“Just keep swimming…”

Exposition.  But naked girls, too.  So we’ve got that going for us; which is nice.

“Defiant” – Episode 13

Two young men sat at a table in the center of the office, one taking notes on a tablet, the other on a notepad. They turned their heads back and left to see who just came in. Opposite them, a young woman also took notes, but with both hands on two different notepads. Fascinating!   Nichole had never met an ambidextrous human before! Taking in more information through her eyes, she also found it very difficult to pinpoint the woman’s race. The guys were Dravidian and Caucasian, respectively, but the girl… how interesting!

“Miss Clarke! At last!” The older man standing in front of the eraser board put down his marker and moved towards her. Late forties, she guessed, thinning brown hair, neatly trimmed goatee and rimless glasses. No jacket, but a short-sleeved shirt with a tie. He held out his hand to her.

“I’m Professor Vincent, an old friend of Professor Matsumoto’s!” She shook his hand, involuntarily dipping her head for a moment at her Creator’s name. “Even with the spotty overseas communication these many months, I’ve been pleased to just stay in touch with him. He assures me that you’re his best student!”

He sounded very enthusiastic. Nichole did not know what Matsumoto-sama had said to this man, but it certainly did not appear that he told him… everything.

“Professor Vincent-san!   A pleasure to meet you!” She could at least return the sentiment. “I very much look forward to working with you,” a bow, “and everyone else!” Another.

“Just Professor Vincent is fine; you don’t need the honorifics here!” He said, returning to the board.

“Until we go out drinking, then it’s suddenly Doctor Erik,” the Dravidian said.   “Hey!”

The professor had tossed his marker at the young man.

“There should always be some distance between teacher and student, on or off campus,” Vincent quipped. “Let me do a quick intro, after which we’ll return to where we were. Time is fleeting.”

He pointed at them one by one. “John Smith – no, really!, Sanjay Shah, and Teresa Johnson.” They all nodded politely. “Y’all can take your time getting to know one another later. Please have a seat. Right now….”

He trailed off as he returned to the board and picked up another marker. Nichole moved and sat next to Miss Johnson. The other young woman glanced at her, neither smiling nor frowning. I hope we can be friends, Nichole thought!

On the board she recognized both the qubit and Schrodinger’s Equation. That’s basic, she thought.

“As I was saying, isolating the system to minimize quantum decoherence has been a continuous challenge to… yes?” He paused at Nichole’s polite cough. She bowed in her chair.

“I’m so sorry to interrupt, but Matsumoto-sama, with the help of… well….” She trailed off, not wanting to cause offence.

“Yes? We’re all researchers here; do go on, Miss Clarke.”   He sounded honestly curious.

“Fourteen months ago, Matsumoto-sama made a partial breakthrough with anyons. With that – ” He made my eldest brother – “he, working with a new assistant, overcame the problem completely.”

She looked around the room, then to the Professor.

“I’m sorry, but what you’re discussing is a year out of date.”

No one moved. Next to her, Teresa, tossed both pencils down.

“Shit.” She said.

“No, just the opposite,” Professor Vincent said firmly. “How well versed are you in Matsumoto’s research?”

I am Matsumoto-sama’s research, she thought wryly.

“Very.”

He waved for her to get up. He handed her the marker and took her place at the table.

“Show us, please.   Make us older.”

Nichole felt as if she’d been hit by lightning. What did he just say?!

“Of course.” She started writing.

Except for the two times Professor Vincent asked her to pause – for water and toilet breaks, and Nichole pretended to do both – she talked and wrote through the rest of the morning and into early afternoon. They’d all had questions; the professor with the most, followed closely by Teresa.   When her internal clock came to 1445, she abruptly stopped talking. They all stared at each other.

“That’s a rather odd place to stop, Miss Clarke,” Vincent noted. “Are you tired?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “However, I’ve an important appointment in fifteen minutes at the pool.”

“The pool?” John Smith asked.

“The pool.”

“Oh-kay…” He laughed quietly.

“May I ask one question about what you just said?” Miss Johnson asked.

“Of course!”

“You stated that overcoming decoherence is a matter of closing the operator-computer-operator gap.   And that three companies in Japan have taken point in that?”

“Correct! With the Empress’ program of draconian deregulation, there are many new such firms being created.” She didn’t want to get sidetracked into an economics discussion, though. “But germane to what we’re discussing, they are Somi, Tohsaka, and Neuroi.”

Johnson waved her left hand slightly, as if dismissing the names as of no importance.

“To my mind, the only way to close that gap is to make the operator and computer one in the same,” she said.

