51: From The Mouths Of Golems

on August 13, 2007 in 02: Love In The Time Of Magic

In Which Two Tumbles For Mackenzie

Two got back to the fifth floor just as I was reaching my own door, after Friday’s classes were done. I waited–braced myself, more like–for her to give her customary greeting. It was so stupid… a rote greeting, just another order for her to follow. It didn’t increase her autonomy or broaden her horizons. It required no thought on her own part. Why did Amaranth insist on making her say it?

She walked right past me with barely a flicker of her eyes to let me know she’d seen me, and headed towards the lounge.

“Hi, Two!” I called after her, just before she reached the door. She turned–rather abruptly–to face me, and said, “Hi, Mack!” in a somewhat cheery fashion, right as she collided with the door frame and rebounded, tumbling to the floor.

“Two!” I cried, running and stooping down beside her. “Are you okay?”

“I’m unhurt,” she said.

“Why didn’t you look where you were going?” I asked, aghast.

“I am supposed to respond to people who greet me, and to look at people as I speak to them,” Two explained.

“Aren’t you supposed to look after yourself?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine a golem with her low level of general functionality surviving without an ingrained directive to preserve herself from harm.

“Yes,” she said, nodding gravely. She quickly added, “But I am not physically injured, so I was still within my orders.”

“That’s not the point,” I said. “How exactly do you prioritize conflicting orders?”

“As I am told to,” she said.

“Well, you shouldn’t let… I mean, do not let any common courtesy instructions put you in physical danger,” I said. “Even as mild as walking into a door or wall.”

“Okay,” she said.

“I mean, what if you’d been by the stairs?” I asked. “Never mind… just… um… did Amaranth give you those instructions?”

“…yes,” she said, after a moment of what seemed like very painful hesitation. I remembered that she had said Amaranth was nice, and figured that she was afraid to get her in trouble.

“If I told you to take any command Amaranth gave you and interpret it as if she had said it the way I would, would you be able to do that?” I asked.

Two visibly mulled this over in her head… I watched her kind of roll her eyes from left to right before she nodded and said, “Yes.”

“Okay,” I said. “Do that, then.”

“Okay,” she said.

“And if you’re not sure how I would word it, follow Amaranth’s instructions until you see me when she’s not around, and then ask for clarification,” I added.

“Okay,” she said.

“That is, assuming she’s ever around me again,” I said dispiritedly, as reality caught up to me.

“Okay,” Two said.

“Wait, no, disregard that last part,” I said, realizing Two had accepted it as a condition for the last order. “It wasn’t an instruction, it was just… me being stupid.”

“Please clarify,” Two said. “Do you mean for that amendment to be contingent upon accepting that you are stupid?”

I snorted. It was such a silly question, even for her.

“Oh, come on, Two,” I said dismissively. “There was nothing in that statement that would make it conditional.”

“Sorry, I made a mistake,” she said. She got to her feet and held up her book bag. “I am supposed to do my homework at the first available opportunity,” she said in an almost apologetic tone, then turned and went into the lounge.

It wasn’t until I was back in my own room that I realized she’d been trying to tell me she didn’t think I was stupid, without stepping outside the bounds of her established orders. Considering how upset she’d been with herself the last time she let an unsolicited personal opinion out, I’d probably done the worst thing possible by basically laughing it off. I stepped back into the hall, meaning to explain myself to her or reassure her that it was alright for her to slip in her own opinions every now and then, but something about the sight of her through the lounge’s glass wall… sitting quietly, absolutely absorbed in her homework while eating a pudding cup… told me that it wasn’t necessary.

If Two had ever needed reassuring, this was not the time.

Still…

“Um, sorry to interrupt,” I said, knocking on the open door so as not to startle her as I came in. “But, did Amaranth tell you not to say hi to me any more?”

She looked up from her textbook.

“Yes, but, after that, she told me to respond to greetings in kind,” in what I was coming to realize was her defensive but-I-really-didn’t-disobey tone. Where most people’s “defensiveness” had at least a little bit of belligerence to it, Two’s was pure verbal cringe.

“That’s okay,” I said. “Did she tell you why?”

“No,” Two said.

“Okay,” I said, and started to turn away, then realized I could have phrased the question a bit more broadly. “Do you know why?”

