would in her normal operations clothes. Cano had told RO that Contender and the Commander referred to the outfit as the “Opera Ghost,” but the story behind the name seemed to be one only the two of them knew.
For her part, RO was thankful her internal gyroscope and balancing algorithm were so adaptable, as the heeled shoes Cano had forced her into seemed designed to be the least practical footwear possible. She didn’t even want to think about the rest of the outfit, but Cano had assured her that it was necessary to wear such things for an event like this. The one part of the whole deal that RO found herself a little fond of, though, were the ornamental accessories that Cano had used to replace her normal silver hair ribbons. Made up of a tight ring of matte silver stones that Cano informed her were pearls—although RO didn’t know why she’d need to know the name of such obviously gratuitous materials—they were surprisingly effective at holding her hair together. But the most unnecessary part, and the part that RO couldn’t help admiring most, were the two golden silhouettes of butterflies that were attached to the front. When she’d left Cano’s dorm to go report to the Commander, more than one of her fellow Griffin T-Dolls had stopped her along the way to admire them. Even G36 has paused a moment to look at them, giving a short, “They look nice on you,” before heading off to her next duty.
By the time RO had picked her way through the swelling crowd to the table that Contender had selected to be their base of operations, each step establishing stability before moving on to the next with more caution than probably needed, Contender had finished reporting to Kalina and SOP-II had already gone to and returned from one of the food tables with a truly mortifying pile of hors d’oeuvres, toothpicks and at least three or four forks poking out of the mess in a way that distinctly reminded RO of one of SOP-II’s post-battle mounds of SF parts. The table was set toward the left side of the room, about midway between the back and the front doors. It put the Griffin contingent near the middle of the action, the ballroom floor where the largest number of Dolls were congregating, but was just isolated enough to give them space. It was a choice, RO thought, befitting their status as “first-tier representatives.”
“You really aren’t comfortable in civilian clothes, are you?” Contender said as RO arrived and collapsed ungracefully onto the cocktail table. She knew it wasn’t up to the standards of decorum they’d been briefed on, but for a moment she didn’t want to care. Contender didn’t say anything more, and the caring silence made RO feel just a bit of an emotion she knew might activate the inconvenient tear ducts Persica had for some reason chosen to install in her body. It wasn’t that she was really unhappy with the mission, but it was all so foreign and that little bit of kindness, somehow different from the normal grace Contender always exhibited, inexplicably reminded her of Sten patting her on the shoulder after a Squad Palette mission hadn’t quite gone to plan.
“I just feel out of place. I’m a Tactical Doll, after all. I’m trained for combat. This kind of mission… I’m really not suited to it.”
“The same could be said for Miss Sopmod,” Contender said with a light laugh, looking over to their oblivious companion, who had built a respectably sized Dinergate model out of cheese cubes and was now in the process of deconstructing it. “But I think that may be why the Commander asked you to go. That, and the fact that most of our other comrades at Griffin have far too many, ah, eccentricities to handle a situation like this where some level of interpersonal tact is required. You’re sensible, Miss RO. That makes you much better suited for this than you think.”
“I, um,” RO said, feeling the swell of that emotion growing even stronger. “Thanks, Miss Contender. I’ll do my best.”
Contender seemed to understand the look on RO’s face. “Oh, I’m sorry, Miss RO. The Commander tells me that 99% of the time I say the right thing for the situation, but that the 1% of the time I don’t, my good intentions can have the opposite effect.”
“Oh, it’s not–” RO started, but Contender patted her shoulder and began to walk away.
“I know. But I think for the moment you’d rather just be able to carry out the mission, right? We can talk more on the way home. I’ll grab some ice cream while you collect yourself.. When I return we’ll address our plan of attack. And if you feel up to it, you might ask Miss Sopmod to just eat her food.” With that, Contender turned and bowed in apology to the two T-Dolls she’d stopped in front of to finish her thought, and then dove into the crowd, which had doubled in size in the last few minutes.
RO pushed herself up until she was standing straight again. With Contender’s strong presence gone, and with it the sense of stability, she felt more on edge. But that actually felt more natural, as if a little bit of the battlefield she always carried with her had returned.
“Are you okay, RO? What were you and the adjutant talking about?” SOP-II had finished deconstructing the cheese Dinergate, and was now talking through a mouthful of strawberries she’s just eaten. The childishness that RO always found so pleasant was there, but there was a slight layer of seriousness in her voice—some of the maturity recent events had left in her neural cloud. RO still wasn’t sure if that was something she liked, or if it felt like even SOP-II was drifting away, just as AR-15, M16, and M4 had.
“There’s nothing to worry about, SOP-II,” RO said. “When Miss Contender returns, she wants to talk about our strategy for the rest of the night.”