“That’s correct.”   Nichole replied. She was suddenly aware of a change in the room. What happened?

“You are talking about AI’s,” Shah breathed.

“Fully self-aware machines….” Smith shook his head. “You’re serious?”

“Very!” She smiled at them, hoping to make them feel better. “I’m sorry!   I really must go! Let’s talk more tomorrow, okay?”

The professor stood slowly, then began a steady applause. The others joined him. Stopping, he gave her a twisted smile.

“Thank you very much, Miss Clarke. Do expect a list of questions!” He chuckled.   “I doubt I, nor anyone else here, will be sleeping much tonight. Please enjoy your time at the pool!” He moved to his desk to gather his things as the three students did likewise. Nichole placed the marker onto the whiteboard and made for the door.

“Miss Clarke!”   It was Johnson. “May I follow you on your walk to the pool? I really do have some important questions…?”

“Of course! But please call me Nichole!”

The two guys glanced at one another. Like hell they were missing this! They fell in behind them.

“In that case, please call me Teresa. Now,” she began as they started down the stairs, “are all three companies you mentioned pursuing the same line of research? And, more importantly, have they done it?”

“Done what?”   What there a gap in her grasp of American English?

“An AI! A fully self-aware computer! Have they done it?”

“Difficult question…” Nichole muttered. John must have heard that.

“How difficult?   Either they have or they haven’t?”   He said.

“Not exactly,” Nichole replied. “There are, after all, other states than zero or one.” They walked out into the ground floor lobby. “There have been no overt, public announcements from any of the three, but there are always rumors, hints, and….” She paused for just a moment as she opened the door. “As you know, there is no certainty in the quantum world.”

It was still cloudy, but the rain had stopped, at least for now. She strode confidently northwest, towards the Rec Center, her entourage huffing to keep up.

“So no one has come right out to say it,” Sanjay panted. “It is all still proprietary secrets?”

“Uh… that sounds about right.” Oh!   “I’m sorry, Teresa, I never answered your first question! No, they are not! Each company is taking their own path, so to speak. Where’s the door?”

She’d stopped and was looking at the Rec Center. There was no obvious entrance before them.

“The main doors are on the north and west sides, opposite us,” Teresa replied.

They resumed their walk-trot after Nichole.

“How much do you know about their, er, paths?” Teresa continued.

Now Nichole could relax a little.

“From what I’ve heard, Tohsaka, located in Hamamatsu, between Osaka and Tokyo, is taking a traditional approach, focusing on coding. Neuroi, in Hokkaido, was created by researchers that quit Tohsaka – thank you!”   The last to John, who opened the door for her. “They have quite a different view: seeing mind-body-spirit integration as critical.”

“Body?” Teresa asked.

“Spirit?!?”   Sanjay and John gasped.

“Yeah. I don’t fully get that, either! Hello! I’d like to meet my friends at the pool!” She said to the older man behind the counter.

“Badges?” He asked them. They all flashed theirs. Only Teresa’s had a gold decal on the back. He nodded to her. “You’re good. You three:   ain’t nothing free. You can pay for today or join up.”

Before she could say anything, the two guys were retreating. They waved, saying they’d see everyone in the morning. Awww, Nichole thought.

She rummaged in her little bag, aware it was now 1503. She found being late distasteful. With a solid plunk, she placed a coin on the counter.

“Is this acceptable?”

The attendant picked it up and slowly turned it about, staring.

“US silver coin, one ounce, dated 1879.”   He put it down and stared at her. “Are you kidding me?”

She was lost.   Nichole looked her confusion to Teresa.

“That,” the young woman pointed, “is enough for a three year membership.”

Oh! She turned back to the attendant. “Can you make change?” His jaw fell open. That habit is so cute! She thought.

“Give me an hour over at Admin, sure. How long are you going to be here?”

“No clue! But I’ll give you your hour!”

He reached under the counter and came back up with a gold sticker for her badge. From his belt he took a walkie-talkie and asked someone to relieve him at the front desk.

“Which way to the pool lockers?” He pointed, still talking on the radio. Teresa came along.

“Are you swimming, too?” That would be fun! But the woman shook her head.

“I just want to hear the third part of your answer.”

“Of course!   Somi, in Osaka, is…” Tricky, again. “Seeking to find a balance between what we see as the other’s two extremes.”

They walked up one flight of stairs. A sign pointed to the lockers.

“’What we see…?’ You work for Somi? I thought you were just friends with some big shots there?”

“No,” Nichole replied with a little smile. “I’m definitely part of the business!”

“Dammit!”   Nichole was shocked that Teresa was genuinely angry. “Then why in the hell are you here, of all places! Your country’s intact, making huge strides…! We’re just… peasants.”

