Finding Middle Ground

Chapter One - Ida

Ida wasn't configured for this kind of crap.

The Organization Too Secret To Know About had put her in this liaison job for a reason. Her default combat software gave her a sort of common ground with the feisty humans who came through here as Middlemen. She could disconnect from HEYDAR and function independently, which had prolonged the lives of several of her meatbags. But that human-like mindset came with some human-like weaknesses, especially that she could only give full attention to one thing at a time.

Ida was in the fourth sub-basement overhauling the core tap when her sensors picked up a truth bomb going off in the main control room. When the perimeters checked out secure, when no other weapons were discharged, she put it down as accidental and kept doing maintenance. She didn't check the internal cameras for almost three-point-two minutes, which was way too late.

305 (xy 2001- ) and 306 (xx, provisional) were standing in the control room almost nose to nose, babbling something about primate pair bonding. Ida swore and keyed the chemical sensors. The airborne pheromone levels were as high as she'd ever recorded, even from 293 (xy 1955-1969) on a Saturday night. Ida shifted visuals to the high ultraviolet spectrum. As she'd expected, provisional 306 was the one with bomb residue all over her hands. Greedy little tramp. That was human females all over; they got a whiff of high-quality donor DNA and they went nuts.

Ida started to key the intercom, but behavioral models projected over eighty percent that interrupting them would worsen the ... what was the term ... sexual tension. "Shake it off," she muttered to herself in English. "Tell her you've got a headache." Ida didn't bother to run the numbers on that scenario.

They held hands. Provisional 306 was in the lead, towing 305 along like a child with a bunch of helium balloons. He had at least three times her combat effectiveness, given size and relative training, but he wasn't using it at all.

"Freaking brainless hose monster," Ida snarled. She couldn't pin down clear definitions for half the words in the English emotional vocabulary, but at least it had the vocabulary. Swearing in binary was never any relief.

Ida did a quick survey of worldwide satellite coverage. Flash floods in Malaysia, political unrest in South America, a Thamarian incursion in Texas that was going to go extinct from fire ant bites before any humans noticed it. Nothing even close to her red-alert parameters. If she triggered a false alarm, 305 would catch her at it. Even though she had his best interests at heart. Same problem with any other distraction, like a call from 306's mother.

"Damned fool." The worst part was that Ida liked 305. Sometimes she nearly forgot he was a meatbag. At the height of a crisis he could react as fast and as optimally as one of her own kind. While at the same time maintaining the high level of secrecy and low percentage of collateral casualties that O2STK seemed to think was so important.

Keeping each Middleman alive wasn't Ida's top priority. It was their job, and their nature, to go into harm's way. Even if it hadn't been, compared to Ida's own lifespan each meatbag was gone in no time. Keeping them happy wasn't her top priority either. Ida had analyzed all the supposed routes to human happiness, from religion to psychoanalysis to wishful thinking. If the humans couldn't figure out themselves how their minds worked, it was out of her hands.

Her priority had to be the mission. Not just the current one, but all the missions in the future. For that she needed a Middleman at the top of his game, backed up by an apprentice who was just as ready if something fatal happened. Ida would have to let them get this out of their systems. With any luck, the inevitable blowup would send 306 storming off, and they'd get a sensible apprentice. Sure, he'll be hurt. All the good ones take things hard. They get over it one way or another.

She turned off the video and audio from the boss's bedroom upstairs. All the upstairs levels, just to be safe. She didn't give the proverbial rat's ass herself, but he was sure to check the records later. Ida didn't need the hassle. Let him make a fool of himself in private. The telemetry from the Middlewatches was more information than Ida wanted anyway.

When he was definitely dozing and 306 pretty near it, Ida sneaked a visual. They'd squeezed together into a one-human-sized bed. At least nothing hairy or wobbly was hanging out of the covers. Ida indulged herself with a short text message. If you hurt him, I'll tear you to pieces. Hell with the laws of robotics; Ida could find a loophole if she tried hard enough. She'd given the floozy more credit than she deserved already, 'if' instead of 'when.'

"It's a deal," the skinny little skank whispered back. Dammit.

Provisional 306 went home after 1.59 hours of napping and 0.245 of earnest hearts-and-flowers conversation. Ida didn't go near her. She put internal surveillance back up, audio only. Sweet Cylon baby Jesus, he was singing to himself. Ida lowered the volume. Usually 305 had the sense to remember he was practically tone deaf.