“What strategy do we need for a mission like this?” said SOP-II. “Although I guess I haven’t actually talked to anyone since we got here. They just had so many kind of foods, RO! We don’t have anything like this on the frontlines!”
RO smiled. “I’ll make sure to have you show me some of it before we leave.”
“There’s really a lot! You won’t believe it!” And just like that, SOP-II’s attention was pulled back to the plate, which was starting to look more orderly as RO’s companion sorted the piles around the edge of the plate—cheeses here, fruits there, biscuits there. RO watched her, noticing perhaps for the first time that there was indeed some organizing logic behind SOP-II’s seemingly chaotic neural cloud. She’d wished before for the simplicity of SOP-II’s usually untroubled thought patterns. Persica had never mentioned how difficult it was for organizing logic to fight its way through the overwhelming strength of an emotion module.
“Well, aren’t you the cutest little thing!”
For the first time since they’d arrived at the table, a voice RO didn’t recognize cut through the general buzz of the room’s hundreds of conversations. RO pulled her attention away from SOP-II, who appeared to have noticed the speaker and already dismissed her as not of interest, to see two T-Dolls coming from the direction Contender had left in almost at their table. One appeared to be a handgun type, as her weapon—Jericho 941, RO’s neural cloud database informed her—was clearly visible in an odd holster attached to a cane. The other, the one whose lilting tones had cut through the air moments before, had no weapon, and RO had no idea who she might be.
The two Dolls arrived at the table, the taller, unknown one setting down a glass of what RO thought looked like champagne—although of course it wasn’t.
“The colors of your dress suit you just perfectly, and those little baubles in your hair are adorable,” she said in a voice that exuded an entirely different kind of confidence than Contender’s. It seemed almost hot. “I wish our organization had the budget to allow for more than one style of ballroom attire. I’m afraid the kind of mature look that works for me just doesn’t suit Jericho here at all.”
“I know this is primarily a social engagement,” the Doll called Jericho said. “But I wish you’d display a great level of tact when introducing us to new acquaintances.”
“Hello,” said RO. “I’m RO635. And you are?”
“I’m DSR-50, dear. And this, as you’ve just heard, is Jericho.”
RO stepped back from the table, and dipped into a very restrained version of the gesture Springfield had instructed her on for greeting others at the party. RO had already forgotten the name. Although Springfield had told her the proper way to—what was it again?—to perform the action was to bow your head as you bent your knees, RO couldn’t bring herself to sacrifice her field of vision. Especially not with DSR-50’s gaze, more than a little unnecessarily intense, directed her way. She was sure she’d managed nothing like the delicate motion Springfield had displayed in her demonstrations.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said, feeling as stiff as the Doll at the entrance had sounded. The little laugh DSR-50 made at the pose, her hand, bent easily at the wrist, coming up to cover her mouth, was not the reaction RO had hoped for. She straightened quickly, but realized she had no idea what to do with her hands without her weapon to hold.
“You really are adorable!” DSR exclaimed, which caused Jericho to let out an exasperated sigh. “What organization are you here on behalf of?”
Wishing that she had something, even a glass filled with that bubbling liquid DSR was sipping on as she waited for an answer, in her hands, RO said, “Griffin and Kryuger Private Military Contractor. We’re currently engaged with Sangvis Ferri containment in Area S.”
“Griffin, huh.” It was Jericho who responded, but RO noticed DSR had hastily put her glass down just before she’d been about to take a sip. “I wouldn’t have expected your company to have time to send representatives to the Contractor Evening Festa, but I guess you being here means that things are calm at the moment.”
“A cute Doll like her…” RO heard DSR say quietly. The intensity of her eyes had dimmed.
“I’m afraid I can’t discuss our operational status with non-Griffin personnel,” RO said. “But our Commander felt it this was an important opportunity for us to develop relationships with other contractors. The Commander’s adjutant is with us as well, although she went somewhere a minute ago.”
“Wow, RO! You sounded so official just now!” SOP-II’s attention had finally been drawn away from the plate, and she was looking at DSR-50 and Jericho. “I’m M4 SOPMOD II, also with Griffin!” She repeated the gesture RO had just made, executing it, RO noted regretfully, with a rather admirable level of proficiency. “You’re going to need to practice your curtsy with Springfield when we get back, RO,” SOP-II said. “You looked so weird when you did it!”
“Well, we are the representatives from Korsch Alpha Security Services,” Jericho said. “I appreciate your time, Miss RO635 and Miss SOPMOD II. Perhaps we’ll see you around the party later this evening.” With that, Jericho bowed slightly and began to walk away.