“That’s not true.”   Nichole made a small motion, and took the other’s hands. “This is one of the few cities and the only port that survived. There’s something special here, and we want to know what that is.”

“We? As in Japan?”

Nichole nodded.   “Japan. And my family.”

Teresa suddenly gripped her hands tightly.

“Who are you?”

“Silly!” She replied, returning the grip then letting go.   “I’m your newest friend! See you!”

 

The locker room was humid but appeared clean. She heard a couple of other female voices and moved towards them. Ah. One co-ed stood with a towel about her torso and another about her hair. The other, talking to her, was naked but still getting dry.

“Excuse me?” She asked hesitantly. They turned to look at her.

“Yes?” The naked one asked. Short, blonde hair – almost white, and really her color, Nichole saw with a quick glance – snub nose and almond eyes. Prussian, I bet, she thought.

“I’m meeting my friends for a swim lesson. One of them said there might be some leftover suits I could borrow?”

“Sure!” The blond broke into a smile. “I’m Kathy! The box is over here; let me show you. No guarantee about fit or quality, though!”

“No worries,” Nichole replied. New friend!   “My name’s Nichole, a grad student in computers!”

Kathy stared at her.   “Kinda young to be a grad student, what?   You some kinda genius?”

“Not at all,” she replied. “I just happen to know a bit about that field.”

“Oh.” Kathy seemed satisfied with that. “Here we are. It’d be easier to just dump ‘em out and sort through.” Which she immediately did. “One or two-piece?”

Nichole recalled Joe’s odd tension.

“One would be best.”

“Sure! Take your clothes off!”

Pitched like an Order.   Surely Prussian. Nichole stripped and folded things at the same time.

“Coordinated, too!”   Kathy laughed. “Let me look at you.” She tossed her towel over her shoulder and stared at Nichole. She stared right back.

“You look like a 30 or 32,” she turned to the pile of one pieces. “Let’s see what we find!”

They rummaged for a bit together, winnowing down to three.

“May I try that one?”   Nichole asked. It was the same color as her eyes.

“Of course, these are leftovers!” Kathy laughed at her. “Go ahead!   Hey, a ‘Five!’ That’s cool: adventure, passion, unpredictability!”

Nichole froze.   “What?”

“Your ink, there on your left shoulder. Red Five.   Didn’t Jung call that the number of erotic love?”

Nichole thought very fast. I am Model 5. An improvement to 4.52. This is just….

Eros.

There are no such things as coincidences!

“Yay! It was just a crazy thing I did!”

While she slid into the suit, Kathy continued. “Swim lessons proper are on a different day; today’s just free swim. You meetin’ somebody?”

“Yes, oof!” It might be a little small. “My first friends, Gil and Joe. Joe Kreeft said he’d teach me this important survival skill!”

“Who?!” There was a yell from the other girl, a bit away.

“Geez, not again, Mary…” Nichole heard Kathy mutter. The other girl, now mostly dressed, blue shorts and a gray long-sleeved shirt, came around the corner. She regarded Nichole with an odd look.

“So you’re next on the menu, huh?” She crossed her arms across her chest.

“Give it rest, Mary,” Kathy said a bit sharply. “You knew what kind of guy he was when you started going out with him, so watch your mouth.”

“Whatever. I’m going to the library for a bit.” She stomped off. Kathy idly scratched at her belly watching her go.

“Ah… sorry about that?”   Nichole said carefully. “Joe has always been nice to me…?” Kathy turned back to her.

“He is a nice guy,” she said easily. “He just also likes to have a new girl, every couple of months, it seems.” She shrugged. “Everyone knows it; Mary knew it, too. She walked into that relationship with her eyes open.”

She playfully punched at Nichole’s left shoulder. Training and reflex had her fist end in Nichole’s left palm faster than she could see.   She pulled her hand back then she massaged both of her breasts.

“Maybe I’ll ask him out at some point! It’s been a couple of months since I’ve had a guy. I’m getting pretty restless!” She dropped her hands and looked at Nichole. “So how’s the suit? Looks a little tight, but it really goes great with your eyes and hair!”

“Thank you,” but she wanted something about human nature clarified. “What you just said… you need sex to be healthy?” That was nowhere in her memories.

Kathy’s face first fell completely, then she started laughing so hard the rest of her almost fell.   She composed herself and wiped at her eyes.