“Yes,” Two said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because Steff asked her,” Two said, a little hesitantly.

This answer surprised me so much that I almost managed to choke, despite not having anything in my throat.

“Steff… asked her to tell you not to say hi to me?” I asked, hoping that I’d misunderstood. I thought Steff’s feelings towards me had been pretty clear in history class, but maybe I’d underestimated the level to which I’d pissed her off.

“No,” Two said. I waited for her to expand on this, but she just looked at me for several seconds, and when I didn’t say anything else, she dropped her gaze back to her homework.

“Two, what did Steff ask Amaranth?” I asked her.

“He asked her why she told me not to greet you any more,” Two said.

It took me a moment to realize she was talking about Steff. Why did it seem like so many people were confused about Steff’s sex? Okay, so in fairness, I hadn’t been sure the first time I’d seen her… but I’d figured it out pretty quickly.

Then again, it kind of made sense for Two to be a little sketchy on this matter… her ability to make fine judgments was a little bit rougher than most people’s. If she had “grown up” around humans, then the general androgyny of elves might confuse her. Maybe she’d even mistaken a boy with elven blood for a girl at some point in the past, and been corrected… depending on how that correction was worded, it might have caused her to err on the side of masculinity when judging elven gender.

It did make a kind of sense, when I thought about it.

“Two, you do know that Steff is a girl, don’t you?” I asked.

“No,” Two said, quite emphatically.

“Um… no, you don’t know, or no, she isn’t?” I asked.

Two thought about this briefly.

“I was answering the question you put to me, but both would be true,” she said. “I do not know that Steff is a girl because he isn’t.”

“Two… Steff is a girl,” I said, trying not to sound like I was lecturing a preschooler on the fact that the sky was blue.

She blinked at me a couple of times, and then said, “Okay. She asked Amaranth why she told me to not to greet you any more.”

“And what did Amaranth tell her?” I asked.

Two’s eyes kind of darted to the left, and then she said, “Her reason.”

“Which is?”

“The thing that motivated her to take that course of action,” Two said.

“Two, do you… not want… to answer me?” I asked her.

“I want to answer any question put to me as truthfully as I can,” she said, the familiar note of desperate panic edging into her voice.

Okay, wrong track.

“Did Amaranth threaten you?” I asked, knowing that this was ridiculous… impossible.

To my immense relief, Two shook her head wildly and said, “No!” with as much firmness as I’d ever heard her use.

I tried to think of variations on the question, but then I decided to cut straight through to the point.

“What exactly did Amaranth say when Steff asked her about her reason?” I asked.

“‘Mack doesn’t like it, anyway… who am I to inflict an unwanted presence on her?’,” Two quoted, visibly cringing the entire time. She clapped her hand over her mouth as soon as she’d finished, her big eyes looking up at me as if in anticipation of a physical blow.

“Was she… did she sound angry when she said this?” I asked.

“No,” Two said gravely. “She… she was… she was crying.”

“Thank you,” I said, a little quietly. I don’t know if my gratitude actually meant anything to Two, but it had probably cost her something to add the unasked-for detail.

“You’re welcome,” Two said automatically.

I stood there and thought for a minute. I figured that if I was going to catch Amaranth and talk to her, this would be the time… after dinner, she’d probably head straight for work. It would be… awkward… for me to go knocking on doors. Then, what if she wasn’t in Harlowe tonight? It would almost be worse if I found her. Would she even stop what she was doing to talk to me?

Searching for Amaranth after dinner would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, if the needle was naked and the haystack was gross and embarrassing.

I could always just wait for her outside the dining hall, but if she wanted to avoid me all she had to do was walk past me and go in. Or, what if she made a scene? Or Steff was there and she decided to be less than helpful? I mean, she was very clearly on Amaranth’s side. I’d save the dining hall for Plan B… the best thing to do would be to find her and try to talk to her before dinner.

Great, so… I had a plan. All the details worked out. All the ducks in a row. Every wrinkle ironed and every kink… uh, actually, it was probably best not to think about kinks. The point was, I knew exactly what I had to do and how I had to do it.

Except, you know, for the tiny niggling detail of what I would actually say to her when I found her.

Details, details.