“Likewise,” DSR-50 said. “It was so lovely to meet both of you. Do enjoy your time here away from the frontline.” Then she was gone as well. RO noticed that she’d left her unfinished glass of whatever it was on their table.
“Aww,” SOP-II said. “They left so quick! We didn’t even have a chance to make friends with them.”
“Maybe you scared them off with your cheese and biscuits armory,” RO teased, although she wasn’t sure what to make of the two T-Dolls’ flash-bang visit herself.
“Hey!” SOP-II said. “What’s there to be scared of? I know the other Dolls at Griffin say it’s freaky when I bring back SF parts, but this is just food! Maybe it was your bad curtsy that made them leave, RO!”
RO laughed, feeling more of the tension that had been weighing on her lift. “Now who’s being mean, SOP-II? We don’t need to curtsy on the battlefield!”
“Without our weapons,” said SOP-II cheerily. “The eti-whatever Springfield taught us is the only thing we have to fight. Hey, look! There’s Contender!”
There might have been something profound in SOP-II’s observation, but RO forgot about it the moment she saw Contender. The Commander’s adjutant, her hands empty of the promised ice cream, was walking back toward the table with her line of sight pointed at the floor, her usual head-swiveling attentiveness gone.
“Miss Contender?” RO asked as the other T-Doll stopped at the table.
“Is something wrong?” SOP-II chimed in. So even she’d noticed that something was off.
Contender almost seemed surprised to see them there. “Oh, Miss RO, Miss Sopmod, there you are. I think… weren’t we… yes, that’s right. Our strategy for the evening. We need to discuss it.”
“Hold on, Miss Contender,” RO said. “It doesn’t seem like you’ve discovered a threat, but you’re not yourself. What’s going on? SOP-II, go see if you can find a sparkling water or something for Miss Contender.”
“Roger that!” SOP-II said before speeding away. RO didn’t have any idea if SOP-II even knew where the drinks were, but it was already too late to stop her. Contender had put a heavy elbow onto the cocktail table, her hand on her forehead and her usually impeccable posture suddenly compromised as she bent, leaning into the table’s support.
“Miss Contender?” RO was starting to feel an emotion she hadn’t felt since she and SOP-II had faced three Sangvis Ringleaders at once, since she’d heard that M4A1, who had been supposed to take over the echelon command when they rendezvoused, had disappeared. But, at the same time, it was a different version of that emotion, because as uncomfortable as this evening was, it still wasn’t a battlefield. That thought gave her a push.
“Miss Contender, please.” RO said. “You’re in command of this mission, and as your deputy I can’t assist you unless I know what’s going on!”
At the word “command,” Contender looked up at RO, although she didn’t pull away from the table. “I’m sorry, Miss RO. It’s really nothing serious. It’s merely a personal matter. I’m sorry for causing you alarm.”
“A personal matter?”
“Yes.” Contender paused, then sighed. “While I was away, I met a Doll who I knew before I joined Griffin. Before I become a Tactical Doll, actually.”
“Oh,” said RO. “But if she’s here tonight that must mean she’s…”
“Also a Tactical Doll now, yes,” Contender finished. “It was just a bit of a shock for me to see her. I’ll be fine in a moment. Thank you for sending Miss Sopmod to find me a drink, although she’s only been to the food tables so I don’t know if she has any idea where the drinks are.”
“I thought of that, too,” RO said. Contender had finally straightened up from the table, but she didn’t look ready to tackle the mission, which they really hadn’t even started yet. It was startling to see her like this. It was one thing to walk by the monitoring room late at night, seeing the relaxed way she smiled as she and the Commander talked back and forth over mission plans, their steaming cups of coffee and tea, respectively, set on top of the small ice cream cooler in the corner of the room. That version of Contender, even though she was so different from the composed yet warm persona she presented to all the Dolls around Griffin, still seemed congruent with the image of Contender, the Commander’s adjutant. The casual Contender of those scenes was less in control, but in a way that spoke of comfort. The Contender who was now staring into the middle distance of the ballroom seemed similarly unconscious of herself, but her discomfort was palpable. It reminded RO altogether too much of herself.
“Miss Contender, if you don’t mind, I’d be happy to talk with you about it. You were so kind to me earlier and…” RO trailed off, unsure of what to say next, already afraid she’d gone beyond a second-in-command’s boundaries—although this didn’t really seem to be a situation where battlefield chains of command applied.
Contender was silent for a moment, then said. “It seems silly as a Doll to say this, but that Doll I just met, I guess she’s called QBU-88 now, was like my childhood friend. Obviously, we didn’t have a childhood in the human sense, but we were manufactured around the same time and were employed together at a temporary residence facility for humans called a hotel. She did a lot of the housecleaning, and I performed welcome duties for humans during their arrivals and departures. We were both learning what it meant to be a Doll in human society, and we helped each other out a lot.”