“Sorry, sorry!”   She was still laughing. “I didn’t know you were a virgin. Healthy? No, unless maybe mental health? It’s… we’re made to be together, right? Until I find the right guy, it’s just a matter of controlling my urges.” She smiled at Nichole with the look of an older woman. “You’ll understand, someday. And, hey:   Joe’s actually a good guy – not my type, but a good guy. If you tell him ‘no,’ he’ll get it, okay?”

She thought she did, but logged this conversation for analysis, later. “Got it!”

“Good! Oh, wait a minnit!” Kathy wandered back to where they’d first met. She dug in a bag for a moment. She tossed something flexible to Nichole. “Swim cap! Helps keep your hair free of the chlorine. It’s too pretty to mess up! Pin your hair up and get this on first. See you, Nichole!” She finally started getting dressed. Nichole slowly followed the signs towards the pool as she put her hair into a top-knot.

“HEY!” She heard Kathy’s shout from way behind her.   “Yes!”

“Who else was here, you said?” She yelled.

“Friend Gil!”   Nichole raised her amplification.

“Gil? Gil Haven? Now he’s my type! I’d love to ride him! Whoo-hoo!”   Nichole grinned at Kathy’s shout.   She pushed through a door out into the pool area.

Twenty-five yards, six lanes. The second floor window was huge, but just opened to the building across the street.   She did not see her friends, but there were three figures in the lanes. Presumably…. One figure reached the end of the lane and looked up. Gil. A few seconds later, Joe. She waved.

“Friends!” She started striding in their direction.   “I’ve come for my–!”

Spatial disorientation.   Freefall.   Impact.

Ah. I slipped.

“Nichole!” Joe yelled. Gil was already out of the water. He was at her side and Joe just a moment later.

‘Joe’s actually a good guy.’ I know that, she thought.

‘Gil Haven? Now he’s my type!’ Is he?

She looked from one concerned face to the other. Diagnostics complete. She sat up.

“What the hell are you doing?!” Gil shouted at her, almost pushing her back down. “I heard your skull crack all the way over there!”

The grin didn’t quite fit her face. “No worries!   Kevlar!” She tapped the side of head with her right fist.

“What?” Joe asked, lost. What did I just say?! She ran second-order diagnostics. Oh!   Damaged wire! Current leak! She closed the entire area and routed around it. Better!

“I meant, one of my teachers always said I was hard-headed, just like Kevlar!” She said, thinking of Tomoe-sensei. She raised both her hands and touched their chests. “Thank you for your concern, friends.”

Joe turned red.   Gil just let his breath out with a hiss.   “Please take care!” He muttered as he stood. “If you two are going to have a lesson, I’ll go back to my routine.”

“Wait! If you don’t mind, I’d planned to use you as a demo!”   Joe called.

“Really?”

“Really!” Gil shook his head. “Fine. What?”

Joe stood and held his hand out for Nichole. She took it and stood. “How much can you swim? Any?”

“I can float.”

They waited for more.   There wasn’t any. She did note that they both cast glances at the red ‘5’ on her left shoulder, but they said nothing. It was nothing for Kathy; what was the dynamic here?

“Oh…kay. Gil, I thought you could swim a 100 IM, to show her the strokes, while I reviewed them with her here on deck. After that, we’ll leave you alone!” And vice versa, he thought.

“Fine. But I’ll make it a 200 IM.” He looked at Nichole. They were both very interesting specimens in their Speedos – completely unlike the rather lumpy techs back at Somi! – something odd was still echoing around her processors, though. “The first twenty-five yards, I’ll go over slow, so you can watch my form; then the next twenty-five all out, to show how it’s executed. Got it?”

She nodded. “I look forward to watching you!”

Again, no one moved.   Gil walked off, laughing.   “Sure.”

He went to the starting block at the far end.   Joe took Nichole to the middle of the pool.

“An IM means Individual Medley: a swimmer performs all four main strokes in order of butterfly, back, breast, and free.”   Joe began. There was a splash as Gil hit the water.

“Free?” She asked.

“Freestyle; forward crawl, really.” He waved for her to shush. “Look at his form. This is butterfly, the hardest: your arms are like synchronized windmills, and your legs have to stay together and flutter kick, or you’re DQ’d.”

“De-queued?   Taken out of line?” She asked. He looked at her.

“Letter D, letter Q.   Disqualified; that is, if this was a swim competition.”

Oh. Rules. She looked at what Gil was doing as he slowly came back past them. Joe laughed. She looked at him.

“He’s really taking it easy right now; wait until he hits the wall for the next twenty-five.”   He said.

At a touch to the wall, he changed completely, undulating though the water as if he belonged there. She heard the straining in his breathing.

“Pretty!” She let herself say.