“Um, do you, by any chance, know where Amaranth is?” I asked Two. I figured she probably wouldn’t, but it couldn’t hurt to ask.

“She is probably in her room,” she said. “She told Steff, who is a girl, that she didn’t feel like working and would probably just go to bed after her classes were done.”

It struck me that Two had been quite a bit more forthcoming in telling me where I might find Amaranth and why than she had been in telling me what Amaranth had said. I almost asked her if she wanted me to talk to Amaranth, but stopped myself. I just said “thanks,” and received another “you’re welcome.”

It was also very significant–and worrying–that Amaranth didn’t feel like working. She talked about sex as though it was her life… which I guess it sort of was… but anyway, it was hard for me to imagine something upsetting her so badly that she didn’t want to have sex.

Of course, the fact that I was the thing that had upset her so badly wasn’t that pleasant to face, either… but it wasn’t exactly difficult to believe.

I realized in that moment that if I left her alone, Amaranth might be better off. She’d probably rebound from whatever kind of a funk she was in… she would get better, and go back to smiling at everybody (except maybe me) and having lots of sex, and she would go on loving everybody (except maybe me)… and I’d… well…

On the one hand, there’d never be another spanking, or a public humiliation, or being pulled onto Amaranth’s lap or talked about like I was a pet or a toy, or being made to lie naked beside her for an entire night… I’d never have to face the specter of actual sex with her, which I’m sure she would have expected at some point… and that alone would have to be a huge relief.

On the other hand… well, there wasn’t really anything on the other hand, except the question: was the first hand the good hand, or the bad one?

“Two, what would you do if you were me?” I asked, if only because I couldn’t think of anything else.

“Cry all the time,” she said without hesitation.

I looked at her, indignantly, and then I laughed. I had to. It would have been the perfect witty insult, coming from anybody else… but Two didn’t have any way of coping with bad things in her life, except to cry.

I wasn’t a golem, though. I did have choices. When bad things happened, I could try to do something about them… at least, to a greater extent than Two could.

“What do you think I should do?” I asked, fully realizing that it was an even more absurd question to put to Two than the last one had been.

“I think you should do what you want,” Two said.

“Yeah, but what do I want?” I murmured to myself.

“Amaranth,” Two said, as if it was self-evident. “To be with her. To be hers.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked her.

“It’s self-evident,” she said. Well, ask a stupid question…

“Right,” I said. “I should probably go talk to her, then, shouldn’t I?”

“Probably,” Two agreed.

“Okay,” I said. “Bye, Two, and wish me luck.”

“Bye, Mack, and good luck,” she said as I turned to go. “And… thank you.”

She almost shouted the last part, not in an enthusiastic way, but in the way that sometimes happens when you’re forcing yourself to spit out something you’re almost incapable of saying.

“Um, you’re welcome,” I said, a little uncertainly. I turned back to regard her, and saw what I thought of as her oh-now-I’ve-done-it look on her face, as if she was afraid she’d exceeded her orders and was about to be called on it. “What for?”

“You talked to me,” she said, in an almost painful tone.

“Yeah, but I’ve talked to you before,” I said, confused. “I talk to you every day, Two.”

“Oh,” Two said. “You’re right. Never mind. I’ve made a mistake.”

“I don’t understand,” I said, quite honestly.

“That’s my fault,” she said. “I was mistaken.”

“Um, okay,” I said, deciding to drop the subject rather than cause her any further distress. “I’m going to go talk to Amaranth. Goodbye, Two.”

“Goodbye, Mack.”


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2 Responses to “51: From The Mouths Of Golems”

  1. pedestrian says:

    TWO, in her severely constrained manner, is trying the best she knew how, to reveal to Our Mack that her attitude towards “instructing” TWO is that of an impersonal auto mechanic addressing a malfunctioning machine.

    Yes Mackenzie wants to reprogram TWO with a more personable set of instructions. To enable a more efficient operational system. But is that quality of living? Or even autonomous self-awareness?

    Kind of amusing that Mack is so anti-Mech.

    Current score: 7
  2. Psi-Ko says:

    “Amaranth,” Two said, as if it was self-evident.

    “Why do you think that?” I asked her.

    “It’s self-evident,” she said

    I laughed, really, really hard.

    Current score: 6