RO couldn’t help but think back to her training with Squad Palette—a bunch of misfits in a world of elite fighters, working alongside one another to figure out how to live as Tactical Dolls, as human creations designed to fight and obey orders.
“But the hotel was too close the frontlines of some conflict or another,” Contender continued. “And so it was closed down. The owners, who originally commissioned QBU and I, gave us a choice of where we could go next.”
Contender paused, and RO looked up at the adjutant’s fine features, which somehow seemed even more angular than normal, as if cut by the memory.
“QBU and I had an argument, or maybe it was more of a fight, the night before we had to give our decisions. I wanted to go to Griffin, to do something to get to root causes of the disruption of this world, while she wanted to go to a housecleaning Doll service far away from the frontlines. She said we should focus on giving comfort to humans, that fixing the world’s problems were more than any Doll could hope to solve. Maybe it was just a difference in our neural clouds, but I don’t think either of us believed until that moment that our thinking could ever be so in opposition. In some ways, it felt like we were be made to disagree against our own wills.”
“Anyways, we each made our decision, and we went our separate ways. I honestly never expected to see her again. So, like I said, it was a bit of a shock to run into her here. And as a Tactical Doll, of all things!”
For some reason, there was only one question in RO’s neural cloud. “Does the Commander know?”
Contender shrugged and smiled, shaking her head as she carefully pulled off her left hand’s vibrant purple glove. “I hadn’t thought of her for years, much less since I was assigned to the Commander. I don’t know if this makes sense to a T-Doll as new as yourself, Miss RO, but not all of us like to think about our pasts. When we live in a state of constant battle, sometimes the present is all that seems worth thinking about.”
The Oath Ring on Contender’s finger threw a brief flash of light from the glowing electric lanterns above as she reached up to adjust her single lock of purple hair, which had fallen into her face, tucking it back behind her ear.
“Thank you, Miss RO. It was helpful to talk through all that.” Her hand descended from her face to rest on top of RO’s head. Even if it was Contender, RO didn’t care to be patted on the head, but it didn’t seem the time to complain, and the adjutant withdrew her hand quickly anyways.
“Are you going to try to find her and talk to her?” RO asked.
“It looks like she’s already found me,” Contender said. And, indeed, coming out of the crowd, the directness of her route toward Contender and RO unmistakable, was a short T-Doll with elaborate yet somehow modest stacks of curls on either side of her head. She was short, shorter even than RO, but there was a solidity to the way she carried herself that belied her stature and nonthreatening looks. She and Contender shared that aura of internal certainty, the same as M16A1. Of course, just that one recollection of M16 brought with it a barrage of questions. What would M16 have done in this situation? Would she have done better than RO? Would she have adapted better to the strange non-mission objective of supporting the commanding Tactical Doll? But answers like that were impossible for RO to puzzle out. If she knew what M16 would have done, she would have done that herself.
Contender was flexing her fingers through the glove, now back on her hand, as QBU-88 arrived, planted her hands on her hips, and looked up.
“An old friend who says hello and then immediately vanishes into the crowd has some explaining to do!” the Doll said, her shining yellow eyes focused solely on the purple ones of her long-time friend. “If I didn’t know you better, Contender, I’d say you were trying to avoid me.”
“Miss RO, this is QBU-88,” Contender said. “QBU, Miss RO635 is a colleague of mine at Griffin. And I wasn’t trying to avoid you. I—I was just surprised to see you, and needed a moment to collect myself.”
RO couldn’t tell if that was entirely true or not, but it seemed to satisfy the other T-Doll, who sighed, but with amusement rather than exasperation.
“You’ve always been like that, Contender. So I guess I can forgive you for leaving me right in front of my squad as if I’d just said something unspeakably rude to you.”
“I’m sorry,” Contender replied. “I didn’t even realize that the others with you were representatives from your organization. I just, well…”
“It’s important to keep your neural cloud tidy, just as it is your room,” said QBU. “Like I said, it’s okay. But I would like to introduce you to them properly. Miss RO, if you’ll excuse us.”
“Of course,” RO started, but she didn’t get a chance to say that she needed to got look for SOP-II before Contender, her voice soft but clear, interrupted.
“Why did you become a Tactical Doll, QBU?”