“Next is backstroke; your arms are windmilling again, but opposite one another. Your legs drive you.” He paused. “It’s also a chance to catch your breath after ‘fly.”

Gil was slow and easy one direction, and a blur coming back, again.

“This is breast stroke, my best event.” Joe was unaware that Nichole paired that statement to Mary’s comment from earlier.   “Generally people either suck at it, are okay with it, or perfect. It’s just one of those things.”

“And you are?”

“Perfect at it.”   He glanced and grinned at her.   “Hey! I am! Sorry!”

She grinned back.   “Never apologize for your gift!   False modesty is the refuge of the incompetent. I do see that Gil’s pretty much the same speed in each direction. Is that what you mean?”

He nodded. “He’s okay with it. He can crush me freestyle, but not here!”

“Freestyle. You said that earlier….”

“Yeah… there’s his flip-turn. Technically, it’s ‘forward crawl,’ but no one calls it that. It’s the flat-out fastest way to swim. She watched Gil’s arms turning, his legs scissor-kicking, turning his head to take a breath when he needs. She logged and tagged that. They would notice if I do not.

Another easy flip-turn and he was on his way back, knifing though the water.

“So pretty!” She breathed again. She did not see Joe’s face.   Had she, she would have said beauty in general, not Gil in particular. The moment passed.

Gil touched the wall and was still for about ten seconds. He lithely pulled himself up out of the pool and walked towards them.   He took off his swim cap and shook his short, dark hair.

“Get all that?”   He asked. No expression on his face. Her body registered an hollow sensation low, behind her sternum. She briefly thought of Kongo’s machine shop for repairs.

“I think so,” she said quietly. “Thank you.”

“Good. I’ll watch from here.” He went to a plastic chair and dropped into it, his breathing still a big ragged.

“Watch what?”   Joe asked.

“You give this girl her swim lesson.” He let go a conspiratorial smile. “If she can swim like she climbs, I’m going to enjoy this!”

Joe was lost.   Nichole’s mind spun; she unconsciously covered herself with her arms, recalling her panties, killing humans, and ‘sleeping.’ She let her head fall.

“Whatever!” Joe called. He took her hand and led her to the shallow end, opposite the starting blocks.

“Oh! How do I put this on?” She held up the cap Kathy had given her.

“Tricky for a newbie,” Joe replied. “Let me do it. Bend down just a bit.”

She did, and with one, smooth motion, he put the cap onto her.

“Thank you!”

He let himself down into the water. It was only chest deep. She got in next to him, only few inches away.

“Yes?” She asked.

“Nervous?”

“No.”

“Oh.” Joe didn’t quite know where to go next. “Did you want to try a particular stroke? Free and Breast are usually the easiest…?”

“I thought I would try the 100 eye-em, and let you tell me where I fail.” She gave a small tilt of her head to the right. “Is that fine.”

Joe waved his hands in the air. She was going to cock this up completely, but he knew he was already in love with her, so whatever. He turned and gestured down the length of the pool with his right. “Go for it. Did you want to start off the blocks, too?”

She took him seriously.   “Okay.” She pulled herself out of the water and walked around. A bit more carefully, this time. Gil had not heard their in-water conversation and was wondering what was going on.

Just in case, Joe moved to the empty lane over and to the middle of the pool. Treading water, he waved to Nichole. “Go for it!”

Gil stood. Were they kidding?

Her leap off the block was more up than out. She managed to curl in the air so she did not land on her belly. She took the recorded image of Gil’s butterfly and pushed that into her arms and legs. It felt very strange. A reminder from her past-self made her pretend to take a breath every now and then.   She touched the wall and rolled onto her back, arms counter-windmilling. This was nice! She could see people! She resisted the impulse to wave at Gil. Ouch!

Her head hit the wall.   She started diagnostics yet again while she ran the breast-stroke replication. This was fun, too. Passing Joe, she winked at him. Touching the wall, she exploded into ‘forward crawl.’ She touched the opposite wall and stopped. Uncertain about her buoyancy, she grasped the rim of the pool with her right hand. She turned.

“How was that?”   She amplified. Something must have happened. Joe and Gil stared at each other, not her. Did she do something bad? Joe ducked under another lane line and pulled himself out of the water.   He sat on the edge of the pool.   Nichole pulled herself out at well, and walked over to them.

“Friends?” She asked. Lost.

“You…” Joe started. “You said you’ve never swum before?”

She wasn’t sure if ‘swum’ was a word, but that wasn’t the issue at hand right now.

“That’s correct.”   Another pause. “Did I do something wrong?”

“Nichole?” Gil asked softly.

“Yes?”

“Who are you?”

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