Almost afraid to look, Ida overlaid the current incident telemetry data and the little tramp's regular code 86's with the whiny musician. She was definitely getting the good stuff this time. That was bad news two ways. It would make it harder to pry 306 loose and get rid of her. Also if 305 was putting his heart into this, he was certain to go all mopey when 306 left. It didn't take more than a second's hesitation for a Middleman to wind up a death date on the wall.

Not Ida's problem, anyway. Middlemen were like bullets. There to be expended, then you get another one.

The noise was alternating between level seven and sub-storage two now, with large-object-moving sounds. Also the freight elevator. Ida gave in to apelike curiosity and cut in the visuals.

He'd opened up the largest room in the living quarters, a corner suite with lots of windows. It already had several smaller pieces of furniture shoved around at random. Now the Middleman had a king-sized mattress on a furniture dolly. Ida hit the intercom. "Real subtle, Ace. That'll charm her socks off."

The expression of goofy enthusiasm -- Ida's idiom generator yielded like a ten-year-old discovering Star Wars movies -- faded into something adult and guarded. "I'll come down, Ida. We need to talk," the Middleman said.

"No kidding." Ida cut communications.

The Middleman came down the stairs without a hair out of place; shirt cuffs straight, tie perfectly centered. Ida looked for defensiveness or guilt that would give her a starting point. Strangely enough she couldn't spot any. "It's a big town," she said. "They've got hotel rooms. They've got hookers."

Ida knew her Middleman. That jab made him so angry that he nearly showed it. A muscle tightened in his jaw; he fought back just as dirty. "Alpha priority order. I don't care what you say to me, but she doesn't deserve this. If you can't speak civilly to Dubbie, don't say anything to her at all."

Bastard primate. And, you used to go days at a time without saying 'me.' "It's a bad idea. It's a bad idea, and it's going to rip you up until you walk in front of a bullet without caring."

"That's my decision to make, not yours."

"Oh, do not try to tell me you've thought this through. Not with your primary head anyway."

Instead of getting angrier, he shrugged. "Probably not. But I see the range of possible consequences, and I'm prepared to take the risk. Ida, you could try being happy for us."

"Don't give me us. She's always getting wild hairs, remember how she yelled at Sensei Ping? She got a look at the pecs, it made her crazy, she just had to bang you because nobody else could. When the novelty wears off she'll be hanging off music-boy's neck again."

He looked at her without hostility, but without the slightest intention of backing down either. "Ida, you're a person. I never forget that. But sometimes you miss things because you aren't a human person. You need to stay out of this."

"She doesn't love you. And she's not good enough."

He tilted his head to one side and nearly smiled. "Does that come from an objective data algorithm? You're going native on me, Ida."

There had been three hundred just like him, and eventually there would be three hundred more. It was important to keep that in mind. "I have a stake in this because it affects the job," Ida said. If... "When you die in the line of duty, mister, it had better be necessary. Not getting your head blown off because you're staring at her tits. I've just got you trained like I like, I don't want to break in another one this soon. And God, not her."

The smile got loose. "We've been together a long time, Ida. You're the only family I have. That isn't going to change."

Damn all humans. Always trying to charm their way out of perfectly sensible discussions. "Look me in the eye and tell me this isn't why you hired a chick," Ida said grudgingly.

"It isn't. I know Dubbie's personal style annoys you, but you can't argue with her record. She's already good. With more experience, she's going to be magnificent."

Worry outweighed anger in Ida's central processor. "What if it breaks the other way? You two are still touchy-feely, and she's the one who catches a shot. Are you going to be any use to me after that?"

"Your objectivity is an example to us all, Ida."

"If only. I'm serious."

"I've asked myself that question," he said frankly. "Just thinking about it hurts too much to breathe. But Ida? I felt the same way yesterday, when I'd have sworn there was no chance. I'll feel the same way tomorrow if Dubbie breaks things off. At least this way whoever's left will have something to remember. Don't try to take that away. I don't know how much she needs this. But I know I do."

Ida had seen doomed Middlemen before. Strictly speaking, she'd seen every doomed Middleman there'd ever been. Usually there was a lot more blood and fire, a lot less grinning and puppy-dog eyes. "You are so completely screwed," she remarked.

The grin went lopsided. And wider. "I'll let you know if I have any complaints."