Amidst the unintelligible drone of hundreds of Doll voices, designed to mimic the unique, unpronounceable nuances of human speech through manufactured voice modules, Contender’s question carved out a space for itself. The question left still unsaid, the what-if, rushed through the spoken one as if it had mass and volume and trajectory, as if Contender’s words were merely an aiming scope to direct the true bullet. With the strands of purple hair that she’d just readjusted once again falling into her face, she looked now like herself once again. But it was yet another side. Not the Contender of the battlefield or the monitoring room or even of the kind words of a few minutes ago, but a different aspect of her personality emerging from the nexus of her neural cloud, revealing itself in this moment for what RO thought might be the first time.
QBU-88’s assured gaze faltered. The yellow eyes, a moment ago direct and honest, slowly drifted away from Contender’s face.
“It wasn’t because I agreed with you,” she said very softly. “But… I guess I just wanted to see if there was more I could do as Doll.” A pause. “Or maybe… just as me.”
“You never were one for waiting on humans’ needs,” said Contender.
QBU’s head jerked back towards Contender, who RO saw was now smiling, just a little. “That’s not—!“
“What’s happening, RO?” came SOP-II’s voice quietly from her left. “Who’s that shorty talking to the Commander’s adjutant?”
So SOP-II did sometimes have the capacity for subtlety and reading the situation, even if she rarely used it! It wouldn’t have been surprising for her to come crashing into the middle of the conversation, cheerfully announcing that she had found the drinks. And, in fact, SOP-II was indeed clutching a collection of glasses bottles filled with bubbling liquids, far more than she, RO, and Contender could have actually drank alone. RO took a bottle with a label that said it contained grape-flavored water and, placing it gently on the table next to Contender, took SOP-II’s arm and gently led her away while saying, “That’s QBU-88. Contender said they used to know each other back before she joined Griffin. They haven’t see each other since then. I think they have a lot to say to each other.”
RO looked over her shoulder as they headed away from the table. She’d lost track of the conversation when SOP-II had returned, but QBU had finally relaxed her commanding posture and come closer to Contender. The adjutant, for her part, was still smiling. That, RO was sure, was a good sign.
“Oh,” said SOP-II. “They’re just like me, then.”
She was starting down at the collection of bottles still in her arms, the short diamond-shaped earrings with an inset red gem swinging back and forth from the momentum of her sudden stop. RO stopped, too.
“Yeah. When M4 and AR-15 and M16 come back… I have so much I want to say to them. I’m not sure I really know what, exactly, but… We were always together before, so it feels like it’s been a really long time…”
Once again, they were out of place. All around, T-Dolls were chatting, drinking and eating like it was natural, some even moving rapidly around in coordinated motions and patterns that they all seemed to know—not like echelons moving in sync on the battlefield, but with small steps and precise gestures timed to the music that RO was just now noticing. They lived such different lives, these other T-Dolls. Away from the battlefield, away from never-ending search operations for missing friends, away everything that made up RO’s world. And their mission was the talk to them and identify organizations that might be good partners for Griffin. Somehow…
“I know, SOP-II. I do, too,” RO said. She didn’t know what else to say besides that. “Do you want to go outside into the gardens?”
SOP-II didn’t say anything for a moment. Then she said, “I think I got more drinks than I needed, RO.”
RO smiled. “Well, you are good at collecting things. I’m surprised the Commander doesn’t have you go on logistics missions more often. We can put them back before we go outside. Give me some of them.”
“Okay,” SOP-II said, holding out her arms so RO could grab a few of the bottles off the top of the pile. Having made the transfer, RO started heading in the direction where it made the most sense for the drinks to be located. SOP-II followed behind, so RO figured she was going the right way.
“I’m glad you’re on this mission with me.”
They replaced the bottles on the table from which SOP-II had taken them, RO keenly aware of the disapproving look of the attendant Doll who looked identical to the one they’d met at the front door. Thankfully, though, no T-Dolls were there at the moment. If there had been, RO thought she would have rather carried the drinks out to the gardens and and drank them all herself. SOP-II, already back to her usual happy self, was of course oblivious to the obvious faux pas they were making. As RO carefully placed the last of her bottles down, SOP-II had already run to the door—Cano had given her flats instead of shoes with heels, RO noted with some envy—and was peering out into the deep blue and purples of the night.
Together, they stepped outside. The air had cooled, though not a great deal, since they’d been dropped off by the automated taxi service that had taken them from the airport to the event. A slight breeze, coming in periodic shifts, had also sprung up. RO instinctively reached up to keep her hair from blowing into her face, but the extra weight of the golden butterfly ornament kept it in position better than her usual hair ties did. The garden area started with a tiled staging area or patio, potted plants scatted about in some kind of pattern, but one imprecise enough to not be immediately evident. The edge of the tiles ended in a broad arc to the lawn, where a maze of tall bushes began. Small groups of two or three T-Dolls were going in one entrance, while others where coming out the other, giving the impression that the traffic was intended to be one way. Visibility, RO thought, would be terrible in there.
Fortunately, the maze didn’t seem to be of interest to SOP-II, whose attention had been captured by a swinging bench off to the right. RO carefully navigated the short sequence of steps down to the tiles from the main ballroom, joining SOP-II on the bench, which the other T-Doll had started swinging with her legs.
“This is fun, RO!” SOP-II said. “We should ask the Commander to get one of these for the base!”
“Sounds like a good way to get the Commander in trouble with Miss Kalina.”
“Then we just need to convince Kalina that it’s a good idea! Say it can help improve… improve… um…”
“Efficiency by boosting morale, maybe?”
“Yeah! You’re so smart, RO! You’ll have to come with me to convince Kalina and the Commander.”
RO stared up into the night sky, the mention of the Commander reminding her that, other that their conversation with DSR-50 and Jericho, they really, really hadn’t gotten started on the mission—and she wasn’t even sure that short interaction counted. Although Contender had said they were a ways from the city where the majority of the humans in this area resided, there was still a lot of air pollution that made it hard to see the stars. The sky seemed kind of lonely with only the moon shining down, as if it had lost the other members of its team tasked with making the night brighter. Of course, things weren’t any better near the frontlines since they were working in areas near where there had been a lot more Collapse Fluid released. Clearer skies just weren’t something that Tactical Dolls got to see. So instead RO leaned her head back and focused on the bar of the swinging bench, watching it move back and forth and back and forth across the moon as SOP-II kicked her legs.
Still, it was nice here. RO’s hearing modules were picking up all kinds of wildlife sounds—crickets and birds and frogs. Now those were something that the frontlines couldn’t offer, the war-blasted terrain and pockets of contamination making the land inhospitable to most forms of life. Or all forms of life? In any case, the steady undercurrent of noise was peaceful in a way that the buzzing chatter of Doll voices, still present but more distant now that they were outside, wasn’t. Maybe it was just because those voices were a reminder of the mission that RO was realizing she really didn’t want to do. It was a lot easier to drag your feet carrying out orders when the consequences were so much farther away than an SF barrage coming your way.
But still, it was a mission. And there were T-Dolls around like Contender’s friend QBU-88. So maybe RO had just worked herself up too much, when all she needed to do was talk with the other Dolls here, maybe asking a few questions about their combat engagements or how they felt about their Commanders to assess how well their organizations might be able to work with Griffin. It still seemed like a mission that was silly to assign to T-Dolls when the human commanders could just talk to each other, but as Contender had said in the debriefing, this was how all the non-frontline organizations did things.
“Watcha thinking about, RO?” she heard SOP-II ask. She really had spent a lot of time this evening wrapped up in her thoughts.
“I was just thinking that it was time that we got started on the mission for real. Contender can probably handle herself just fine since she’s more used to this kind of thing than us, so if you and I stick together, having two squads can make it more efficient to talk to as many groups as we can while we’re here.”
“Okay!” SOP-II said, stilling her legs to let the bench stop swinging. “Can I let you take the lead, though? I know the Commander told us what to do, but it wasn’t about fighting SF so I didn’t really listen that well. And I’m just not that good at talking stuff…”
“That’s fine,” said RO. “You can chime in when you think of something to say. Just try not to get to enthusiastic talking about tearing up Sangvis Dolls. The T-Dolls here aren’t from the frontlines, so they’re probably not used to that kind of thing.”
Not even the other T-Dolls back at Griffin were either.
“Got it!” said SOP-II, in a voice that made RO wonder if that was really the case.
RO stood up, brushing down the frilled golden fabric of the front of her dress to straighten it out.
“Hey. Are you two the T-Dolls from Griffin?”
The question, although not exactly threatening, was distinctly unfriendly, a tone which even SOP-II, who bounded off the bench with her feet set in a combat-ready position, could pick up on. A group of three T-Dolls were coming down the steps from the nearer of the two entrances to the building. They were each dressed in short jackets, ankle-length tapered dress pants, and short heels, clearly part of the same organization.
“I’m RO635 of Griffin and Kryuger PMC, and this is M4 SOPMOD II, of the same,” said RO in a voice more steady than she expected. “And you are?”
“I’m Type 03, Automatic Rifle Imprint, with A-TEC Security Industries. The other two are with me.” The other two T-Dolls flanked Type 03 when she stopped in front of RO, arms crossed.
“I’m not familiar with A-TEC,” said RO. She didn’t bother to try to curtsy again. “But it’s good to meet you. We’re here to discuss collaboration possibilities with other contracting organizations, so–”
“I know what you’re here for,” the other Doll said sharply. “We don’t need your pleasantries.”
“Hey!” SOP-II pushed by RO toward Type 03, halting only because an anticipating RO had grasped her Sangvis arm. “Don’t talk to RO like that!”
“SOP-II, hang on!” RO said, trying to calculate the best way to manage if SOP-II made another lunge without not losing her balance because of her shoes. She really should have asked Cano for flats.
“Well, that’s not very professional,” Type 03 said. “Are all Dolls from the frontline so aggressive?”
“What do you want?” RO asked, having briefly tried to figure out a more diplomatic way of phrasing the question but giving up as soon as she’d started. SOP-II wasn’t the only one with a short temper, and the responsibility RO felt to be the one who had herself under control was already losing the battle in her neural cloud. “Or are you just here to make us feel unwelcome?”
That was a pretty good line, RO thought. A few of the other T-Dolls out on the patio were taking notice of the brewing confrontation, although none of them seemed interested in joining in on either side.
“I suppose you could call it that, though I hardly expected battle-hardened frontliners to be so… sensitive.”
“What’s your problem? We don’t even know you!” cried SOP-II. Thankfully, she didn’t make another lunge forward.
“You probably don’t care,” said Type 03, “Being ignorant little Dolls who just follow commands, but everyone at A-TEC and everyone here, as a matter of fact, know you frontliners at Griffin only get the best equipment and maintenance facilities because your Commanders have convinced the government that you’re the only ones who can handle Sangvis Ferri. Meanwhile, the rest of us are stuck with outdated tech and patchwork repair jobs.”
“What repair jobs?!” said SOP-II. “It’s not like you guys ever do any real fi– eugh! RO, that hurt!”
RO yanked on SOP-II’s arm, sensing that her finished sentence might have consequences beyond working up the antagonistic T-Doll in front of them. Most of the Dolls here didn’t see any regular combat, but they didn’t really have control over that. But if it seemed like RO and SOP-II were looking down on them because of that, it could make their mission for the night a lot more difficult.
“Let me handle this, SOP-II,” RO said, her emotion module cooling thanks to SOP-II’s outrage. Then, to Type 03 she said, “I don’t really know what you want us to do about that. If you have a problem with your facilities and equipment, it seems like you should be taking that up with your management instead of yelling at us when we’re just here to talk to other Tactical Dolls on behalf of our Commander.”
“Must be nice to be able to fall back on pretty words like that,” sneered Type 03. “I don’t think you really understand the real problem.”
“What’s going on out here?”
At the stop of the steps, Contender had appeared along with a few other composed looking T-Dolls. Apparently, the verbal scuffle had attracted the attention of some of the Dolls inside. But RO didn’t want to just rely on Contender to sort this out. After all, she had a command module, didn’t she? She led her own echelons and fought SF. She was trusted by the Commander, too. Maybe she was out of her element here with this party and the unusual clothes and the unusual mission, but she was still a 16Lab Tactical Doll. She was still RO635, a member of Griffin.
“Actually,” RO said. “I think I do understand. Come on, SOP-II. We frontline T-Dolls know how to stick to our assigned missions.”
And with that, RO walked past the A-TEC Dolls, up the stairs toward Contender. SOP-II stuck out her tongue as they went, but didn’t say anything more.
“What was that about?” Contender asked, looking behind RO to where the other Dolls had turned to glare up after them. “That didn’t look like a friendly conversation you were having.”
“They had a problem with Griffin, and so they had a problem with us. But I don’t really think it’s worth our time to deal with them anymore. We’ve still got to finish the mission.” RO looked into the ballroom, where the party, entirely unaffected by the row that had just happened, was still going on.
“That seems like an accurate assessment, Miss RO,” Contender said. “As a matter of fact fact, I do have a few T-Dolls I’d like to introduce to you and SOP-II.”
An accurate assessment. Those were nice words, but they didn’t sound like the encouragement Contender usually gave. They sounded different. Not proud exactly, but… well, whatever the word for it was, it wasn’t coming up out of RO’s vocabulary database, and it didn’t really matter anyways. It still felt good. It was almost like getting praised by the Commander, except with Contender there was the knowledge that the adjutant, herself used to making battlefield reports and following orders, knew what it was like to make a decision on the spot, amidst bullets and gunfire and artillery, about what to do. She wasn’t a stranger to not knowing exactly what the right answer was, but making the best decision you could anyways. So “a good assessment” meant something more. It maybe meant something like, “Good job.”
And maybe more than anything, the ability to communicate something like that was why the Commander trusted Contender above all the other T-Dolls on the base. Because she could make you feel like you knew what you were doing, like you were the member of the AR Team your weird neural cloud said you were. RO thought about one briefing session, not long ago, where the Commander had been sick and Contender had handled explaining the mission instead. It hadn’t been the same as the Commander being there, but RO remembered leaving the base walking behind Contender and feeling like, for once, all the T-Dolls under her command were definitely going to come back. Just before that, as RO was doing her final ammo check at the base gates, she’d seen the Commander, coughing and leaning weakly against the railings at the top of the platform at the front of the staging grounds, looking down at Contender and saying something. The smile and glowing expression on Contender’s face in that moment was like nothing RO had seen a Tactical Doll make before, like she was lit from the inside by the trust the Commander had in her.
It wasn’t quite the same, but somehow RO felt a little bit like that right now—along with admiration that Contender could give others the same kind of internal confidence that the Commander gave her. If she could have that kind of confidence all the time… she’d be a little more like M16.
“You were super cool, RO!” SOP-II was saying. “I was so mad I was ready to tear that jerk’s arms off and and put them on backwards, but you were so calm! I can’t believe she came looking for us just to be so mean!”
“Well, we don’t need to worry about it,” RO said, shaking herself out of her thoughts. “Let’s just focus on carrying out this mission as best we can.”
The rest of the night went by in a blur of faces, questions, and quick conversations between the three Griffin T-Dolls about those they met—assessing, considering, recording, getting ready to report. When the grand clock above the entrance rang 23:00, RO felt they must have talked to every T-Doll in the building.
She and SOP-II were sharing the final scoops of a well-deserved bowl of ice cream Contender had brought them as the Dolls began to leave. Toward the center of the room, she saw Contender with QBU-88 again—the two friends had made time for several more conversations throughout the night—each of them now looking fully relaxed in the other’s presence. It made RO wonder if she’d be able to talk like that with M16 and AR-15 when they found them again.
Finally, Contender and QBU waved goodbye, the yellow-eyed T-Doll rejoining her companions, and Contender made her way across the emptying floor to RO and SOP-II.
“Sorry for making you wait for me, Miss RO, Miss SOP-II,” Contender said. “I hope you enjoyed the ice cream. I found it delicious, myself.”
“It’s okay, Miss Contender,” RO responded. “I’m glad that you and Miss QBU were able to catch up tonight.”
“The ice cream was great!” said SOP-II, raising her spoon high above her head as if she was pumping her fist. “I’m definitely asking Miss Kalin if we can have it more often in the cafe!”
“If you ask Springfield, you can get ice cream any time, you know,” Contender said. “Or,” she added, a slight smile playing over her lips. “Maybe that’s just for me. Our ride should be here soon, so let’s head out.”
With that, Contender began walking toward the door. RO followed, leaving SOP-II to gulp down the last few bites of the ice cream while yelling after them, “Hey, that’s not fair, Miss Contender! And wait for me!”
As they emerged back out into the night air, the drive now lit with an array of automated taxi headlights and a large bonfire in the middle of the circular yard around which the cars cycled, RO found herself, for the first time since they’d left the base, with a strangely quiet neural cloud. It might have been the wildlife noises, which seemed to have grown even louder since she and SOP-II had listened to them out on the swinging bench, but not having any thoughts was kind of nice. Maybe this was what it was like to be SOP-II most of the time—neural cloud empty, no thoughts to be troubled by.
“I know I’ve given you a lot of encouragement this evening, Miss RO,” Contender said. “But you and SOP-II really did do an excellent job. I’m sure the Commander’s going to be very pleased with our mission report when we return.”
“And you know how happy it makes Miss Contender when the Commander is pleased!” chirped SOP-II from behind them. RO looked from the cobbled ground she was trying her best to navigate—once again wishing she had SOP-II’s flats—to see Contender looking away, the back of her right hand pressed against her lips. The tips of her ears seemed like they might have even gone a little red, although it was hard to be sure without PEQs. But still, that really was a side of Contender that only the Commander could bring out, RO thought, smiling.
“Hey , SOP-II! Don’t tease Miss Contender when she’s praising me!”
“She was praising me, too! I heard her! She said I did an excellent job!”
Contender coughed, clearing her throat. “Well, don’t let it go to your heads, you two. There’s always the next mission.”
Then she strode out in front of RO and SOP-II, her prim, straight back cutting a fine silhouette against the night sky. RO followed with SOP-II by her side, her friend continuing to chatter aimlessly about Contender’s praise.
This was alright. Despite the dresses and the shoes, the uncomfortable mission and everything else, RO somehow felt that she’d maybe moved just a little bit closer to being the Tactical Doll she was supposed to be. Just a little closer to M4. Even if it was just one step.
The crickets sang around them as their automated taxi arrived in front of them and the doors hissed open. Time to go home.